Hollywood is a harsh business, one that will tear down artists who were once thought to have lasting power. For every rejection made under the pretense of minimizing risk, there is a chilling effect that causes once-promising actors to be discouraged and find other avenues for their talent — if they don’t step out of the limelight altogether. But then there’s the comeback, the highly publicized reemergence that confirms, maybe Hollywood was (gasp) wrong to count them out. Or, there’s an acknowledgment that a performer has been putting in great work for years, and maybe we — the critics, the industry, the audience itself — should’ve appreciated them more.
Those kinds of peaks and valleys disproportionately affect actors of color, who get the chance to prove their skills on a grand scale but then find themselves lacking further opportunities beyond a very narrow view of what Hollywood expects of them. EGOT winner Rita Moreno has spoken on the kinds of stereotypical Latina characters she was asked to portray after winning her Oscar for West Side Story. In a 2022 conversation with director Jordan Peele, Daniel Kaluuya revealed he almost quit acting (“I wasn’t getting roles, because racism and all this kind of stuff”) before signing on to Peele’s Get Out, the film for which he ultimately earned his first Oscar nomination.
While the wounds of that mistreatment can never truly heal, Hollywood does have the opportunity this year to do a bit of atoning for some past sins in each of the Oscars’ four acting categories. Academy members will soon be voting on the best in film in 2022, with a wealth of strong performances from which to choose; chief among them are actors who have already won their fair share of critics’ prizes in addition to high-profile awards from organizations like the Golden Globes and Critics Choice. For those anointed few, namely Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Angela Bassett, and Brendan Fraser, an Oscar victory would not only be honoring their individual performances but would take on special resonance when considering their long and winding journeys to get to the Oscar stage.
Michelle Yeoh spoke on her Hollywood struggles in her Golden Globes acceptance speech, having won for her multilayered performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once. After making a name for herself as an action star in Hong Kong, she crossed over into America and Britain with 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies and received worldwide acclaim for the Oscar-winning wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but, as she recalled in her speech, Hollywood mostly otherized her, not knowing how to capitalize on her many talents.
Through the 2000s and 2010s, Yeoh worked with filmmakers all over the world, eventually receiving some of her best notices for her performance as the domineering matriarch Eleanor in Crazy Rich Asians. She continued to work in Hollywood films in subsequent years, but she was finally gifted a role that foregrounded all of her abilities as an actress with Everything Everywhere All at Once. As Evelyn Wang, an immigrant laundromat owner who unexpectedly finds herself in a plot to save the multiverse, Yeoh shows off her virtuosic action skills, her deft comedic timing, and her subtle dramatic power, sometimes all within the same scene. Now, she is the first Asian performer to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress since Merle Oberon in 1935. A win for Yeoh would be seismic, not only making history as the first Asian performer to win Best Actress but doing so with a nontraditional (by Academy standards) sci-fi action role that proves wrong all of the Hollywood executives who doubted her all those years ago.
Then there’s Ke Huy Quan, whose extraordinary return is the stuff of Hollywood dreams. After a splashy debut as a child star in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Quan only appeared in a handful of additional Hollywood films including The Goonies and Encino Man before stepping away from acting in the U.S. due to a lack of quality roles. While he took on assistant work in the early 2000s, it wasn’t until seeing Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 that Quan felt compelled to try his hand at acting again.
Quan showed that he hardly missed a beat with Everything Everywhere All at Once, playing the sensitive, well-meaning husband Waymond to Yeoh’s Evelyn whose inherent kindness proves crucial to making his family whole again. Like his character, Quan’s sincere, ebullient acceptance speeches have charmed viewers, while also reminding us of his unlikely journey to the stage. His expected Oscar victory should be even more momentous, ideally leading to further meaty roles that provide for him the kind of career he should’ve had all along.
For Angela Bassett, 29 years passed before the Academy granted her a follow-up Oscar nomination to her electrifying portrayal of Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do with It. Her lack of acknowledgment from other major film awards between then and now is egregious, especially considering her résumé. In the years that followed her first Oscar nod, Bassett turned in memorable performances in such films as Strange Days, Waiting to Exhale, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, with the latter two receiving recognition from the NAACP Image Awards but not much else. She has, however, found greater awards success with her TV work, racking up seven Emmy nominations over the years, though she has yet to win one.
Now, with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, in which Bassett reprises her role as Queen Ramonda, she finally gets another chance at Oscar glory. The regal presence she possessed in the first Black Panther is given greater meaning in its sequel, with Ramonda grieving the loss of her son mirroring Bassett’s own mourning over the late Chadwick Boseman (whose own posthumous Oscar loss may still loom large). Having already won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice (and a likely SAG Award victory on the way), she is the undisputed frontrunner to take home the Oscar many felt she’s been due for decades.
Meanwhile, the story of Brendan Fraser proves that Hollywood can be a tough place even for those who have found great success. Fraser was a bona fide star in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, with leading roles in films like George of the Jungle, Gods and Monsters, and The Mummy, but things would soon take an unfortunate turn at a Hollywood Foreign Press Association event in 2003. In 2018, the actor accused Philip Berk, former president of the HFPA, of groping him inappropriately, an incident that partly led to him taking a break from the industry. Fraser speculated that he may have been blacklisted by the HFPA after the event took place.
While Fraser has still worked somewhat consistently over the years, the incident, on top of a series of personal problems including severe back injuries, caused him to take a step back. Years later, his lauded performance in The Whale is being seen as a mainstream comeback. Even as the film has had a divisive reception, Fraser’s performance as a morbidly obese college professor trying to reconnect with his daughter has mostly earned raves, including a Critics Choice win for Best Actor. Like Bassett, Quan, and Yeoh, his acceptance speech was imbued with open-hearted sincerity and astonishment to have been honored at this stage in his career. The Best Actor race is tight at the moment, and the lack of a corresponding Best Picture nomination may hurt Fraser’s chances, but sentiment for his performance combined with his comeback story could still vault him over the top.
The question is, can these many personal narratives lead to Oscar gold all in one night? The Academy can be surprisingly unsentimental when it comes to overdue status (just ask eight-time bridesmaid Glenn Close) and comebacks (Mickey Rourke, Sylvester Stallone), though there are occasions when the stars do align. In an ideal world, all Academy members would simply vote on merit without thinking of external factors. But sometimes, the performance and the narrative just line up perfectly, which may be the case if Yeoh, Fraser, Bassett, and Quan end up being this year’s winning quartet, each having fought tooth and nail to survive a brutal industry.