‘Crazy Rich Asians’ star Michelle Yeoh might make Oscar history, but she’s definitely going into producing

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Michelle Yeoh.

When the Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 22, many of the story lines will naturally be focused on the representation of women and people of color.

Among of those story lines: Will the blockbuster romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” give Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) her long-awaited shot at an Academy Award? If Yeoh gets a supporting actress nod this year, she will be only the sixth actress of Asian descent ever to be nominated in the history of the Academy, according to Deadline Hollywood.

As previously reported, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling book surpassed its $30 million budget on its opening weekend. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it made more than $236 million at the worldwide box office so far. The film’s all-Asian cast – the first in a major Hollywood production since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club,” which if you’re doing the math at home, is a mind-boggling 25-year gap – is credited with making “Crazy Rich Asians” the biggest rom-com release in a decade.

“It is very, very empowering,” Yeoh told Deadline of the film’s success, but she admitted to being on the edge of her seat opening weekend, with so much resting on the reception for this mainstream studio film with an all-Asian cast.

“The fear of it not having had that kind of success was very, very prevalent. It would have set us back another 25 years.”

“Crazy Rich Asians” centers on the struggles of an affluent Singaporean family, and as Antonia Blyth reports for Deadline, Yeoh shines as the prickly-but-complex matriarch Eleanor Young, who can’t accept her son’s choice to marry the “ABC” (American-born Chinese) Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). 

It’s not the first time for Yeoh to shine onscreen, despite the dearth of opportunities offered by Hollywood. She also was luminous in the Best Picture-nominated “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” back in 2000, but didn’t get an acting nomination.

In fact, Blyth reports that only one actor of Asian descent has been nominated in this entire decade: Dev Patel for “Lion” in 2017. There’s been just one female Asian Oscar winner ever – Miyoshi Umeki in 1957–and Merle Oberon’s nomination for “The Dark Angel” in 1935 is the only time an Asian woman has ever made it into the lead actress category. Oberon hid her Indian heritage throughout her career to avoid racism, and with dates and facts like that, it’s not hard to figure out why.

Against the odds, Yeoh has crafted a great acting career, with credits including “Memoirs of a Geisha,” the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Star Trek: Discovery.” She’s also faced more than her share of disheartening experiences, including pressure by producers in In Hong Kong to change her name Yeoh to the supposedly more Western-friendly “Khan.” She recalled that it was Bond producer Barbara Broccoli who put an end to that nonsense.

“Bless her, Barbara Broccoli, I love her to bits,” Yeoh said. “She was like, ‘What the f–k? Michelle Khan? Just go with your f—ing name!’”

Yeoh told Deadline she is dismayed by the lack of Asian films making the leap from the foreign language category to Best Picture.

“You make all the excuses, like, ‘Oh OK, it’s because they only want American movies,’” she said. “But then you look at ‘Life is Beautiful.’ It’s not an American movie and it was nominated [for Best Picture], and won for Best Actor. Why is that different? It’s like when I looked back at Zhang Yimou’s film ‘Raise the Red Lantern,’ it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, but why was it not even a consideration? I mean for ‘Crouching Tiger,’ yes we were considered, but somehow… I didn’t quite understand.”

Now though, she’s hopeful that real change is here.

“Perhaps it really took this movement,” she said. “This new generation stood up and said, ‘OK, that’s enough. Let’s not take this sitting down anymore.’ I’m glad when I look at the young generation. They’re so vocal and they’re not afraid. I’m so proud of them. I’m so glad I get to see it in my lifetime, and I’m very happy that I’ve been part of that movement as well, because we have been fighting to get to today.”

Deadline reports that Yeoh is doing her part to change the types of movies being made with her new producing job. Having signed a deal with Ivanhoe Pictures—which financed and co-produced “Crazy Rich Asians” —she’s working on the adaptation of the book “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World,” by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope. The true-life story follows Jho Low, the alleged mastermind behind Malaysia’s 1MDB money-laundering scandal.

“As an actor you sit there and wait for things to come to you,” she said. “As a producer you are more proactive. You go out and find that stuff, and you choose the creative people you work with.”

-BAM

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