NEW YORK – We are conditioned to think of an Oscar win as the endpoint to a journey. For some actors, holding that trophy is the realisation of a dream held since childhood. For others, it is the culmination of a well-deserved comeback.
But what happens after that win? In our eagerness to treat Oscar victories as career capstones, do we pay too little attention to the opportunities that are supposed to come afterwards, yet often do not?
I have been mulling that over since Sunday night, when Michelle Yeoh took the best actress Oscar for Everything Everywhere All At Once. It happened at the 95th edition of the Academy Awards, the kind of big, tantalising milestone that prods you to contemplate what has come before and Yeoh’s win proved especially historic. The first Asian star to win best actress, she was greeted on stage by Halle Berry, the first black woman to have pulled off that feat.
Asking Berry to announce the winner with Jessica Chastain (the previous year’s winner) was a gamble twice over. If Yeoh had lost to one of her four competitors – all of whom were white women – the ensuing photo op would have served as a stark example of a best-actress category that has been hostile to women of colour for 95 years.
And although Berry has returned to the Oscars several times since her 2002 win for Monster’s Ball, it has always been as a presenter and never as a nominee. To see her there is to be reminded that an Oscar win carries no guarantees when an actress is already liable to receive fewer scripts and career opportunities than her white counterparts.
So, although Yeoh’s triumph was a long time coming and I teared up as she addressed “all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight”, I also found myself worrying that it will not be enough. The people in the Dolby Theatre looked awfully proud of themselves after Yeoh’s win, but if they really want to do right by her, they have to keep writing lead roles for 60-year-old Asian actresses. Otherwise, it is just empty back-patting.
That, after all, was the real breakthrough of Everything Everywhere All At Once, Yeoh told me last October. We were at an awards event where, flanked by the movie’s directors – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – she reminisced about a Hollywood career that had mostly been filled with supporting parts.
“Look, I’ve been very blessed. I’ve continuously worked and I’ve worked with great directors,” she said. “But for the first time, I’m No. 1 on the call sheet, thanks to these guys. I do meaningful roles, like in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (2021), but it was not my movie.”
Yeoh said she hoped that Everything Everywhere All At Once would not be a one-off, but more than a year after the film’s release, it is unclear when, or if, she will have another lead film role.
Coming projects – including the big-screen musical Wicked, the third Avatar movie and an ensemble mystery, A Haunting In Venice – all consign her to supporting parts. Although she is a headline-making superstar who led hip studio A24 to its biggest worldwide hit, Yeoh is still too often treated as additional casting rather than the main event.
“Even you, Michelle Yeoh – on the top of the world – has struggled to find the right roles,” Kwan told her when we met in October. “I think that has taken a lot of people by surprise.”
Yeoh laughed ruefully.
“I read scripts and it’s the guy who goes off on some big adventure – and he’s going off with my daughter,” she said. “I’m like, no, no.”
Few Hollywood movies are conceived with a woman over 50 as the central character, and the ones that are greenlit tend to offer those leads to a triumvirate of white women – Meryl Streep if she is older, Cate Blanchett if she is younger and Tilda Swinton if she is weirder.
To ensure Yeoh can be first on the call sheet again, film-makers must think more creatively, as Kwan and Scheinert did when they revamped Everything Everywhere All At Once for Yeoh after conceiving the film as a Jackie Chan vehicle. (And while they are at it, can they find something juicy for last year’s best supporting actor, Troy Kotsur, similarly a boundary breaker. With Coda, he became the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar – who has been seen in little since?)
As momentum in the best-actress race swung from Tar star Blanchett to Yeoh over the last few weeks of the awards season, I kept hearing a common refrain from voters: While Blanchett already had two Oscars and would surely be nominated again – she has eight nominations overall – this could be Yeoh’s only chance at gold. Although I understand the practicality of that argument, I hope those voters understand that their job is not done simply because of how they marked their ballot.
Yeoh’s Sunday night win is a big one, but the real victory will come when the lead roles that had long eluded her grasp start to become commonplace. If Hollywood can make that so, then instead of an endpoint, Yeoh’s historic Oscar will serve as a long-needed new beginning. NYTIMES