Chloé Zhao has become only the second woman to ever win the Academy Award for best director, accepting the prize at the 2021 Oscars.
The award was presented by last year’s winner, Bong Joon Ho, in Seoul, before Zhao took the stage to accept it at the awards’ main venue, Los Angeles’ Union Station.
The Nomadland helmer, who was widely expected to win after she swept up numerous precursor awards, is the first woman to win the directing Oscar since Kathryn Bigelow, who won for The Hurt Locker in 2010. When Bigelow won, becoming the first woman to win that award, presenter Barbra Streisand said “the time has come,” before reading Bigelow’s name.
Zhao previously became the first woman since Bigelow to win the BAFTA Award for best director and Directors Guild award for outstanding achievement in motion pictures. She also won the Golden Globe for best director, where she became the first woman to win that prize since Streisand.
With her win, Zhao, who was born in China, also becomes the first non-white woman to win best director. Zhao was nominated alongside fellow female director Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), making this the first time that two women were nominated for the best director award in the same year. Prior to that, only five women have been nominated for best director at the Oscars: Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Bigelow and Greta Gerwig.
During her best director acceptance speech, Zhao thanked her fellow nominees and the entire Nomadland company, with real-life nomads Linda May and Swankie from the film joining her at the ceremony.
Zhao also reflected on a work of literature from her childhood that has helped her to “keep going when things get hard.”
The first line of Chinese text Three Character Classic, Zhao recalled, translates to “People at birth are inherently good.”
“I still truly believe [that] today,” she added. “I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world. This is for anyone who has the faith and courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that. And this is for you; you inspire me to keep going.”
In the virtual press room, Zhao reflected on being the first woman of color to win best director, saying, “I am extremely lucky to be able to do what I love for a living. If this win means more people get to live their dream then I am extremely grateful.”
Zhao was also asked about Bigelow saying of her female best director winner predecessor, “I have had a group dinner with Kathryn once and fangirled big time. I would love to talk to her if you have her email.”
Zhao was up for four awards, another first for a female in one year: film editing, adapted screenplay, director and best picture. Nomadland later won for best picture, with star Frances McDormand also taking home the award for best actress.
The other nominees for best director were David Fincher (Mank), Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) and Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round).
Watch Zhao’s full speech below.