Oscar Icons: The Trailblazer

Wesley Mann

Ang Lee | 3 nominations, 1 win

Lee knows firsthand what it's like to be caught off guard by an Oscar upset. On March 5, 2006, he was named best director for Brokeback Mountain, his groundbreaking film about two star-crossed cowboys that was considered the favorite of the night. But before he could savor his victory, he was led into the wings to wait for the best picture announcement. "I was on the side of the stage when Jack Nicholson opened the envelope," Lee, 57, remembers. When Nicholson read out "Crash!," a wave of genuine surprise swept the Kodak Theatre. Lee didn't let any of it register on his own face, even though disappointment seeped into his own sense of joy. "As a director," he says, "you cannot just be happy for yourself. You have a lot of hopes for the crew and cast. You just want everybody to win, because it is the Oscar, and the world is watching." Still, his directing Oscar -- he remains the only non-Caucasian ever to win that prize -- is testament to the filmmaker's remarkable ability to shuttle between cultures. Born and educated in Taiwan, Lee earned an MFA from New York University. (Spike Lee was a classmate.) He made his home just outside the city, where he and his wife, Jan Lin, a microbiologist, raised two sons. And he struck up a lifelong friendship with James Schamus, now Focus Features CEO, who has been co-writer or producer on 10 of his movies. He has dealt with life in Taiwan (1994's Eat Drink Man Woman), generational clashes in America (1993's The Wedding Banquet) and manners in period England (1995's Sense and Sensibility). His career has been as unlikely a high-wire act as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the magical martial arts movie that played to the art house crowd and action fans and first introduced him to Oscar's glow when it was hailed as best foreign-language film in 2000. Lee won't be at this year's ceremony: He's deep in postproduction on Life of Pi, his adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 novel about a shipwreck survivor that could well garner him an invite next year. But he has earned his stripes, and they never fade. "You carry the spotlight with you all your life," he says. "Last September, I threw out the opening pitch for the Mets, for Taiwanese Heritage Day, and of course I was introduced as 'the Oscar-winning director.' It follows you everywhere."

Photographed Wesley Mann on Feb. 17 at Noho Studios in Manhattan