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In a four-decade career already marked by trailblazing and unprecedented achievement for female performers, Michelle Yeoh just notched a big one: becoming the first Asian woman to win the Academy Award for best actress.
Yeoh’s Oscar-winning performance in A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once was the first time the Malaysia-born actress had been No. 1 on a Hollywood call sheet, playing a struggling laundromat owner and lifelong loser who finds herself the savior of the multiverse (and learns to reconcile with her long-suffering husband and estranged daughter in the process).
“Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are past your prime,” said Yeoh, who at 60 was the oldest nominee in her category. “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities.”
With her win, Yeoh becomes the first woman of full Asian descent to earn best actress in Oscars history. Just over two decades ago, Halle Berry broke the color barrier with her win for Monster’s Ball in 2002. And Berry was a part of the Oscars moment, as she joined 2022 best actress winner Jessica Chastain to present the award to Yeoh (2022’s best actor winner Will Smith has been banned from attending Academy events for 10 years).
In the other 93 years, the Academy Award went to a white woman or one who passed for white, including Luise Rainer, who won her second straight best actress Oscar at the 10th ceremony in 1938 for playing the Chinese character of O-Lan in The Good Earth. Past winners Vivien Leigh, Cher and Natalie Portman have ties to Western Asian heritage, but none considered or considers themselves to be Asian.
“Tonight, we frickin’ broke that glass ceiling,” Yeoh said backstage after her win. “This is for the Asian community, but for anybody who’s been identified as a minority. We deserve to be seen. We deserve to have equal opportunity so we can have a seat at the table. That’s all we’re asking for. Give us that opportunity; let us prove that we’re worth it.”
This year’s best actress race was considered a two-way nailbiter between Yeoh and two-time winner Cate Blanchett for Tár, with the former taking home the Indie Spirit, SAG and National Board of Review honors and the latter winning at BAFTA, Critics Choice, National Society of Film Critics, the L.A. Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle. The actresses each won a Golden Globe in the musical/comedy and drama categories, respectively.
After making her name in Hong Kong and greater China as a leading lady who could hold her own in action films, Yeoh made her Hollywood debut in 1997’s James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies and began building an international profile with films like Memoirs of a Geisha, Sunshine and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which earned four Oscars and a best picture nod, among other nominations (although none for its cast).
“I have to dedicate this to my mom, all the moms in the world, because they are really the superheroes, and without them, none of us would be here tonight,” Yeoh continued.
The 2023 Oscars aired live on ABC on Sunday from the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and were hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. See the star-studded Oscars red carpet arrivals.
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