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Chloé Zhao makes Oscar history with ‘Nomadland’


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Chloé Zhao makes Oscar history with ‘Nomadland’

Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao makes Oscar history with ‘Nomadland

Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao made history Sunday night as she became the first Chinese woman — and also the first woman of colour — to win the Oscar for Best Director.

The prize at the 93rd Academy Awards for her road drama “Nomadland,” which at press time was also expected to motor home with Best Picture gold, makes her only the second woman to win Best Director, a category traditionally dominated by men.

Zhao, 39, accepted the award in a low-key and socially-distanced ceremony at L.A.’s Union Station railway terminus, a venue supplemented with remote broadcast podiums in cities worldwide due to pandemic restrictions.

The writer, director and editor spoke of a favourite Chinese poem that she and her father used to recite, when she was growing up in her homeland.

A key line from it translates as “People at birth are inherently good,” a line she says guided her as she made “Nomadland,” which stars Frances McDormand as a grieving widow who takes her RV on a personal odyssey across the American West, in the company of other modern nomads. The film speaks to the resiliency of people to overcome hard times, which these COVID-19 times certainly are.

“I still truly believe them today, even though sometimes it might feel like the opposite is true,” Zhao said. “I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world.”

She dedicated her Oscar to “anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and to hold onto the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that.”

This year’s Oscars featured the most diverse slate of Oscar nominees ever, thanks in part to the increased presence of women and people of colour among the 9,300 voters of the newly expanded Academy ranks. There was a strong possibility that all four acting categories would be won by people of colour, which would be a historic first for the Oscars.

An early win got the ball rolling on that score: Best Supporting Actor went to Daniel Kaluuya, the expected winner for his charismatic portrayal of slain 1960s Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton in the civil rights drama “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

He said all the right things at first, as he thanked God, his co-stars and crew, director Shaka King and the late Hampton and his family: “Thank you for trusting us with your truth.”

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Then he perhaps said the wrong thing as he stated an intimate truth: “My mom and dad, they had sex, and I’m here!”

Kaluuya’s mother was in the audience, caught on camera with a grimace on her face. His sister was beside her, burying her face in her hands.

Blues drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” also got off to a great early start, with Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson taking the Best Makeup and Hairstyling award, the first Black women to win this category in Oscar history.

“Ma Rainey’s” also won for Best Costumes, the prize going to 89-year-old Ann Roth, the oldest woman ever to win an Oscar. She wasn’t present to receive it.

The screenplay awards were the first to be handed out, with “Nomadland” being edged out for Best Adapted Screenplay by father-daughter dementia drama “The Father.”

Rape-revenge drama “Promising Young Woman” took the Best Original Screenplay prize, giving writer/director Emerald Fennell — who was also competing with Zhao for Best Director and Best Picture — remarking at how it felt to actually hold an Oscar for the first time:

“He’s so heavy — and so cold!” she exulted.

Best International Feature Film (formerly called Best Foreign Language Film,) went to the heavily favoured “Another Round,” a dramedy of male bonding and boozing, directed by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg, who was also nominated for Best Director.

An emotional Vinterberg talked about the tragedy that unfolded four days after filming of “Another Round” commenced, as his daughter Ida was killed in a car accident. She was due to make her acting debut in the film. He dedicated his Oscar win to her.

Peter Howell is a movie critic in Toronto. Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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