Oscars 2023: from Brendan Fraser to Ke Huy Quan, Hollywood loves a comeback story
It is a truism to say that the Academy loves a comeback, but at this year’s Oscars it reached a fever pitch: all four acting awards were won by screen veterans who, until now, had never won – or even been nominated for – an Academy Award.
There was Brendan Fraser, who broke out in roles such as a reanimated Neanderthal in Encino Man (1992) and a lovable woodwose in George of the Jungle (1997), before cementing himself as the defining hunk of the 90s with his windswept explorer in 1999’s The Mummy.
But in the 2000s, his credits thinned and he began to take roles further and further away from the centre of Hollywood’s vortex. Then, in 2018, Fraser alleged he had been sexually assaulted by Philip Berk, former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the organisation that runs the Golden Globes.
Berk called Fraser’s account “a total fabrication”, but acknowledged he had written an apology to Fraser at the time; an internal investigation conducted by the HFPA concluded that Berk had “inappropriately touched” Fraser in a way “intended to be taken as a joke and not a sexual advance”.
“[It] made me retreat,” Fraser said in an interview. “It made me feel reclusive.”
Now 54, Fraser’s leading turn in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, adapted from the play of the same name, was widely considered a prestigious return. While the film itself has been controversial – Fraser wore a fat-suit to play a 270kg gay man subjected to unending misery and squalor – the actor has been effusive in his gratitude since it premiered to a six-minute standing ovation at Venice. A video of him, teary-eyed, made the rounds; he was equally overcome as he accepted the award for best actor at the Oscars.
“I’m grateful to Darren Aronofsky for throwing me a creative lifeline,” he gushed in his speech, “and hauling me aboard the good ship The Whale.”
The Malaysian screen legend had long been a fixture of Hong Kong martial arts cinema before her international breakout in the 1997 James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, and, a couple of years later, the wuxia blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Though the latter was up for 10 Oscars – and won four – in 2001, Everything Everywhere All at Once was the first time she has been personally recognised by the Academy.
The best actress win, in many ways, felt preordained: Yeoh had already clinched a Golden Globe and the all-important Screen Actors Guild award for her performance as a laundromat owner who suddenly becomes the key to saving the world.
And the film doubles as an ode to Yeoh’s life: her character, Evelyn, jumps through parallel universes in chaotic fashion, embodying all the possibilities she could have lived – among them … a Hong Kong martial arts action star.
“Ladies, don’t ever let anyone tell you you are past your prime,” she said in her speech.
Joining Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once’s awards bonanza were co-stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Ke Huy Quan. Curtis is hardly an underdog; the child of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, she has been cracking nepo baby jokes herself all season long.
Yet her victory at this year’s Oscars – best supporting actress for her role as tax-auditor-slash-murderous-assassin Deirdre Beaubeirdre – was still hard-won: a curveball after a career as a scream queen that made her a box office boon, if not necessarily awards bait.
“I am hundreds of people,” she boomed, the Dolby Theatre stage her pulpit.
“To all the people who have supported the genre movies that I have made for all these years – the thousands and hundreds of thousands of people – we just won an Oscar together!”
And, after a months-long campaign which has left a deluge of tears in its wake, it was only right that Quan snagged the award for best supporting actor.
Like Fraser, his career began with a flash, with child roles in 80s classics The Goonies, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – whose star, Harrison Ford, embraced Quan after he presented the Oscar for best picture.
But Quan has spoken widely about the conservative industry he faced after his momentum vanished – one in which he languished, unable to find work as an Asian actor. He turned to behind-the-camera roles for decades before he landed an audition for Everything Everywhere’s soft, stoic dad, the grounding force of the film against Yeoh’s haywire verve.
In a ceremony brimming with earnest speeches, Quan’s was particularly poignant – and one of the night’s best moments.
“My journey started on a boat,” he said. “I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here, on Hollywood’s biggest stage.