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“In the end, my hope is that maybe, hopefully, my work has uplifted or comforted or inspired others the way that Kirk Douglas’ did for me,” Michelle Yeoh, the veteran actress currently generating major best actress Oscar buzz for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once, said on Friday night during a moving speech accepting the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s 15th Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film.
Yeoh, a rare talent who has been equally beloved by audiences and critics throughout her career, was speaking at the the Ritz-Carlton Bacara in front of an audience that included some 30 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — among them Academy president Janet Yang and local legend Christopher Lloyd — and other notables like Friends co-creator David Crane.
This was the first edition of the Kirk Douglas Award ceremony — a fundraiser for SBIFF’s education initiatives — in three years due to the global pandemic, and it generated a record amount of donations (including a generous $10,000 contribution from Yeoh herself, announced during her speech to appreciative applause). It was also the first since the death of its namesake on Feb. 5, 2020, and it took place on what would have been the Golden Age legend’s 106th birthday.
SBIFF director Roger Durling, who worked closely with Douglas to create the award — past recipients have included both Douglas and his son Michael Douglas, John Travolta, Ed Harris, Quentin Tarantino, Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro, Forest Whitaker, Jessica Lange, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Judi Dench, Hugh Jackman and Martin Scorsese — said the actor, who was fearless on screen and off, would have been overjoyed to see it recognize Yeoh, who shares those same attributes. And, he added, “Like Kirk, she’s truly an international superstar and icon.”
In between magnificently edited montages of Yeoh’s work that frequently had the audience cheering, several of Yeoh’s Everything Everywhere All at Once collaborators paid tribute to her. Producer Jonathan Wang heralded her “strength, grace and power.” Co-writer/co-director Daniel Kwan opined, “This is Michelle’s night, but honestly, to us, this feels like Michelle’s year.” And co-writer/co-director Daniel Scheinert marveled at her work ethic, noting, “She’s literally in every single scene of the movie. I think she got half a day off over an eight-week shoot.”
Then, at the end of a week in which Time magazine named Yeoh “Icon of the Year” and the members of the National Board of Review chose her as the best actress of the year, she accepted her honor with characteristic humility: “I only found out that I was the only recipient of an award tonight,” she admitted, having assumed that it was a ceremony at which numerous honors would be presented. “I could not have imagined that so many of you would have turned up for me.” Yeoh thanked Durling, Michael Douglas and the committee that now oversees the Kirk Douglas Award for choosing her to receive it. And she highlighted one of her favorite quotes of Kirk’s, “You must be brave enough to fail,” noting that it had also applied to her own career performing daring stunts in Hong Kong action films and the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies: “You’ve got to be brave enough to fail, and you can’t let fear stop you.”
Yeoh, who turned 60 this year, then shared a bit of wisdom that she said she has acquired with time: “If one thing is certain about life, it is that nothing is certain.” The state of the film industry in which she works in today would have been unimaginable when she started out decades ago, she explained, remarking, “We may finally be turning the corner on the glass ceiling of age. I’m blessed and fortunate to still be an actor at a time when women’s voices and women’s talents are louder and more visible than ever. And I am so grateful and lucky that today the importance of representation is also finally being embraced. How essential and enlightened and just right it is to finally see different cultures and different places and different backgrounds and abilities portrayed on the screen. And I am incredibly proud that maybe, just maybe, I played some tiny part in all of that.”
Yeoh closed by thanking her Everything Everywhere All at Once collaborators for the role of Evelyn in that film, which she called “a precious gift and a huge challenge,” and everyone who turned out for the Kirk Douglas Award ceremony, as well: “You have made me stand just a little bit taller and a little bit prouder of what I have tried to accomplish.”
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