How Michelle Yeoh Shattered All Conventions and Stereotypes Year After Year, and at 60, Went for an Oscar

Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, at 60, has a legendary portfolio that includes films such as Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Crazy Rich Asians, and Memoirs Of A Geisha. But the recognition she deserves has only come to her recently. Yeoh made a splash when she starred in the absurdist comedy-drama film Everything Everywhere All at Once.

As a girl, Michelle didn’t dream of becoming a film star. She wanted to be a ballerina. Yeoh started ballet at the age of four. When the future star turned 15, she was sent to a girls’ boarding school in the UK. Having graduated from there, she was able to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance. But a spinal injury put an end to all her childhood aspirations. Upon returning to her home country, her mother decided to sign her up for a beauty contest in order to cheer her up. That’s how 20-year-old Michelle, who at the time still went by the name of Yeoh Choo Kheng, became Miss Malaysia World ’83.

After winning the competition, she was approached by the co-founder of a fairly new Hong Kong film company, D&B Films, Dickson Poon. He offered Michelle to star in a commercial. Her co-star turned out to be Jackie Chan, who was just taking his first steps toward world fame. For Michelle, this ad opened the doors to the flourishing film industry in Hong Kong.

In just her third film, the young actress already played the lead role. She portrayed Senior Inspector Ng in the action film Yes, Madam. She starred alongside Cynthia Rothrock, an actress and martial arts expert. The script was originally written for a male-female duo, but at the casting, Cynthia impressed the producers so much with her skills that they reconsidered their plans. The film marked the beginning of a popular action movie subgenre.

Michelle decided that she would do all the stunts in the film herself and started working out at the gym for eight hours a day. She had never done martial arts before, but from then on started taking kung fu, kickboxing, and Taekwondo lessons. Her experience in dance, combined with her martial arts skills, soon made her one of the brightest up-and-coming stars.

But the actress didn’t even hesitate in sacrificing her career when Dickson Poon asked her to marry him and quit the world of cinema. In one of her interviews, Michelle explained her decision: “Acting was never my burning ambition — it fell into my lap — and [after marriage] my priorities changed.” She believed in love and wanted to have a family and children, but the marriage lasted only three years. They parted as friends and Yeoh dedicated herself completely to her work.

She once again got to star alongside Jackie Chan, though this time in a feature film. In the action film Supercop, she managed to challenge the actor, who was also renowned as a skilled stuntman. Michelle said that Chan asked her to stop performing risky stunts, but she objected, saying that Jackie himself does it all the time. Then the action star put forward his main argument — every time Yeoh performs a stunt, he has to come up with something even better.

The second time Michelle almost quit acting was in 1996, when she severely injured her back on the set of the film The Stunt Woman. But Quentin Tarantino, who was in Hong Kong at the time promoting Pulp Fiction, came to visit her at the hospital. He burst into her room, sat at the foot of her bed, and said: “I’ve watched all your movies,” and proceeded to retell them frame by frame. According to Yeoh, this visit brought her back to life.

And soon, the actress was offered her first major Hollywood role — that of the Chinese secret agent Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies. Here, too, Michelle broke the established order — her character was in no way inferior to the famous agent 007, James Bond.

After her work in the acclaimed franchise, offers started pouring in one by one. But after reading the scripts, Yeoh rejected them, one by one — they were all laden with stereotypes about Asian women. Three years passed before Michelle agreed to star in another Hollywood film. This project was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

A few years after the incredible success of the movie, the director Ang Lee said of Michelle: “I would hope, selfishly, that it was the peak for her, but she just went on making good performances, year after year.” And it’s true, after portraying Yu Shu Lien, she starred in Crazy Rich Asians and appeared in Marvel action films, with success and acclaim following her everywhere. But the critics, who have constantly praised her, never thought it necessary to honor her with any of the major film awards, despite her being nominated several times.

“It shouldn’t be about my race, but it has been a battle,” says Yeoh. And in this battle, the girl who built one of the most significant film careers on the wreckage of her ballet dream, the woman returning to her profession straight out of a hospital bed, was not about to back down.

She took on the role of Evelyn Wang, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant and owner of a self-service laundromat, in the absurdist comedy-drama film Everything Everywhere All at Once. Her character discovers the existence of alternate universes and must confront several threats, becoming one with her other selves and learning to use their skills and experiences.

According to Yeoh, men in their 60s and 70s are great when appearing in leading roles in Hollywood action movies, but it’s as if women of the same age go unnoticed. Well, you could say she literally made everyone look in her direction. The film has been showered with awards and nominations, and Michelle is one of the main reasons for this success.

The film was also nominated for a Golden Globe. As soon as the actress found out that she won, she burst into tears. And then, having come up onto the stage, she said: “This is also for all the shoulders that I have (stood) on, all who came before me who look like me, and all who are going on this journey with me forward.” A few days later, Yeoh’s fans cheered again as the star was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. She thus became the first female nominee in the history of this film award who identifies herself as Asian.

Chris Pizzello / Invision / East News

Having proved to everyone that middle-aged and older female actresses can shine just as brightly as their male counterparts and that there are different roles in Hollywood for people of Asian descent, the actress is not stopping. In an interview, she put it this way: “I’ve been in the business now for thirtysomething years, right? And it feels like I needed all that experience to be able to come to this point and say: ‘All right, I’m going to show you what I made of.’”

Which of Michelle Yeoh’s roles is your favorite?

Preview photo credit Ging chaat goo si III: Chiu kup ging chaat / Golden Harvest Company, Chris Pizzello / Invision / East News
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