2023 Oscars Nominations Spotlight Stories About Aging, Reinvention and Career Comebacks
Bill Nighy attends the 'Living' UK premiere during the 66th BFI London Film Festival at the Southbank Centre on October 9, 2022. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI
The 2023 Academy Award nominations, announced in January, spurred the usual discussions among film fans: talk of who was nominated, who should have been nominated, and who was snubbed.
Of course the nominations yielded sweet stories of actors finally getting their due — see Jamie Lee Curtis, who received her first Oscar nomination at age 64 for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Everything Everywhere All At Once. She can also now say that Oscar noms run in the family, as her mother, Janet Leigh, received a nomination in the same category for Psycho in 1961 while her father, Tony Curtis, nabbed a Best Actor nod two years earlier for The Defiant Ones.
Then came the record-setters like composer John Williams, 90, who is now officially the oldest ever Oscar nominee with his nod for Best Original Score for The Fabelmans. He also broke his own record as the most nominated living person with his 53rd nomination, trailing only Walt Disney, with 59.
But beyond the nominations and snubs, the feel-good stories and the history-makers, there’s a common thread that runs through this year’s Academy Award nominees: one of reinvention, comebacks and a celebration of aging.
The Age of Success
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times last November, actress Michelle Yeoh, 60, spoke frankly about her now-Oscar nominated role as a multiverse-hopping housewife in the film Everything Everywhere All At Once.
“Older women can still have these crazy adventures!” the Best Actress nominee said. “If people learn nothing else from this movie, I hope it’s that!”
In the film, Yeoh plays an Asian-American wife and mother whose laundromat is under IRS audit. With familial tensions also on the rise, Yeoh’s character discovers a web of parallel universes in which various versions of herself live drastically different lives — including one as a kung fu master. Eventually she is tasked with traversing these parallel plains to save both the multiverse, as well as her own family.
The Malaysian actress, of course, is no stranger to action films, having kicked butt in multiple movies dating all the way back to the 1985 Hong Kong film Yes, Madam through the 2000 hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yeoh also earned praise for her turn as Bond girl Wai Lin in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies — a powerhouse Bond girl who was also the first to truly be on par with 007. Pop culture site Fandomania noted that, “When moviegoing audiences watched Wai Lin take on almost a dozen men in her hideout all by herself, they were taken aback as she heralded a new type of action heroine that had been seldomly seen on this level in American cinema.”
But to get down to kicking butt again, at age 60, meant facing unique challenges.
“The worst is when people think, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like she did in her 20s, so she can’t physically do the same things,’” she explained to the Times. “What they don’t understand is that I’ve learned some things over the years, and I’m more clever and smarter in how I can sustain my stamina. I’m as fit as I was before, because I know how to look after myself much better than when I was younger.”
For Yeoh to receive her first Oscar nomination at age 60 for playing an ordinary housewife on an extraordinary adventure, is an incredible achievement. Especially after, as Refinery29 noted, a “storied career” which has seen her, in recent years, “primarily [have] the ‘privilege of co-starring’ in films like Crazy Rich Asians and Memoirs of a Geisha, rather than receive top billing.”
In addition, Yeoh, along with fellow nominees Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu and Hong Chau, set a record as the most Asian actors nominated in one year.
Then there’s Bill Nighy who, at age 73, and with a resumé of acclaimed stage and screen performances to his name, finally received his first Oscar nomination, for Best Actor. The film, Living, sees him play an aging civil servant in 1950s London who is compelled to upend his mundane life and seek adventure after receiving a terminal medical diagnosis. It’s an inspiring story that grows out of a tragic turn of events, one focussed on an older man but which offers an important lesson for viewers of all ages.
“I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the depth of the response and the universal welcome that this film’s gotten. I thought we were making a good film … But you never know,” Nighy told Vanity Fair. “It’s a film where nobody carries a gun and nobody takes their top off. I did offer to take my top off, but they told me to put it back on. [Laughs] Next time maybe.”
The success of both Everything Everywhere All At Once and Living also reiterates the idea that big screen stories about, or with a foundation in, aging themes can not only produce powerful performances, but yield films that appeal to a broad section of the viewing public.
Meanwhile, director Steven Spielberg’s most recent offering, The Fabelmans, based on the 76-year-old’s own life and family in his youth, proved the culmination of a decades-long journey toward finding the courage to tell this story.
Way back in 1999, Spielberg told the New York Times Magazine that he’d had an idea of an autobiographical film for years but that, “My big fear is that my mom and dad won’t like it and will think it’s an insult and won’t share my loving yet critical point of view about what it was like to grow up with them.”
It took until he’d reached the three-quarters-of-a-century mark, not to mention the threat of a global pandemic, for Spielberg to finally reach a place where he could bring this personal story — which is steeped in nostalgia and also serves as an ode to the old masters and ways of filmmaking — to the big screen.
“As things got worse and worse, I felt if I was going to leave anything behind, what was the thing that I really needed to resolve and unpack?” Spielberg said of the pandemic’s influence on him making The Fabelmans while speaking before an audience at TIFF last year.
The Fabelmans nabbed seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Spielberg and Best Original Screenplay for Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner.
Gotta Love a Callback
Every so often, ceremonies like the Oscars offer an inspirational award-season callback — celebrating the same actor decades apart, after they’ve survived the ups and downs of a Tinseltown career.
The last time Angela Bassett contended for an Oscar was 1994, when she was up for Best Actress for playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. She’s put in numerous memorable roles since and some would argue that she should have been nominated again for the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale. But instead, it has taken 29 years for Bassett, now 64, to land a second Oscar nom. This time, it’s for Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Aside from coming nearly three-decades apart, the nomination put Bassett in the record books as the first actor to ever be nominated for an Oscar for a role in a Marvel film.
And while few actors have gone longer than Angela Bassett between Oscar nominations, one of them is Judd Hirsch. In fact Hirsch, at 87, has gone longer than anyone.
This year. Hirsch set the record for most time between Oscar nominations, with 42 years. In 1981, Hirsch was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the Robert Redford film Ordinary People, though his co-star Timothy Hutton took the prize. This year he’s nominated in the same category for his work in The Fabelmans. Hirsch beat out Henry Fonda, who’d gone 41 years between nominations, for the record.
And if he wins, he’ll become the oldest person to win an acting Oscar in history, beating current record-holder Anthony Hopkins, who won for The Father at age 83 (Canadian acting great Christopher Plummer held the record for years, when he won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Beginners at age 82).
In addition, a pair of heartwarming comeback stories stand out this award season.
The first is the unbelievable tale of 51-year-old Ke Huy Quan, who plays Michelle Yeoh’s husband in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Until recently, he was best-known as a child star in the early 1980s hits Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. After roles dried up, Quan left acting to go back to school and then work in stunt coordination and production jobs on movie sets for years. As the story goes, after decades of working behind the camera, Quan became inspired by the 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians (co-starring Yeoh) and decided to make another run at acting. That’s when he received the script for Everything Everywhere All At Once — and now, at 51, after an improbable comeback in an industry obsessed with youth, he’s got his first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.
Meanwhile, Canadian actor Brendan Fraser — a fixture in 1990s and early 2000s films from Encino Man to Airheads, George of the Jungle, Gods and Monsters, Crash and The Mummy franchise — had largely retreated from the spotlight in recent years due to numerous surgeries to correct injuries incurred while shooting action films, as well as a struggle with depression following the death of his mother and an alleged sexual assault by the then-head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
“I was going through things that mould and shape you in ways that you’re not ready for until you go through them,” he explained to GQ in 2018.
But Fraser, 54, is now in the midst of what some call the “Brenaissance” — a comeback highlighted by emotional standing ovations at multiple film festival screenings of his latest film The Whale, for which he won the 2022 Best Actor Tribute Award at TIFF. The film, about a man (Fraser) battling severe obesity who attempts to reconnect with his daughter, was “an actor’s role that distinguishes itself from so much that I’ve done or have seen done,” as the actor said during a roundtable interview last December. “I can’t think of any actor worth his weight in salt in my peer group that wouldn’t want to pay attention to being a part of that. I still pinch myself that I was lucky enough to be the guy to get the job.” The role landed Fraser his first Oscar nomination ever, for Best Actor, and he remains a frontrunner to win it.
And special mention goes to Elvis Presley who, while he’s not around to enjoy it in person, is experiencing a cultural comeback. The TikTok generation is being turned on to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll thanks to the biopic Elvis, which received eight Oscar nominations including Best Actor for star Austin Butler. The resurgence in popularity for Presley, however, turned bittersweet following the death of his only child, Lisa Marie Presley, earlier this month.
Still, it’s amazing to think that, 46 years after his own passing, Elvis could wind up front and centre in the winner’s circle on Hollywood’s biggest night of the year.
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