The 2023 Oscars Lacked the Drama of Last Year—But the Evening Was History-Making Nonetheless
By the time Everything Everywhere All at Once won the Oscar for best picture, it was almost an anticlimax. A film originally seen as a screwball indie outsider had become an awards powerhouse. It took seven of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for—making history in the process.
Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian actor and only the second woman of color to pick up the best actress statuette, inching out the early favorite Cate Blanchett and, as she did so, making Everything Everywhere only the third movie after A Streetcar Named Desire and Network to take three out of the four acting awards.
Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert—collectively known as the Daniels—took the Best Director award over luminaries such as Steven Spielberg (whose heartfelt The Fabelmans, about his own childhood, went home empty-handed), and thus became only the third directing duo in Oscar history to win the prize, after Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for West Side Story and the Coen brothers for No Country for Old Men.
They also won best original screenplay for their zany multiverse comedy, making it a cold night for the early favorite Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, which failed to win any of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis also drew a blank in eight categories. Only the German-language war epic All Quiet on the Western Front could rival the success of Everything Everywhere; it took home four Oscars, including best cinematography for the quietly spoken and slightly dazed Brit James Friend.
That it was going to be EEAAO’s night was obvious early on. As widely expected, former child star Ke Huy Quan won best supporting actor, greeting the news with an emotional speech as he fought back tears. “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage. They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This is the American dream.”
Then Jamie Lee Curtis claimed the best supporting actress Oscar ahead of Angela Bassett. Although Curtis had won the same award from the Screen Actors Guild, Bassett was still in the running for her performance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and she couldn’t quite conceal her disappointment, sitting blank faced and motionless when Curtis’s name was announced. It was a bitter repeat of the last time she was nominated, 29 years ago, for her performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, but lost out to Holly Hunter for The Piano.
Presenting the best international film award, Jonathan Majors and Bassett’s Wakanda Forever co-star Michael B. Jordan offered her consolation. “Hey Auntie,” said Jordan, who played her nephew on screen. “We love you,” they chorused.
It was hard to begrudge Curtis her award, however, especially since she shared it not only with her fellow actors but also with “all the people who have supported the genre movies I have made all these years” and teared up when remembering her mum and dad—Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh—who were both nominated for Oscars, but didn’t win. “I just won an Oscar!” she said, raising her statue skywards.
High emotion and much-loved and supportive parents were in fact the themes of an evening which lacked the drama of last year’s infamous slap. Host Jimmy Kimmel called attention to the event, but this year’s Oscars ceremony was generally much sweeter-natured and more generous in tone.
In winning the best-actress award for her performance as the harassed mother who fights through multiple universes to save her family and the world, Yeoh won over every demographic and many hearts and minds when she said: “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that dream big, and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up!” She dedicated her award to her 84-year-old mother and to “all the moms in the world. Because they are really the superheroes, and without them none of us would be here tonight.”
In one of his multiple acceptance speeches Daniel Scheinert thanked his parents for “not squashing my creativity when I was making really disturbing horror films, or really perverted comedy films, or dressing in drag as a kid—which is a threat to nobody, by the way,” while EEAAO’s producer Jonathan Wang dedicated the best picture award to his father “who, like so many immigrant parents, died young.”
Brendan Fraser, who won the best-actor award for his performance in The Whale (which also took the Oscar for best hair and makeup) gave a breathless speech thanking his director Darren Aronofsky “for throwing me a creative lifeline” and talking about the ups and downs of his career. “I started in this business 30 years ago. Things didn’t come easily to me, but there was a facility that I didn’t appreciate at the time until it stopped.”
One of the most moving speeches of the night came from Ruth E. Carter, who became the first Black woman in history to win two Oscars, when she took the best-costume award for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, four years after she last won the award. “Thank you to the Academy for recognizing the superhero that is a Black woman,” she said. “She endures, she loves, she overcomes. She is every woman in this film. She is my mother.”
She went on to explain that her mother Mabel died last week at the age of 101 and asked the late Chadwick Boseman, who died tragically young after completing the first Black Panther movie, to take care of her.
That theme of love, care, and support was repeated with great and urgent seriousness when Navalny, Daniel Roher’s film about the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, took the prize for best documentary feature. Flanked by her children, his wife Yulia said: “My husband is in prison just for telling the truth. My husband is in prison just for defending democracy. Alexei, I am dreaming of the day when you will be free, and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love.”
Navalny, like Everything Everywhere, had won multiple prizes in the run-up to the Academy Awards, so its success was not unexpected. But the night did bring some surprises, including a thrilling win for Sarah Polley in the best adapted screenplay category. Her film Women Talking, one of the most original and thoughtful of the best picture nominees, has struggled to gain traction in the awards race.
“I’d like to thank the Academy for not being mortally offended by the words ‘women’ and ‘talking’ so close together,” said Polley, wryly, suggesting that the film, which centers on a group of women who have been abused, offers a vision of how people “who don’t agree on every single issue manage to sit together in a room and carve out a way forward together, free of violence. They do so not just by talking but also by listening.”
Her hopeful words felt like a breath of fresh air. So did composer M. M. Keeravani’s acceptance speech, sung to a tune by The Carpenters, when “Naatu Naatu” from the film RRR became the first song from an Indian production to win an Oscar. There was more impromptu singing when Tom Berkeley and Ross White, who took the prize for best live action short for An Irish Goodbye, asked everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to its star James Martin, who has Down Syndrome.
But the night categorically belonged to Everything Everywhere All at Once, and to the camaraderie and joy of its cast that has done so much to propel it to success ever since it launched itself on an unsuspecting world a year ago. It is undoubtedly a phenomenon: an independent movie that has grossed $100 million globally, making it the most successful release ever for the production company A24 (who had a good night, since it is also responsible for The Whale).
A film which Kwan said started out with “Let’s put my mom in The Matrix” is rare in that it is a comedy, and comedies don’t usually win Oscars. It is even rarer in that it features a Chinese-American family and a mainly Asian cast. It seems radical, in that it makes jokes about sex toys, hot dog fingers, and contains a giant everything bagel which represents the notion that there is nothing but a pointless void at the heart of life. Yet at its own center, it is a movie about families and their fragmentation, and about the ways in which love and understanding can heal the multiverse.
When the history of the Oscars is written, then, the 95th Academy Awards will perhaps be seen as both the moment that Hollywood embraced a new, younger, TikTok- and streaming-educated audience, while simultaneously asserting its old, sentimental values.
Originally Appeared on Vogue