Michelle Yeoh has long been an icon and a legend, with or without an Oscar. But whatever happened at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night would always be about so much more. For anyone from a community that Hollywood has historically shut out, awards — for better or worse — often bear the weight of history.
For much of the night, many of us nervously waited with bated breath to see if she would actually win, as well as before every award for “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which remarkably ended up winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Yet all of that was far from assured, given the academy’s abysmal history when it comes to representation and inclusion.
Perhaps no one was more aware of the weight of that history than Yeoh herself, acknowledging it in her acceptance speech.
“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. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up,” she said.
At the end of her triumphant and cathartic speech, she directly noted the gravity of the moment: “Thank you to the academy. This is history in making.”
Everything loomed so large: The prospect of Yeoh becoming the first Asian actor to win an Oscar in the Best Actress category (and only the second woman of color ever) and the grim statistics. In fact, up until Sunday, more white women had won Best Actress for playing Asian characters in yellowface (one: Luise Rainer in the 1937 adaptation of “The Good Earth”) than, uh, actual Asian women, period (zero). In a nod to that history, Halle Berry, until now the first and only woman of color to win the Best Actress Oscar, presented the award to Yeoh on Sunday night.
Going into the ceremony, the “Everything Everywhere All At Once” star’s win or loss carried so much more weight than it would for the award season frontrunner Cate Blanchett, who has already won two Oscars and been nominated eight times. While Blanchett’s performance in “TÁR” was undeniably a towering achievement, another awards season contender will likely come along for her in due course.
It’s never been as straightforward for Yeoh, despite her decades as a star and household name for Asians worldwide. Even now, she still gets asked questions — usually by white reporters — that ignore the fact she’s been atop movie marquees since the 1980s. In 1997, she reached even greater global recognition when making her Hollywood debut in the James Bond installment “Tomorrow Never Dies.” But the industry didn’t seem to know what to do with her, as she recalled in her Golden Globes acceptance speech in January.
“I remember when I first came to Hollywood, it was a dream come true — until I got here. Because look at this face. I came here and was told: ‘You’re a minority,’” she said, recalling how people were even surprised she spoke English. She remembered joking with them: “‘Yeah, the flight here was 13 hours long, so I learned.’”
In a recent People magazine interview, she recounted that after Bond, it took her nearly two years to get her next big role in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” because everything else she was offered were stereotyped roles.
“Crouching Tiger” further cemented Yeoh’s status as a global star. It won the Oscar for Best International Feature and remained the highest-grossing film that’s not in the English language in U.S. box office history. And in recent years, she’s starred in multiple movies that have been landmarks for Asian representation in Hollywood: “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first studio movie with a majority Asian cast in 25 years, which went on to shatter box office records; and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings,” the first Asian-led Marvel movie.
But still, it took her this long, at age 60, to get a role that fully encapsulates all her talents. As Evelyn Wang in the genre-bending multiverse film “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” she got to do everything from action to sci-fi, adventure, film noir, comedy and drama — all at once. It has clearly meant a lot to her.
“I was so intrigued, and I was so overwhelmed by the fact that these two young men had written a story for an older woman — an older, immigrant Asian mother — and basically, at the end of the day, in fact, gave her superpowers,” Yeoh told me last year, describing the first time she read writer-directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan’s script. “She’s like a superhero because she says all the universes keep the family together. That they had the audacity, the boldness, the courage to write that. If you look around us, when was the last time you saw an older woman being the superhero?”
These landmark moments for representation come with a mixed bag of emotions: celebrating the wins but also wondering why they took so damn long. There are reasons to feel optimistic but also cynical. It says a lot about the state of the industry that an icon like Yeoh was, for much of awards season, an underdog in the Best Actress race. Or that it was hard to believe “Everything Everywhere All At Once” had really become the Best Picture frontrunner because the history of the Oscars suggests otherwise.
At the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Feb. 26, when the film’s cast took home the night’s top prize, they turned the mic over to veteran character actor James Hong. The man has seen it all at 94 and with more than 450 acting credits since the 1950s. He recalled how “The Good Earth” cast white actors in yellowface because studio executives claimed: “‘Asians are not good enough, and they are not box office.’”
“But look at us now, huh?!” he exclaimed to a roar of applause.
Indeed, things are undeniably changing. And it’s fitting that a legend like Yeoh has been at the center of this transformational period for Asian representation in Hollywood. She’s brought many people along with her. Among them is her co-star (and now Oscar winner) Ke Huy Quan, who cites the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” as the reason he was convinced it was worth trying acting again after he was forced to give up in the early 1990s due to a lack of roles for Asian actors.
But it would be nice to live in a world where it doesn’t take an icon like Yeoh almost 40 years to get a role that finally takes into account all of her many talents and get the awards she has so richly deserved.
And a world where Quan had been a star all along instead of watching the roles dry up and waiting for 30 years for the phone to ring.
And a world where Stephanie Hsu’s Best Supporting Actress nomination was a foregone conclusion, not a wonderful surprise followed by a deep sigh of relief on Oscar nomination morning.
And a world where an Asian actor and an Asian-led movie winning or losing doesn’t have to represent a win or a loss for an entire diaspora and carry the weight of history.
We’re not there yet. But here’s hoping we’re a whole lot closer.