Michelle Yeoh’s Astounding First Oscar Win at 60 Makes History –There’s Always Time To Break Down Barriers
The 60-year-old reveals the ups and downs of her career and how she fought to establish her place in Hollywood.
There’s no stopping Michelle Yeoh.
Not only did Yeoh claim her first Oscar win for the hit film Everything Everywhere All At Once, but she did it while making history as the first Asian woman to win Best Actress.
The actress has been on a winning streak over the past year — surfing from one high to another with no signs of slowing down. She’s been an actor for nearly 40 years, but it’s taken the stratospheric success of Everything Everywhere All At Once to catapult her to a new height of fame and recognition. Her tremendous performance as Evelyn, an Asian-American immigrant mother struggling to make ends meet, was an absolute revelation — a burst of fireworks that finally uncovered her exceptional talent and charisma to the rest of the world.
Thankfully, she’s no longer in the shadows; it’s her moment, and all we can do as spectators is embrace her journey. From Hong Kong martial arts films to Hollywood favorites like James Bond and The Mummy, she’s been making an impact since the very beginning. However, her road is paved with obstacles, and she’s not hesitant in raising awareness about biases she’s encountered throughout her career.
Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar Acceptance Speech
Yeoh took the stage to deliver a touching speech with advice to never give up on your dreams. She dedicated her win to “the Asian community and anyone who has ever been identified as a minority.”
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof — dream big and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you’re ever past your prime.”
After 40 years in Hollywood, Yeoh is finally receiving the recognition she deserves, but it wasn’t an easy road.
“I kung fu’d it out and shattered it, and we need this because there are so many who felt unseen, unheard.”
A Career That Began in Martial Arts & Fighting Against the ‘Boys’
Her unrelenting triumphs remind us we must not let up in our efforts for change. The wait may be long, but the outcome is most certainly worth it.
What’s so admirable about Yeoh’s journey is that she’s never let rejection or doubt derail her vision. This is a woman who has been so assured about her abilities from the onset that she continued to strive and strive until the right opportunity came her way. In this case, it was Everything Everything All At Once, but even if the movie hadn’t received the acclaim it did, Yeoh would have carved out something else to lift her up.
Discrimination and being underestimated have sadly featured at every junction in her professional trajectory. In the eighties, as she started out in the male-dominated Hong Kong film industry, men viewed her with distrust and a touch of fear. “They literally folded their arms, stood back and watched me. ‘This little thing wants to do all this?’” she told The Guardian. But the former Miss Malaysia didn’t let up: she kept up with the men and oftentimes surpassed them in the gym, training day and night until she was satisfied with her progress.
Yeoh Steps Up to the Marriage Plate
Though she went to London in her late teens to study dance, a back injury at 16 shattered her dreams of being a ballerina. She realized that she needed to transfer her acrobatic “energy” into a different craft, and so, action movies were the answer. However, there wasn’t digital technologies and clever stunt choreography back in the day — actors had to roll up their sleeves and do the stunts themselves if they wanted any kind of credibility in the business. And so, Yeoh did what she needed to do. “Once she leaped from a speeding van onto a convertible, bounced off the windshield, and nearly died tumbling onto the pavement,” wrote Town and Country Mag.
In 1988, she retired from acting to marry producer Dickson Poon. “It wasn’t a hard decision,” she said about leaving her thriving career behind at its peak, “because I saw marriage as a full existence. Her logic was fairly simple: “I couldn’t be running around all over the world jumping off buildings if I was going to give my marriage 100%.” The marriage didn’t work out, and they divorced in 1992.
Noticed by Tarantino & Moving up Into Hollywood
By the mid-90s, the Crouching Tiger star was exploring making a foray into Hollywood. Funnily enough, she was inspired to do so by Quentin Tarantino, who initially took a liking to her work as a video clerk and martial arts enthusiast and later visited her in Hong Kong while screening Pulp Fiction. She was allegedly considered for the lead in Kill Bill but ultimately lost out to Uma Thurman. About the rejection, she said, “I go forward, because life is about moving forward.”
Still, the drive to keep working and building her filmography bit by bit was a taxing endeavour, especially when you’re told you’re not good enough by so many people. In Yeoh’s case, she experienced contempt not only due to her being Asian but also for being an ‘older’ woman who could seemingly be classified only as a ‘grandmother’ when it came to casting and promoting. It seems like the numbers go up, and these things go narrow, and then you start getting relegated to the side more and more. So when Everything Everywhere came…it was very emotional because this means that you are the one who’s leading this whole process, who’s telling the story,” she said in the Los Angeles Times’s The Envelope podcast.
Being Told to Retire & Never Listening to Her Critics
Many people told her to call it quits and retire, believing that she’d already reached the ceiling of what she could realistically achieve. Yet Yeoh kept persisting, her response simply being: “No, do not tell me what to do.”
Her choice to do Everything Everything All At Once was driven by the paradoxical nature of her character. Although Evelyn may appear to be an unremarkable mother one might see in a supermarket, she has lived a thousand lives in infinite universes, similar to a superhero. “At the end of the day, it’s to remind us that, you know what? All of us puny humans, we do have a superpower, which is called kindness,” she said regarding the film’s thematic center.
In discussing her slow but steady rise to the public consciousness, Yeoh credits Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon for their pioneering efforts in promoting the visibility and recognition of women of a certain age across film and television. “Because they are not going to wait at the sidelines. Because they saw that coming as well,” she said in the podcast. Even the box-office records of Everything Everywhere prove that audiences, in fact, do want to see older women kicking butt, but the studio executives often don’t know better. So it comes down to the women themselves. “You have to be smart about it. And if you don’t make it happen and you wait, then you could be waiting for a very long time,” she said.
Michelle Yeoh’s Long Road Is a Lesson in Not Taking No for an Answer
Needless to say, Yeoh has been bombarded with enticing offers on the heels of Everything Everywhere. Not to mention an extraordinary award season that’s enabled her to travel across the globe and be honored for her illustrious career. She also scored her first Oscar win at 60 – a feat many actors can only hope to accomplish. In a world that often discriminates against individuals on the basis of race, gender, and age, Yeoh has been a trailblazer in breaking down barriers and forging a path for herself. Despite facing numerous setbacks and obstacles, she has always maintained a positive attitude and remained committed to her goals. As she puts it, “I think failures and mistakes factor into who you are, and make you who you are.”
Rather than letting these failures define us, we need to use them as an opportunity to learn and grow. At the end of the day, a positive attitude and commitment to excellence is really the recipe we need to follow in pursuing our own dreams. Though the road appears long and dark and full of twists and turns, it will get us where we want to.