Yeoh’s Oscar win is proof that prime time is now and now and…
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When Michelle Yeoh made history Sunday night by being the first Asian woman to win best actress at the Academy Awards — a 95-year-old institution — the Everything Everywhere All at Once star held her richly deserved statue aloft and said, “To all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities.” Dream big, she said, because dreams come true.
And then she offered a second beacon of hope and possibilities: “And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be in one’s “prime,” ever since CNN’s Don Lemon asserted last month that Nikki Haley, who is running for U.S. president, is past hers at the age of 51. He did a Google, you see, and found that a woman’s prime is in her 20s and 30s. “Maybe 40s,” he added generously.
Presumably, that’s prime for giving birth because, you know, fertility is the only metric by which to measure a woman’s worth. Besides, as I tweeted at the time, everyone knows a woman’s prime ages are 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89 and 97. (Just a lil’ math joke for you.)
As women are not numbers nor cuts of meat — despite being absolutely treated like both — I fully reject the idea that a “prime” exists. Gals: place two fingers on your wrist. Heart’s still beating? Great news, you are in your prime.
Yeoh is 60. She is proof positive that there is no age limit on achieving one’s dreams, of doing the kind of creative work that sustains, fulfills and inspires, or being a badass action heroine (in the ’80s and ’90s, this former beauty queen did all her own stunts in a series of Hong Kong action films). Her career is one of peaks and valleys, of resurgence and reinvention. That’s what age affords you: a whole life of stories.
I’ve been thinking, too, about what it means to be a “late bloomer,” as though one can be late for their own life, as though one only blooms once and then fades away.
If we only cared about flowers when they are in bloom, there would be no gardens.
If we only cared about flowers when they are in bloom, there would be no gardens. Planting, tending, watering, growing, pruning, weeding, deadheading, harvesting, transplanting — our lives, and the dreams that fuel them, require those acts of care, too. Our lives have seasons in which they are lush and green and everything’s coming up roses. They also have terrifying fallow periods in which we think nothing will ever bloom again. And then it does. It’s only “too late” if you’re dead.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is an absurdist dramedy about one family’s brush with the multiverse, but it’s also about lives unlived, roads untravelled, and the tantalizing idea that not only do those parallel lives — all those alternate versions of ourselves, all those what ifs — exist somewhere, they can be accessed. Live long enough and you amass your own list of what ifs, your own paths not chosen. It’s salient, then, that our hero, Evelyn (Yeoh), is a middle-aged Chinese-American woman who runs a laundromat with her husband Waymond (the also Oscar-winning Ke Huy Quan) while navigating a strained relationship with her first-gen daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, nominated for best supporting actress). Evelyn is a woman with a lot of what ifs. What if she never married Waymond? What if she never moved to the United States?
That Yeoh is being honoured for this performance, in this film — which also picked up the award for best picture — is significant. For so long, women’s stories, and in particular immigrant women’s or older women’s stories, have been derided by Hollywood as niche and unmarketable. But it’s clear that a great many women saw themselves in Evelyn. Or in the Chinese-Canadian mother-daughter duo at the centre of Domee Shi’s best animated feature nominee Turning Red. Or in the women of Women Talking, which netted director-writer Sarah Polley a statue for best adapted screenplay (“I just want to thank the academy for not being mortally offended by the words ‘women’ and ‘talking’ put so close together like that,” Polley quipped).
What we need — what we always need — is more women’s stories, from more perspectives, in all artistic mediums. And so, to whoever needs to hear it: you’re not “too old,” and there’s no best-before date on talent.
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.