It doesn’t get cooler than Michelle Yeoh. The Malaysian actress has been working since the ’80s and became a star thanks to butt-kicking roles in Chinese action movies. While these movies were often dominated by men, Yeoh held her own; bringing smarts, charisma, and even doing her own stunts. In the ’90s, she started taking on Hollywood roles, appearing in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and further broadening her reach in popular movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and Crazy Rich Asians. But today, at age 60, she’s getting more recognition than ever before thanks to her historic Best Actress Oscar win for Everything Everywhere All at Once. Read on to learn why Yeoh is such an icon.
Why is Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar win important?
In recent years, there’s been increasing talk about the lack of diversity at the Oscars. The dearth of representation for Asian actors has been particularly glaring. Shockingly, in the 95 years of the awards ceremony, Yeoh is only the second Asian woman to be nominated for Best Actress, and the first to win. The first Asian woman to be nominated for this award was Merle Oberon, in 1936; but while Oberon was mixed race and born in Bombay, she passed as white. At that point in Hollywood history, it would’ve been a scandal to reveal her true heritage. Many decades later, it’s heartening to see Asian actresses getting the long-overdue respect they deserve.
What is Michelle Yeoh’s role in Everything Everywhere All at Once?
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a fast-paced, visually inventive movie that combines science fiction and fantasy elements amidst a touching story of familial connection. Yeoh plays Evelyn, a Chinese-American immigrant who runs a laundromat with her husband, and struggles to finish her taxes for an IRS audit. This all seems normal enough — but things get weird and wacky when Evelyn is drawn into a multiverse in which she experiences many different versions of herself and her loved ones (all of whom exist in parallel universes; some where people have hot dog fingers and others where they appear as talking rocks).
While this may sound a bit complicated, at its heart Everything Everywhere All at Once is a sweet story about the joys and challenges of raising a family (in her moving acceptance speech, she dedicated her Oscar to her mom and “All the moms in the world,” and called all moms “superheroes”). While the movie journeys to some otherworldly locales, the plot revolves around Evelyn’s attempts to connect with her only daughter and restore a long-dormant relationship with her husband. Evelyn gets into some wild situations — at one point, an everything bagel becomes a specter of power, and at another a talking raccoon rides atop a man’s head, riffing on the Pixar movie Ratatouille — but she’s ultimately just an overworked mom trying to do her best amongst the chaos.
Why does Michelle Yeoh’s late-in-life success matter?
It’s not often that actresses reach the peak of their fame in their 60s — and Yeoh’s achievements are definitely worth celebrating. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year, she spoke candidly about some of the stigma she’s faced as a mature woman. “The worst is when people think, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like she did in her 20s, so she can’t physically do the same things,’” Yeoh admitted. But she won’t let the changes that come with age get her down. “I’ve learned some things over the years, and I’m more clever and smarter in how I can sustain my stamina,” she notes. “I’m as fit as I was before, because I know how to look after myself much better than when I was younger.”
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Yeoh did most of her own stunt work, telling Variety, “physical fighting is relatively easy because I’ve been doing it for so many years.” She fights her way through offices, stairways, and multiverse environments, in scenes often inspired by the Chinese action genre where she got her start. Yeoh’s career is a rare exception to action movie convention; no matter their age, women are not often given high-intensity roles in these movies (let alone in their 60s) — or when they are, men still land the bigger parts. But Yeoh has never let that stop her, even joking that Hong Kong action legend Jackie Chan thought women didn’t belong in action movies “until I kicked his butt.” After nearly 40 years of tireless work, Yeoh is finally becoming a household name in America, inspiring countless women with her unique mix of ferocity and grace. Seeing her win was undoubtedly the highlight of this year’s Oscar ceremony. We can’t wait to see what she does next!
This article was originally published on Saturday, March 11. It was updated on Monday, March 13 following Michelle Yeoh’s historic win.
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