Michelle Yeoh did not just win the Oscar. She created history. Yeoh won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of laundromat manager Evelyn Wang, who discovers a "multiverse" of alternate realities. Her win marks a significant moment in the history of the Academy Awards, as she became the first South Asian actress to win the coveted trophy.
In fact, Yeoh was always a favorite at this year's Oscars, having garnered a lot of attention during awards season with a Bafta nomination for best actress, a Golden Globe win for best actress in a film (comedy or musical), and a win for best actress at the Screen Actors Guild awards.
A Long Wait to Create History
Yeoh has seen a lot in life. From starting a career as a model in Malaysia to ruling the Hong Kong film industry to finally winning the Oscar after being in Hollywood for more than 25 years, Yeoh journey has been much like a film.
Yeoh, the Malaysian-born actress, won the trophy after defeating strong competition that included Michelle Williams for The Fabelmans and Cate Blanchett for TÃ¡r. However, her win is special, not only for Asian cinema but also for world cinema that has so long cast Asian actors in stereotyped roles.
Yeoh has broken that and proved that Asian actors can dominate Hollywood, which she has done with the Oscar for Best Actress at the 95th Academy Awards.
Yeoh's road to the Oscars is a typical example of a model moving on to become an actor, with the exception that she was also skilled in martial art besides being a model.
She won the Miss Malaysia World pageant age the age of 21. She then represented Malaysia at the Miss World 1983 pageant in London, where she was placed 18th out of 72 competitors.
The actress began working in television commercials after getting her big break in a television commercial opposite Jackie Chan. Yeoh, who has acknowledged low proficiency in Cantonese, was informed that she will be working with "Sing Lung" after her first Cantonese phone call with the production firm.
However, the journey had just begun and the road was full of challenges.
She didn't realize she would be in the same frame as Jackie Chan in the commercial until she arrived at the studio. Jackie Chan is known as "Sing Lung" in Cantonese.
A year later, in 1984, Yeoh earned her first role in a film but the movie was to be filmed far from her home in Hong Kong. The film was an action comedy "The Owl vs Bombo," directed by Sammo Hung, who is known for reinventing the genre of martial arts films and is also credited with starting the vampire-like Jiangshi genre, which is the far-eastern counterpart to the vampire and zombies of the West.
The Making of a Star
Yeoh was finally acting in a film and she started showing signs of the making of a star from the very first film. She performed her own stunts in "The Owl vs. Bombo" and the films that followed.
Yeoh was credited in the movie as Michelle Khan since it was more appealing to an international audience. The actress gradually shot to prominence in Hong Kong movies. She rose through the ranks and soon learned Cantonese in order to continue working in Hong Kong cinema.
By the early 1990s, Yeoh was a well-known figure in Hong Kong cinema. She even managed to impress the legendary Quentin Tarantino, a self-described himself as a Michelle Yeoh "superfan,"
The big moment came in 1996 when she was cast in "Tomorrow Never Dies," the 18th installment of the "James Bond" series. The movie was the first in the series to be produced after Albert R. Broccoli, who had been engaged in its creation from the beginning, died.
Besides sowing the seeds for one of the most recognizable movie franchises in movie history, Broccoli was the producer who took the franchise from its low-budget beginnings to large-budget, high-grossing extravaganzas.
The stakes were obviously high and the film worked well. It earned over $333 million worldwide and ranked as the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 1997, and even received a Golden Globe nomination.
However, the movie continues to be regarded as a watershed in Western filmmaking since it made Yeoh more well-known to a wider audience, who were left spellbound by the action she put up on screen. Her co-star Pierce Brosnan even compared her to a "female James Bond" because of her fighting skills.
Three years later, came the Wu Xia film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," directed by Ang Lee, in which she played a female fighter and the boss of a security firm.
Yeoh and the other cast members moonwalked through the wide-open gates of the American film market for the international venture.
Proving Her Worth
Around 2003, Quentin Tarantino began working on an American martial arts movie that would eventually become known to moviegoers as "Kill Bill." Tarantino had access to the best movies from around the world as a teenager while working in a video parlor.
However, as fate would have it, Yeoh was overlooked for the role despite being the best martial arts actress. Tarantino wanted to cast an actress who would surprise the audience, someone who gives the impression of a reticent damsel in distress, someone like Uma Thurman, who had been in distress in the famous "adrenaline shot directly to the heart" scene in the 1994 T.
Yeoh starred in the science fiction psychological thriller movie "Sunshine" (2007), which was directed by Danny Boyle. Four years after "Sunshine," Yeoh appeared in two high-profile movies in 2011: "The Lady," a British biographical drama in which she played Burmese politician, diplomat, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and "Kung Fu Panda 2," in which she provided the voice of the Soothsayer.
The actress subsequently went on to star in numerous blockbuster movies such as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny', which was the sequel to 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2', 'Crazy Rich Asians' and the superhero film 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings'.
Yeoh's "Crazy Rich Asians" performance earned her a nomination for Best Actress at the 91st Academy Awards. As the first Malaysian actress to receive a nomination in a prominent acting category, her candidacy was a noteworthy accomplishment.
And finally, Yeoh took home the golden statute in 2023.