Emil Guillermo: 95th Oscars the Golden Spike for AAPI creatives, plus my foray into acting
The race to the Oscars started with a string of award shows, from the Globes to the SAGs, letting people know about a hot Asian American-themed film called “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (“EEAAO”). Who really knew it would be the big winner on Oscar night?
But it happened.
The film about laundry owners battling with the IRS, love, family, tradition, with some serious martial arts thrown in, was the overwhelming winner at the 95th Oscars.
EEAAO took home seven Oscars out of 11 nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert), Best Editing (Paul Rogers), Best Lead Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actor (Ke Huy Quan), Best Supporting Actress (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Best Original Screenplay (The Daniels again).
That’s the shot of self-esteem Asian Americans who seek validation in the arts need right now.
Daniel Kwan accepted the best original screenplay award mumbling about his imposter syndrome and low-self-worth. Was he joking? Then he felt Oscar in his hand.
But didn’t Kwan remind you of a typical insecure Asian American in a field not known for our inclusion? Hence, the feeling: ready, not ready; good, not good; all at once?
This Oscar haul changes things.
If you’re an AAPI and think you’re invisible, they’re looking at us now.
As to whether you’re good enough, there’s reason to get better, try harder.
We aren’t foreign, we may be weird, but we’re relevant in the marketplace.
If you are an engineer, programmer, or STEM-type by day, but believe your real calling is in acting, or writing, or singing, or dancing, in film, on stage, or showbiz in general, just watch the 95th Oscars show again and again.
Your time, our time, has come.
And you don’t have to wait for your parents to be on board.
Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan are nurturing us all.
As Yeoh said in her acceptance speech, the win was “for all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight.”
Maybe the win was even for all the older boys and girls who look like her and have those artsy deferred dreams. See more about mine later in this column.
“This [win] is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” Yeoh said. “This is proof that dream big and dreams do come true.”
And then she added a special message to women: “Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you’re ever past your prime.”
Big cheer from the audience.
It has been Yeoh’s message at all the award shows to date. But the Oscars was the ultimate.
Yeoh’s the proof. Don’t give up. Even if you’re already an international star.
I’ve talked about Ke Huy Quan in prior columns. He set the tone by winning the first award for EEAAO early in the almost four-hour broadcast.
The child refugee turned child star, who found his acting career dormant as an adult until EEAAO changed his life, Quan thanked his wife after winning the award for best supporting actor.
“Month after month, year after year, for 20 years, [she] told me that one day, my time will come,” Quan said. “Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine. To all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive.”
Motivational, for sure. But it was Daniel Kwan’s second acceptance speech that touched me most.
“We are all products of our context,” he said, acknowledging that his context was his immigrant parents. “My father who fell in love with movies because he needed to escape the world and passed that love of movies on to me. My mother, who is a creative soul, who wanted to be a dancer, an actor, and singer, but could not afford the luxury of that life path and then gave it to me.”
That’s the problem when life circumstances turn one’s passion into a luxury. It makes art an impossible option.
But not anymore.
And if you doubt it, the last part of Kwan’s speech drives home the point.
“There is greatness in every single person,” Kwan said. “You have a genius that is waiting to erupt. You just need to find the right people to unlock that. Thank you so much to everyone who has unlocked my genius.”
Better to be unlocked than locked up.
The 95th Academy Awards gives us all permission to find the key.
DIVERSITY WAS REAL ON SUNDAY
For Asian Americans, Sunday night’s Oscars was probably our most feel-good Oscars ever. I covered awards in Hollywood in the ‘80s when people thought diversity had finally arrived with “The Color Purple.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that people really got serious and started an #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The Academy tried to be inclusive, but forgot about Asian Americans. The best it could do was bring out three Asian American kids in tuxedos as if they were the accounting firm in charge of tallying votes. (Remember this: https://www.aaldef.org/blog/emil-guillermo-oscarssowhite-oscars-so-long-dull-and-out-of-focus-1/).
Who else do you want counting Academy votes but Asians?
We were still caught in the void of stereotypes.
But not anymore. Our stories have a kind of heat now. An independent film about a family with a laundromat dealing with the IRS and the multiverse puts us in a whole new ballgame.
We aren’t so weird after all. We’re of immigrant descent. We’re different. But we’re of the modern world and our stories count. They matter. People flocked to “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which gave it some cache as an indy project that was making money. But once it caught the attention of the Academy looking for diversity, the film was simply recognized for its off-beat ingenuity and its creative weirdness.
I was having lunch in New York’s Chinatown with a lawyer friend of mine, a Chinese American immigrant and also a triple Harvard (College, Law School, and MBA). My friend surprised me when he said couldn’t understand the hype about EEAAO and called it unwatchable.
I told him maybe it was generational. Just goes to show you that not everyone is on board with EEAAO.
But the huge victory on Sunday makes the film like a Golden Spike in Hollywood. The track is finally connected and open for AAPI creatives.
What you got? EEAAO has put everyone in the equation on notice. We have stories to tell that sell and that people want to see.
Stories that win Oscars.
ACTING FOR LENT
Regular readers know this by now. I’ve given up my real life for Lent to do some acting projects in New York City. For 40 days or so.
Then it’s back haranguing you about the news.
I just completed a seven-show run of my one-man show about Filipino history: “Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host.” A friend from college, Carter Burwell, liked my show. He is known for doing the music for the Coen Brothers’ films and was nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Musical Score with “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but he lost.
I told him the Irish-Filipinos would be rooting for him. There weren’t enough of us. But at least he didn’t lose to EEAAO. The winner for Best Music was “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
On Oscar Sunday, I was performing in a matinee of the second New York City project I’m involved in: “The Conductor,” by Ishmael Reed, at Theater for the New City in Manhattan.
I have a small part where I play a brown Tucker Carlson-type. The only difference is I tell the truth.
What I’m finding is that acting is hard work, whether on stage or screen. The stage’s live quality provides the real sizzle. And the real transition for me has been to deal with the easing up of covid restrictions and zero mask requirements at this stage in the pandemic.
I’m handling it.
Artistically, as I say my lines, I think of Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan. This week, another actor came to see the show and came backstage to meet with Ishmael Reed and the cast.
Do you know Jeffrey Wright? He didn’t go to the Oscars.
He’s catching shows, researching, preparing for the next thing. It’s a reminder that awards are nice, but an actor’s life is really all about the work.
It’s a blessing to be able to do any kind of acting work when you can, and be paid for it.
I’m fortunate that at this time in my life, art isn’t a luxury, but a necessary passion. For now.
I’m in Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor” through March 26. Tickets available here.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.