It took 59 years for Michelle Yeoh to land her first lead role in a Hollywood film. And it took 95 years for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize a woman who identifies as Asian in its Best Actress category.
On Tuesday morning, the Malaysian-born entertainer, who became a movie star in Hong Kong before successfully bursting onto the world stage, received his long-awaited Oscar nomination for his multifaceted role in A24’s Everything everywhere all at once. It’s the first career Oscar nod for the beloved icon, 60, known in the United States for her supporting (but scene-stealing) roles in films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, tomorrow never dies and boobies rich asian. But for the Academy, the feat is even more significant.
“It took a long time. But I think it’s more than me,” said Yeoh The Hollywood Reporter Tuesday after the announcement of the nominations of the historical nod. “Right now, constantly, all the time, Asians approaching me saying, ‘You can do it, you do it for us.’ It’s like, ‘I understand. I completely understand.’ During all this time, they were not recognized, they were not heard.
The Best Actress category at the Oscars is historically one of the whitest and least diverse in the awards body, certainly among the four acting races. Global majority women make up a slim minority of nominees, with Halle Berry being the sole winner more than 20 years ago for The Monster Ball. Barely a dozen black women have been nominated for Best Actress (the first was Dorothy Dandridge in 1955) and just four Latinas have received nods in the category (starting with Fernanda Montenegro in 1999), including Yalitza Aparicio , who is also just one of two Best Indigenous Actress nominees (the first being Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2004).
However, until today, not a single woman who identifies as Asian — incidentally, the largest racial group on the planet — has been recognized as Best Actress by the Oscars. Technical details exist: some archivists consider Merle Oberon (1936, The black Angel) to be the first nominee for Best Asian Actress, but she hid her ancestry (her mother was reportedly of part Sri Lankan descent) and passed herself off as white. The same goes for Vivien Leigh, a two-time Oscar winner, born in British-colonized India whose mother may have had partial West Asian ancestry. And while former nominee Salma Hayek and winners Cher and Natalie Portman all claim West Asian heritage (Lebanon, Armenia and Israel/Russia, respectively), none identified as Asian.
Interestingly, Yeoh EEAAO The character — immigrant laundromat owner Evelyn Wang — isn’t the first character to be recognized in an Oscar-worthy lead actress performance. This distinction comes down to The good groundO-Lan, the hardworking Chinese wife of O-Lan, whose portrayer won Oscar gold in 1938 at the 10th Academy Awards: all-white actress Luise Rainer.