Michelle Yeoh made history Sunday by winning the Academy Award for best actress.
Yeoh took home the Oscar for her starring role in the psychedelic comedy drama “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The accolade makes her the first Asian actress to win in the category.
"For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities," Yeoh said in her acceptance speech. "This is proof that dreams dream big and dreams do come true."
Yeoh beat out Cate Blanchett for “Tár,” Ana de Armas for “Blonde,” Andrea Riseborough for “To Leslie” and Michelle Williams for “The Fabelmans.”
Echoing the theme of her film, which centered heavily on immigrant motherhood, Yeoh paid tribute to her own mother.
"I have to dedicate this to my mom, all the moms in the world," an emotional Yeoh said. "Because they are really the superheroes, and without them none of us would be here tonight."
Yeoh’s Oscar is particularly significant given the history of Asian actors and the Academy Awards. Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia, is only the second Asian actress to be nominated in her category; however, she is considered the first “openly” Asian actress with the distinction. Merle Oberon, who received a nod for the 1935 film “The Dark Angel,” concealed her South Asian identity throughout her screen career. And Luise Rainer, a white actress, won the category for portraying a Chinese slave in the 1937 drama “The Good Earth.”
The accolade closes a successful awards season for Yeoh, who earned critical acclaim for her performance as frazzled matriarch Evelyn Wang, an immigrant mother and laundromat owner who’s unexpectedly tasked with saving the multiverse from destruction. Yeoh took home best lead performance this month at the Independent Spirit Awards in the first year the ceremony combined its acting categories to be gender-neutral. Among several other awards, she received the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture comedy or musical in January.
While Yeoh has been celebrated as a breakout star in Hollywood for “Everything Everywhere,” she is an industry veteran, with a career that spans decades, countries and languages. She first made a name for herself in Hong Kong cinema, becoming a prolific and respected martial arts action icon in the late 1980s and the 1990s. As an actor who managed to buck the typical “damsel in distress” stereotypes in action movies and instead often portrayed crime-fighting heroes, Yeoh became known as a feminist trailblazer in entertainment.
“I work very hard. I do make very clear choices that drive me into movies that are very supportive or about strong women, and I normally gravitate away from those that do not show women in the way that I believe that they are,” Yeoh has told NBC News about her career.
Yeoh broke into the Hollywood scene in 1997 with the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” and since then has been featured in several blockbusters, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000 and “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018. But “Everything Everywhere” was the first movie in which she portrayed the lead role.
Yeoh credited the decades of fervent activism within the Asian community with making it possible for Asian actors, who were once relegated to sidekick or background roles, to be so prominently featured in a movie.
“So many of us have been working on pushing the envelope and trying to make it happen, because it’s very simple,” Yeoh said. “We believe in us. We believe in our Asian talent. We believe all of us have stories that need to be told and need to be embraced.”
Kimmy Yam is a reporter for NBC Asian America.