The Oscars’ unusually Asian year has culminated in a number of historic wins, in a ceremony that went off without incident. Host Jimmy Kimmel was largely inoffensive, a performance of “Naatu Naatu” from Telugu-language Indian blockbuster RRR tore the house down before winning Best Original Song, and Asian American action-fantasy Everything Everywhere All At Once took home (nearly) every statue all at once, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor. In winning seven of its possible 11 categories, it becomes the most awarded movie on the Oscars’ stage since Gravity in 2014, and the Best Picture winner with the largest haul since Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.
The wins for Everything Everywhere began almost immediately. The night kicked off with the award for Best Animated Feature Film, which was won by Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio—the Netflix stop-motion movie, not to be confused with last year’s other two Pinocchio adaptations starring Tom Hanks and Pauly Shore—followed by a pair of acting awards. Best Supporting Actor and Actress went to Everything Everywhere’s Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis for their first ever nominations, though Curtis’ win would also send her co-star and fellow first-time nominee Stephanie Hsu home empty handed.
The winning duo gave rousing speeches, with Curtis accepting the award on behalf of every person she’d ever worked with and everyone who’d ever seen her films—an appropriate acknowledgement, given the movie’s title and multiverse themes—as well as thanking her Oscar-nominated parents, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who’d never won themselves. This was followed by a typically feel-good Oscar moment that’s sure to be etched in viewers’ memories, with Quan proclaiming to his mother at home, “Ma, I just won an Oscar!” before recalling his tumultuous journey to the Kodak Theater as a Vietnamese refugee.
By the end of the night, Curtis and Quan’s co-star Michelle Yeoh would take home the Best Actress statue, followed by her own words of encouragement for the young boys and girls “who look like [her]” watching on TV. The Malaysian star and Hong Kong action mainstay (of such classics as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is now the first Asian-born actress to take home the coveted trophy in the Academy’s 95-year history. Meanwhile, the award for Best Actor saw the culmination of another feel-good story, in the form of Brendan Fraser winning for The Whale. In his speech, Fraser made sure to mention fellow comeback king Quan, his co-star in the 1992 movie Encino Man, one of Quan’s last major roles before his lengthy hiatus (the Best Picture trophy would eventually be presented by Harrison Ford, Quan’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom co-star, leading to another moving embrace).
The hits kept coming for Everything Everywhere throughout the night, as it took home trophies for Best Film Editing (for editor Paul Rogers), Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (for the duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. “Daniels”) and eventually, the big one at the end of the ceremony, making it one of the most unconventional Best Picture winners in Academy history. Its March 2022 release, a full year before Sunday’s ceremony, gave it a weaker chance of it being remembered by Academy voters (“award season” releases tend to arrive in Q4 for this reason), and the movie itself is filled with the kind of eye-popping visuals and esoteric genre concepts that normally alienate Oscar voters. Its year-long momentum, however, proved unstoppable. Not only is it now the first movie to ever win six Oscars for its “above the line” crew, i.e. for its actors, writers, directors and producers, but alongside Fraser’s win for Best Actor, it also makes A24 the first studio in history to win all four acting categories in the same year.
It was also a big night for India at the Oscars, with the country having three different movies nominated in three categories. While avian conservation film All That Breathes lost Best Documentary Feature to political portrait Navalny—resulting in a powerful speech by the wife of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny—India’s two other campaigns ended up successful. Kartiki Gonsalves’ The Elephant Whisperers, about the beautiful relationship between an indigenous couple and the baby elephant they rescued, took home India’s first ever trophy for Best Documentary Short Subject (and producer Guneet Monga’s second, after Period. End of Sentence. in 2019). But the country’s most highly publicized award was for Best Original Song, a first for an Indian production.
This win was preceded by a stage performance of “Naatu Naatu” earlier in the night. The routine re-staged the sequence from Tollywood hit RRR in which a pair of Indian revolutionaries engage in a hypnotic, hyper-energetic dance battle against colonial oppressors—a scene fittingly filmed at the Presidential Palace in Ukraine, a backdrop that was re-created for the performance. The pomp and circumstance around the award included an introduction from Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone, and winning composer M.M. Keeravani’s speech involved him serenading the crowd with his rendition of The Carpenters’ “Top of the World.” In a matter of some relief, the Tollywood blockbuster was only mistakenly referred to as a Bollywood movie once during the entire ceremony, during Kimmel’s opening monologue. However, it unfortunately appears few (if any) South Asian artists were involved in the planning or the performance, which is an iffy decision at best considering how pathbreaking RRR has been for Indian cinema on the global stage.
The rest of the night saw few surprises, other than, perhaps, Netflix’s German-language war film All Quiet on the Western Front beating the lavish Hollywood musical Babylon for both Best Production Design and Best Original Score. All Quiet would go on to take home an additional two trophies (Best Cinematography and Best International Feature Film), bringing it to a second-place total of four awards behind Everything Everywhere. The award for Best Adapted Screenplay went to Sarah Polley’s riveting sexual assault drama Women Talking, while the technical categories were spread across a handful of beloved blockbusters including Top Gun: Maverick for Best Sound, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever for Best Costume Design (a repeat win for series costume designer Ruth E. Carter), and of course, Avatar: The Way of Water for Best Visual Effects.
The full list of winners can be found at the Academy’s website, but the biggest story coming out of the ceremony is undoubtedly the feel-good success story that is Everything Everywhere All At Once, a film firmly rooted in the Asian American immigrant experience despite its bombastic fireworks and sci-fi concepts. Recognition for this kind of story and cast feels long overdue, as was hilariously summed up by one of the film’s supporting stars, James Hong—a legendary performer who happens to be older than the Oscars themselves—when it won Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards a few weeks ago. Multiverse sagas are growing increasingly common in Hollywood courtesy of superhero fare, but the success of this idea in Everything Everywhere is owed to what critic Bilge Ebiri calls a “multiverse of the mind” in his interview with the directors, since much of the story concerns thoughts and possibilities of what might have been, had lead characters and laundromat owners Evelyn and Waymond Wang (Yeoh and Quan) not married and immigrated to the United States, but had instead separated and remained in China.
These alternate universes adopt the appearance and texture of distinctly Hong Kong productions, from wuxia action movies to the romance films of Wong Kar-wai, since the characters’ very existence in these worlds is informed by an entirely different cultural language. This also leads to an incredibly moving scene—which producer Jonathan Wang referenced in his Best Picture acceptance speech—in which Waymond, now a stranger to Evelyn, tells her that in another life, he “would have really liked doing laundry and taxes with [her],” a line which imbues the tedium and typical hardships of depictions of immigrant life with invaluable humanity.
The film, which comes partially from writer-director Kwan’s own experience as an Asian American, remixes familiar elements of both eastern and western cinema to create its own psychedelic action imagery, which speaks to the American immigrant story both through its intergenerational family narrative and through its hybrid form of cinematic language. The result is a Best Picture winner that, whether or not one is personally drawn to it, feels representative of an American ideal in a way few past winners have been, since it brings together performers and storytellers from across a vast spectrum of immigrant and first-generation experience, to tell a story of cultural and interpersonal reconciliation. With that in mind, it’s hard not to come away from the 95th Academy Awards feeling optimistic about a more inclusive Hollywood future.
Published on March 13, 2023