7 marzo 2023
by Alessandro Galliani

Michelle Yeoh, Cate Blanchett's rival for the Oscar

Michelle Yeoh
Michelle Yeoh

Who is Michelle Yeoh, the actress who would be the rival of super favorite Cate Blanchett for the Best Actress Oscar Award?

However, the movie that sanctions Yeoh’s definitive international stardom is Everything everywhere all at once, an American film written and directed by Daniel Kwan about a Chinese immigrant to the United States who runs a laundromat. Kwan puts together different genres, like comedy, action, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Yeoh’s talent stands so far out that some now consider her an Oscar contender on a par with the fabulous Cate Blanchett, who is the star of the psychological drama Tár, written and directed by Todd Field, about the story of a renowned conductor and composer in the international world of classical music.

Though Cate will probably prevail as Hollywood’s queen, Michelle will give her a run for her money. The Financial Times ran a 'Lunch with FT' front-page interview with Yeoh over the weekend, hinting that she could be the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best actress on March 12. Something of the sort happened with Sophia Loren in 1962, when she earned an Academy Award for best actress—the first Oscar ever given for a performance in a foreign-language movie, Vittorio De Sica's Two Women

Columnist Simon Kuper interviewed Michelle for the FT in London, mentioning that Yeoh's current partner is Jean Todt, former head of the Ferrari Formula One team, and that the actress is filming Wicked on a spectacular set in London, a movie adaptation of the famous Broadway musical The Wizard of Oz with a sorceress-sized budget of several hundred million dollars, much more expensive than Everything Everywhere. “Yeah! Wow. I'm a very lucky girl,” Michelle said to her interviewer. With Everything Everywhere “we were at 14.5,” she added, meaning millions of dollars. But who is Michelle Yeoh? She was born in Ipoh, the capital of the Malaysian state of Perak, about 200 km from Kuala Lumpur, in a multiracial family that spoke several languages: English with her father, Cantonese and Malay with her mother, only Cantonese with her grandmother and Malay with the other kids at school. She studied at a British nun school in newly independent Malaysia and grew up thinking that London is the center of the universe. She is completely different from Evelyn, the character she played for which she could win the Oscar, whose parents are sorry that she was born a girl. "We grew up relaxed and happy," she said.

At the age of 15, Michelle Yeoh moved to London to study ballet, but she sustained an injury and could not complete the course. Her mother signed her up for the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant, which she won (as Sophia Loren did, becoming Miss Elegance in 1950).

Winning the pageant got Michelle a part in a Hong Kong action flick of the 1980s. Just like that, she went from being a ballerina aspirant to a stunt woman jumping off motorcycles on speeding trains and kicking people in the face. She made a name for herself with Hong Kong action movies before coming to Hollywood, Mecca of the movies. As she recalled, “The agents were like, 'Oh you're from Malaysia, is that Japan? And why do you speak English?' I discovered that I was a ‘minority’ and became a global citizen, albeit still Asian, because in America you need a ‘label.’ I confess that I would prefer a society without labels, like Star Trek.”

At any rate, Michelle became a Hollywood star, not an easy feat for an Asian actor. For example, Vietnamese-American actor Ke Huy Quan, who plays her husband in Everything Everywhere, was a child star at 12 in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. She explained that “as an Asian adult, Quan couldn't find roles and abandoned acting for years, until he was inspired to make a comeback by the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians,” also starring Yeoh. Now, Everything Everywhere earned Quan an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. However, life in Hollywood was no walk in the park even for Michelle. At first, the lead role of Everything Everywhere was written for a man, who was supposed to be Jackie Chan.

Later, Daniel Schweinert and Daniel Kwan rewrote it for her, naming the character Michelle. Evelyn is Yeoh's opposite: a frumpy dry cleaner burdened by life. “I saw many Chinatowns” in LA, San Francisco, London, even Hong Kong, wearing a mask not to be recognized, not just because of Covid. “Wearing a mask is the norm in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea,” Yeoh explained. “If you have a cold, it's the first thing you do. It's a hygiene standard.” From behind her mask, Yeoh observed Chinese women, how they walked, their posture, their forward looking gaze, with intent.

"I'm not a method actress,” she said. “But I'm proud to do my research for the character I play.” Everything Everywhere was a low-budget movie, shot in California, and it would have been awesome if it made 30 million, but it raked in more than 100. To top that, it received 11 Oscar nominations, including hers. Now, waiting for March 12 and the Academy Awards Ceremony, Yeoh will be sure to do her exercises as usual on that day, watching what she eats. But then, as she was about to take off in her car, she turned to Kuper and said: “I'll go to the place of the event, and I'll be bringing the little golden man hoooome!”

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