Client: Michelle Yeoh – Talent
Yeoh’s win, for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, makes her the first Asian woman to win the category in the Academy Awards’ 95-year history.
After a long best-actress Oscar race, Michelle Yeoh has been crowned the victor, making her the first Asian woman to win a lead-actress Oscar in the awards show’s 95-year history. The Malaysian-born stuntwoman-actor won for her spectacular, shape-shifting role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, beating out Cate Blanchett (Tár), Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans), Ana de Armas (Blonde), and Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie).
“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 dreams do come true,” Yeoh said in her speech, receiving cheers in response. “And ladies, don’t let anyone tell you that you are past your prime.”
Yeoh is only the second Asian actor to be nominated in the best-actress category in the show’s nearly 10-decade history. The first was Merle Oberon, a Mumbai-born actor who was nominated for 1935’s The Dark Angel; however, while alive, Oberon passed as white. Oberon went to great lengths to hide her Asian heritage—bleaching her skin, refining a posh accent, and claiming she was from Tasmania.
Throughout the current awards season, Yeoh has been vocal about the fact that her nomination is as important to the Asian community as it is to her.
“This is not just for me; this is for every little girl that looks like me,” Yeoh said during her SAG Award acceptance speech. “Thank you for giving me a seat at the table, because so many of us need this. We want to be seen, we want to be heard, and tonight you have shown us that it is possible. And I am grateful.”
Yeoh, who has been acting for about 40 years, initially rose to fame overseas in Hong Kong action films before breaking out with US audiences in 1997’s James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, playing a Chinese spy opposite Pierce Brosnan’s 007. After roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Memoirs of a Geisha; and Crazy Rich Asians, she landed the starring role in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s universe-bending sci-fi feature, Everything Everywhere All at Once. The directors had initially wanted Jackie Chan to play the lead, a put-upon laundromat owner—with Yeoh playing Chan’s wife—but Yeoh said she scoffed at that idea. “I’m like, no way,” the actor recalled to Kara Swisher last year. “In your dreams, buddy. Not going to happen.”
So the filmmakers switched up the roles, making Yeoh the immigrant laundromat owner who deals with a failing business and a fractured relationship with her daughter. In a supernatural twist, she transverses universes as a superhero version of herself.
“Think about it,” Yeoh said in the same interview with Swisher. “This is the first time you’re seeing an older Asian immigrant woman being the superhero, having the opportunity to demonstrate these kind of martial arts skills. It’s normally, yes, for a younger version. It could have been a girl. But in general, it’s always an older man.”
Both Yeoh and the film have been 2023’s awards darlings—with Yeoh nabbing a Golden Globe and beating out her primary competitor, Blanchett, to win the Independent Spirit Award and the National Board of Review trophy. Everything Everywhere All at Once earned 11 Oscar nominations, more than any other film this year, with other acting nominations going to Yeoh’s costars Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Ke Huy Quan. Yeoh had another historically significant win in late February, when she became the first Asian actor to win the best-actress category at the SAG Awards.
According to calculations by The New York Times, only 23 of 1,808 acting nominees in the Oscars’ history could be identified as Asian. And of those 23, only four—before Sunday evening—won their category.
Shortly after receiving her Oscar nod, Yeoh referred to the Asian community’s long history of exclusion from Hollywood’s glitziest awards show.
“Ninety-five years of Oscars…Of course, I’m over the moon, but I feel a little sad because I know we know there have been amazing actresses from Asia that came before me, and I stand on their shoulders,” the actor told the 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.”