Michelle Yeoh makes history as first Asian to win best actress Oscar
Michelle Yeoh on Sunday made history by becoming the first Asian woman to win the best actress Oscar, for her exuberant portrayal of an immigrant business owner thrust into a zany multiverse in the sci-fi trip “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
The Hollywood veteran won over Academy voters with her complex take on Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American laundromat owner who is mired in a tax audit, stuck in a crumbling marriage and struggling to connect with her daughter Joy.
Oh, and she ends up traversing multiple universes to evade a powerful supernatural enemy, who happens to be an iteration of… her daughter.
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that…. dream big and dreams do come true,” Yeoh said as she accepted the award.
“And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up,” she said to cheers.
Yeoh won top honors over strong performances from Cate Blanchett (“Tar”), Michelle Williams (“The Fabelmans”), Andrea Riseborough (“To Leslie”) and Ana de Armas (“Blonde”).
“Everything,” directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, arrived at Hollywood’s biggest gala at the top of the nominations pile with 11 chances at Oscars glory, including for best picture.
But even amid such a haul, the 60-year-old Yeoh praise for her portrayal of middle-class immigrant Evelyn, who must navigate life in America as well as a complex multiverse that contains endless variations of her existence.
– Bizarre multiverse –
In one of the myriad versions of her life, Evelyn has hot dogs for fingers, and is in a relationship with the tax inspector who is auditing her (played with comic aplomb by Jamie Lee Curtis).
In another, she is a film star; the movie even uses footage of Yeoh at real events like screenings of her “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Evelyn also experiences a place where she is a rock with plastic googly eyes debating the meaning of life with her daughter.
But ultimately Evelyn returns to a mundane “normal” life — one which the audience can relate to — in which she must navigate the complexity, pain and strength of family ties.
Yeoh says she felt that message was particularly important after the difficult years of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve gone through such a crazy, chaotic time in our life, and we all needed something to fill us with hope and ensure… we can show each other kindness and compassion and love and never give up” on family, Yeoh told The New York Times.
The relationship between Evelyn and Joy (played by Stephanie Hsu) is the backbone of the film.
Yeoh uses all of her formidable acting skills, channeling her martial arts prowess in wacky fight scenes and tapping into her emotional register as she verse-jumps across time and space to reach Joy and her rebellious alter ego Jobu Tupaki.
Sunday’s statuette for the Malaysian actress comes at the end of a very successful awards season, with wins at the Golden Globes, the Spirit Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
The lack of Asian representation at Hollywood’s highest levels had been a constant in her interviews on the road to the Oscars.
“I feel a little sad because I know there have been amazing actresses from Asia that come before me, and I stand on their shoulders,” she told the New York Times.
“I hope this will shatter that frigging glass ceiling to no end, that this will continue, and we will see more of our faces up there.”
– Beauty queen, action hero –
Yeoh was born to Malaysian-Chinese parents on August 6, 1962 in the city of Ipoh, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
She embraced dance as a child and specialized in ballet, which she studied in England.
On a vacation while visiting family, her mother entered her in the Miss Malaysia contest without consulting her.
“I agreed to go to shut her up,” a giggling Yeoh, who unwittingly won the beauty pageant, told a talk show.
A back injury made her give up her dancing career, but by the mid-1980s, she was using the body control she had learned in ballet to appear in action films alongside the likes of Jackie Chan.
Her global big break came in the James Bond installment “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997), in which she played a Chinese spy opposite Pierce Brosnan, redefining the typical Bond girl.
That was followed by the massively successful “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” directed by Ang Lee, and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005), both alongside Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi.
With more than 50 credits over four decades, Yeoh has a busy upcoming slate, including three new installments of “Avatar” and the movie adaptation of the musical “Wicked,” which will reunite her with “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon Chu.
Yeoh lives with her partner, Jean Todt, the former head of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), which governs the Formula One circuit.