It took 59 years for Michelle Yeoh to land her first lead role in a Hollywood film. And it’s taken 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 performer, who became a movie star in Hong Kong before successfully crossing over to the global stage, received her expected Academy Award nomination for her multifaceted role in A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once. It is the first career Oscar nod for the beloved icon, 60, known stateside for her supporting (yet scene-stealing) turns in such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies and Crazy Rich Asians. But for the Academy, the achievement is even more consequential.
Oscars’ best actress category is historically one of the awards body’s whitest and least diverse, certainly among the four acting races. Women from the global majority represent a slim minority of nominees, with Halle Berry the only winner, more than 20 years ago for Monster’s 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 also is only one of two Indigenous best 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 Academy Awards. Technicalities exist: Some recordkeepers consider Merle Oberon (1936, The Dark Angel) to be the first Asian best actress nominee, but she hid her ancestry (her mother was reportedly of partial Sri Lankan descent) and passed for white. Likewise for double Oscar winner Vivien Leigh, who was born in British-colonized India and whose mother might have had partial western Asian ancestry. And although past nominee Salma Hayek and winners Cher and Natalie Portman all have claims to some western Asian heritage (Lebanon, Armenia and Israel/Russia, respectively), none has identified as Asian.
Interestingly, Yeoh’s EEAAO character — the immigrant laundromat owner Evelyn Wang — is not the first character to be recognized in an Oscar-worthy lead actress performance. That distinction goes to The Good Earth’s hardworking Chinese wife O-Lan, whose portrayer earned Oscar gold all the way back in 1938 at the 10th Academy Awards: the 100 percent white actress Luise Rainer.