Multi-talented Malaysian actress and skilled stuntwoman Michelle Yeoh has punched her way into peoples’ hearts, receiving the 15th annual Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film on December 9 to kick off the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
The event — which benefits SBIFF’s year-round educational programs — marks the first time since the passing of screen legend Douglas that the honor was awarded, and it was the most successful fundraiser in the festival’s history (Yeoh herself donated $10,000). It was also the first time the actress — who grew up watching Douglas on the big screen — had visited Santa Barbara. She called receiving the prestigious award a “pinch-yourself moment.”
“I only found out that I was the only recipient of an award tonight,” she professed in her acceptance speech, which was met with laughs from the audience. About 30 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were there, including President Janet Yang and actor and Montecito resident Christopher Lloyd. “I could not have imagined that so many of you would have turned up for me,” said Yeoh.
She has been in the industry for decades, but her recent, critically acclaimed performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once saw her portraying a new kind of vulnerability and humor as a neurotic mother navigating the multiverse.
“Any one of her movies should have gotten her the attention she’s getting, but I’m glad that this one movie has landed her in that stratosphere,” said Yang. “She is beyond transcendent in her versatility … she really is everything, everywhere, all at once.”
Both the movie’s co-director/co-writer Daniel Kwan and producer Jonathon Wang grew up watching Yeoh when she was a kung-fu film star in the Hong Kong film industry. Kwan said that his father was from Hong Kong and would “bootleg” Yeoh’s movies. “She meant so much to us, and to Asian families around the world. We owe so much to her.”
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On the red carpet, Yeoh said she had been “waiting for a script” like that of Everything Everywhere, where she would be portraying a “superhero, a real woman superhero.” According to the film’s fellow co-director/co-writer Daniel Scheinert, her enthusiasm toward the script actually got the movie greenlit. “She told us if it turned out bad she would kill us,” he laughed.
“But her real superpower is her vulnerability,” Scheinert said. “From the moment we met, she was so much more playful and funny and vulnerable than I expected because I knew her most recently as the Crazy Rich Asians mom or the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star, and we expected her to be kind of intimidating, and she was so warm and playful and teasing us.”
During her acceptance speech, Yeoh said, “If I show that I’m vulnerable, you won’t believe that I can kill you.” She displayed her sense of humor at many points, but took on a more serious tone when speaking of Kirk Douglas.
For the late actor, who passed away two years ago, the day of the awards ceremony would have been his 106th birthday.
“Even though Douglas wasn’t involved in this decision, I knew he would have approved,” said Roger During, SBIFF’s executive director. “I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of this award than Michelle… They would’ve been sharing Kirk’s favorite drink: dry vodka on the rocks. ”
“In the end, my hope is that maybe, hopefully, my work has uplifted or comforted or inspired others the way that Kirk Douglas’s did for me,” Yeoh said. The actress explained during her speech that she has been motivated in her career by a Douglas proverb: “In order to achieve anything you must be willing to fail.”
“You can fail, but don’t let that stop you,” she continued, adding that despite many sleepless nights and unexpected obstacles during her time in the industry, she would rise to any challenge. Even if it meant playing a woman with hot dogs for fingers, as she did in Everything Everywhere.
“With every turn, I will say, ‘Why not?’ I will commit totally; I will be brave,” said the 60-year-old actress, later stating, “We may finally be turning the corner on the glass ceiling of age. I’m blessed and fortunate to still be an actor at a time when women’s voices and women’s talents are louder and more visible than ever. And I am so grateful and lucky that today the importance of representation is also finally being embraced.”