The victory of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” at the 95th Oscars on Sunday is a milestone for Asian talent in front of and behind the camera. It’s also a sign that the Academy Awards is unafraid to make bold, unconventional bets and to embrace a movie that, on paper, could not be farther removed from typical Oscar bait.
And yet the A24 film walked away with the most Oscars with seven, including statues for best picture, director and original screenplay for Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, actress for Michelle Yeoh, supporting actress for Jamie Lee Curtis and supporting actor Ke Huy Quan. This marked A24’s second best picture win since the stunning upset of “Moonlight” (2016) over “La La Land,” also known casually as “envelope gate.”
Kwan became the second Asian to pull off the “hat trick” — winning picture, director and screenplay — after Bong Joon Ho for “Parasite” (2019). He’s also the fourth Asian directing winner after Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life of Pi”), Bong and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”). Along with co-producer Jonathan Wang, “Everything Everywhere” is the third movie to win best picture with Asian producers.
It was also a night full of comebacks and rediscoveries.
Yeoh’s historic win for best actress made the 60-year-old veteran star the first Asian, and second woman of color, to be recognized by the Academy in 95 years. Coming 22 years after Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”), who happened to be a presenter at the ceremony, Yeoh bested her main competitor Cate Blanchett for her towering achievement as a lesbian music conductor in “Tár.” It’s a well deserved victory for the Malaysian-born sensation, coming after she was snubbed for her turns in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2019). Her historic feat comes 40 years after Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian descent, became the first Asian lead actor winner for “Gandhi” (1982), which also won best picture.
However, with a sense of celebration, comes anxiety. How long will we have to wait to see another woman of color honored by the Oscars?
The weight of an eight-and-a-half-pound statuette can be hard to carry. After Berry became the first Black woman to win best actress, her achievement coming same night as Denzel Washington winning lead actor for “Training Day” and Sidney Poitier being given the Honorary Oscar, the “chase” for the second has been exhausting. We’ve had near triumphs with Viola Davis (“The Help” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). Then there have been setbacks, such as this season when Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”) and Davis (“The Woman King”) failed to score nominations for their acclaimed performances.
Similar worries surrounded Quan, who won supporting actor for his role as the goofy husband Waymond Wang in “Everything Everywhere,” his first major film role in over 30 years. He’s the second Asian person to win the category after Haing S. Ngor was recognized for “The Killing Fields” (1984). Will we see Quan at the Oscars again? Just like year’s winner Troy Kotsur for “CODA,” only the second deaf actor to win an Oscar, that will depend on if Hollywood creates the roles that the two actors, and other great talents from underrepresented communities, deserve.
My long belief in historic milestones is that the enemy of progress is complacency.
We often take our feet off the gas pedal because “we got one.” When we should be pushing harder so we can ensure this “one” isn’t the last. We had two years of women winning best director — Zhao and Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”) — and yet no female filmmakers were recognized this year. I struggle to understand how the likes of Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”) or Charlotte Wells (“Aftersun”) failed to make the cut.
Each year of historic representation is often followed by an extreme pendulum swing and shortcomings at the next ceremony. Yeoh is only the second Asian woman ever nominated in the category, in the year that saw the most Asian actors recognized in history with four. More specifically, Yeoh is first Asian actress to win, since Merle Oberon’s (“The Dark Angel”) Asian descent was not known until after her death. Think about all 94 ceremonies, year after year, calling 20 white names, then rewarding four white people. And the numbers don’t lie.
Over 3,100 Oscar statuettes throughout history across every category, both active and now inactive. Asian people hold 43 and have thankfully added four with Wang, Kwan, Quan and Yeoh. Black and African-American people hold 41, with one new addition with Ruth E. Carter, who became the first Black woman to win a second Oscar. More specifically, Black women are 19 of those, and this year’s crop of Black women nominees all came from one movie, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
Furthermore, Latinos have 34, and Indigenous people, only two.
Let me be clear, the Academy is not the villain in this story, at least not anymore.
The role of the Academy in the history of cinema has long been criticized and debated regarding its selections and snubs of popular films and beloved performers. With the new diversity and inclusion requirements to submit for best picture set to go into effect for next year’s 96th ceremony (as part of the Academy Aperture 2025 initiative), in addition to the expansion of new members, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the organization.
Even though “Everything Everywhere” wasn’t my personal choice (no. 9 on my top 10 list), the cultural representation, zany and imaginative risks it took and the celebration of new voices and creative talent its win represents should make any dreamer wanting to break into Hollywood more hopeful. And that’s a win for all of us.
Since the expansion of the best picture lineup in 2009, only two movies have won five or more Oscars – “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “The Artist” (2011) with six and five respectively.
Other takeaways from this awards season are the embracing of populist titles such as the two sequels, “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” finding recognition in best picture, and taking home one apiece.
While awards punditry isn’t the most necessary skill to sustain life on planet Earth, a year such as this one that offered plenty of twists and turns in the acting races, with multiple guilds and organizations disagreeing on the winners, will make the art of predicting more interesting moving forward.
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