The 2023 Oscars Narrative: Overdue and Joyous Recognition

This year’s Academy Awards could be unique, perhaps historic.

After years of criticism for honoring “obscure” films, the Academy is close to making Oscar nominees out of several box office hits. The fall’s stronghold on the awards season cracked with the successes of spring and summer movies like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Top Gun: Maverick, and Elvis. (Meanwhile, fall contenders like The Son and Empire of Light flamed out.) EEAAO could land multiple acting nominations for its Asian actors, a first in Oscars history.

The Oscars have always been about Hollywood’s preferred narratives as much as cinematic excellence. Academy voters often gravitate to films and performances that tell compelling stories outside the theater. In the acting categories, several narratives can run in tandem. Last year saw the following narratives played out: the physical transformation (Jessica Chastain), the redemption (Will Smith), the scene-stealing breakout (Ariana DeBose), and the historic game-changer (Troy Kotsur). The narratives of this year’s leading contenders are strikingly similar. In March, the Academy could give its acting statuettes to four people who triumphed over Hollywood’s years-long ignorance or dismissal of them to deliver excellent, undeniable performances.

Angela Bassett, Best Supporting Actress

Angela Bassett at the 2023 Golden Globe Awards (Courtesy: Rich Polk/NBC via Getty Images)

Of the four frontrunners, Angela Bassett is the only actor who’s been Oscar-nominated before. In 1993, she received a Best Actress nomination for her searing performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? Bassett won the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Comedy/Musical, but Holly Hunter would win the Oscar for The Piano. (Hunter won that year’s Golden Globe for Best Actress – Drama.) Bassett worked steadily for the next thirty years in projects like Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, American Horror Story: Coven, and 9-1-1. However, the Academy didn’t recognize her work, nor did Hollywood offer roles that might’ve been traditional awards contenders. (As Viola Davis famously said, you can’t win awards for roles that aren’t there.)

The role arrived with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In the sequel to the Best Picture nominee Black Panther. Bassett again plays Ramonda, the queen mother of T’Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright). The loss of T’Challa elevates Ramona’s role as she rules the grieving nation of Wakanda and counsels her daughter. Bassett similarly levels up, feeding Ramonda’s anger, sadness, and fear through a prism of steely but gentle regality. Her work culminates in the film’s most iconic moment: Ramonda blasting Okoye (Danai Gurira) in the throne room over Shuri’s kidnapping. The jaw-dropping display seemed destined from the movie trailer for Oscar montages.

Bassett’s performance has resonated with audiences and industry folks alike. This year’s Supporting Actress category is filled with excellent performances: Kerry Condon, Stephanie Hsu, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Janelle Monae, and Dolly de Leon, to name a few. Despite the stiff competition, Bassett won the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award. In her powerful acceptance speeches, she acknowledged her career journey and paid tribute to Boseman and Marvel’s devoted fanbase. Anyone watching the speeches understands her win’s significance. Her triumph is not just for her performance, nor is it a capstone on a remarkable career. Bassett’s talent is so singular that she is the first actor to win a significant award for a Marvel film. It’s a compelling narrative that will likely gain more steam on her way to Oscar.

Ke Huy Quan, Best Supporting Actor

Ke Huy Quan at the 80th Golden Globe Awards (Courtesy: Rich Polk/NBC via Getty Images)

While Bassett built a stacked but overlooked resume, Ke Huy Quan virtually vanished from Hollywood. Quan began his acting career as a child, starring opposite Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He would also appear in The Goonies and Encino Man (co-starring future fellow Oscar contender Brendan Fraser). Quan soon found that acting opportunities weren’t coming his way as he transitioned into adulthood. A devastating consequence of Hollywood’s failure in Asian representation, he left acting altogether and went behind the camera. He worked as a stunt choreographer on X-Men in 2000 and as an assistant director in Wong Kar-wai’s film 2046.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is Quan’s first major film role in years, and what a role it is. Waymond Wang and his multiversal counterparts allow Quan to demonstrate a broad spectrum of experiences and emotions. He is an unassuming, overwhelmed laundromat owner one moment and a lithe, battle-ready agent the next. The Daniels crafted for Quan the perfect showcase of his wide-ranging acting abilities. Regardless of the variant, Quan never loses grip on Waymond’s grace and empathy. The empathy he brings to life is core to the film’s overarching message and would falter without him. (It is nigh-unthinkable to imagine another actor delivering movie star Waymond’s speech about wanting to do laundry and taxes with Evelyn.)

Quan’s performance is one of the year’s most universally celebrated. He has won nearly every critics award, a Golden Globe, and a CCA. Quan solidified his frontrunner status at the Globes with a powerful speech expressing his struggles in the industry and the joy and gratitude he feels at getting a second chance. “Joy” is the perfect word to describe Quan on the campaign trail. No other actor appears to be joying themselves like he is on the campaign trail. Whether he is sharing his story at a roundtable or reuniting with Fraser, Ford, and Steven Spielberg at industry events, Quan approached this season with an enthusiasm and spirit that makes the taxing awards cycle worth it. If there are any sure bets, Academy voters will likely reward Quan’s delightful on and off-screen optimism.

Brendan Fraser, Best Actor

Brendan Fraser at the Critics Choice Awards (Courtesy of Getty Images/Kevin Winter)

With films like Airheads and The Mummy franchise, Brendan Fraser was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. In the late 2000s, Brendan Fraser disappeared with little explanation. It wasn’t until 2018 that the world discovered the insidious reason why. Fraser revealed in a GQ profile that Phillip Berk, former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (organizers of the Golden Globes), sexually assaulted him at a luncheon in the summer of 2003. The incident, coupled with demanding stunt work that required years of surgeries, led him to retreat from the spotlight.

While he’s appeared in series like The Affair and Doom Patrol, The Whale was billed as his comeback role. In the Darren Aronofsky film, Fraser plays Charlie, a 600-pound man on the brink of death who tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. The Whale made headlines in September when it received a six-minute standing ovation after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Critics have been mixed on the film, some accusing it of being fatphobic and emotionally manipulative. However, Fraser received near-universal acclaim. He turns in a staggeringly vulnerable performance, communicating years of physical and emotional pain through his disarmingly kind eyes. Fraser goes through hell at Aronofsky’s hand, but his unwavering commitment exacts a profoundly emotional response in most people.

Fraser’s comeback journey has touched something within the zeitgeist that defies present Hollywood trends. The Whale has grossed over $10 million at the box office in limited release and scored 2022’s highest per-theater average with $60,000 per screen. These are impressive numbers, given the poor performance of other post-pandemic prestige films. (TÁR grossed $5.4 million, while Spielberg’s The Fabelmans sits at $13 million.) Fraser is the face of the film, literally: his sole image served as pre-release promotion. His face is enough to drive people to arthouse theaters in an era where people question movie stars’ current relevance. Fraser was ubiquitous for a generation, and people are passionately rooting for him after his difficulties. Paired with a career-redefining performance, the genuine love surrounding Fraser could be enough to take him to the podium on Oscar night.

Michelle Yeoh, Best Actress

Michelle Yeoh at the 80th Golden Globe Awards (Courtesy: Associated Press)

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a celebration of Michelle Yeoh as much as it examines generational trauma within Asian families. Evelyn Wang’s battles through the multiverse against a supervillain variant of her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) show off everything Yeoh has done in her four-decade career. Her versatility is astounding: she hits comedy, drama, romance, action, glamour, espionage, absurdity, and everything in between with equal amounts of gusto. She sells every moment, from a hotdog-fingered embrace with Jamie Lee Curtis to a martial arts exhibition in an IRS office. Very few actresses, if anyone, could deliver such a performance.

And yet, EEAAO is amongst a tiny handful of lead roles Yeoh’s been given in Hollywood. Even with acclaimed performances in Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yeoh lacked the opportunities afforded to her colleagues (like fellow Best Actress contender Cate Blanchett) to exhibit her skill. Like Bassett, Yeoh is a legend in her own right that Hollywood hadn’t entirely embraced. Crazy Rich Asians helped re-introduce Yeoh to Western audiences while demonstrating the shortsightedness of Hollywood’s ignorant treatment of Asian-centered stories. It’s also reflected in Oscars history. No Asian woman has won Best Actress, and only two have won Best Supporting Actress (Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara and Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari).

EEAAO is a perfect storm of an Oscar contender. The film is the season’s star, picking up multiple wins at the Globes, the CCAs, and several critics groups. Audiences flocked to its story about the challenges and triumphs of the Asian immigrant experience, to the tune of $100 million globally. The film also explicitly honors Yeoh, giving her the space to perform like few other Hollywood films have. In her Globes acceptance speech, she remarked how she had waited 37 years for this moment. A moment to be recognized for a landmark performance and superlative career, to be the first Asian woman and the second woman of color to win the Best Actress Oscar. The moment would be historic and well-deserved, something certainly spinning in voters’ minds.

What It All Means

Other contenders share similar shades of this narrative. Colin Farrell capped off a decade-long prestige film renaissance with his work in Banshees. Bill Nighy stepped into the spotlight after years of supporting work with quietly heartbreaking performance in Living. Long-time screen favorite Jamie Lee Curtis played against type in EEAAO and carved out her own overdue campaign. Andrea Riseborough is being boosted by a grassroots campaign for her extraordinary work in the indie film For Leslie.

While anything can happen come Oscar night (or even Oscar nomination morning), corrective energy is shaping the awards season. While the overdue narrative is nearly as old as the Oscar itself, many of this year’s leading potential nominees aren’t overdue because of bad timing or bad roles. They are overdue because Hollywood neglected their work, identity, or experiences in some way. Bassett, Quan, Fraser, and Yeoh leaped beyond the obstacles, demonstrating their considerable gifts and reminding everyone they were always there. All they needed was the opportunity. The opportunity is also here for the Academy to reward them for it. With the overwhelming public support surrounding them and the genuine emotion they’ve demonstrated, this year’s overdue contenders could prevail ad first-time Oscar winners with a similar, powerful narrative.

One can only hope that Hollywood discontinues this particular narrative and celebrates talent when they deserve it, not ignoring them for who they are and what they experience.

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