AMM NextGen Contributor Op-Ed: Everything Everywhere All At Once
Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t really the kind of film that comes to mind when we think about the Oscars. Yet, eleven Academy Award nominations later, here it is. As an Oscar film, Everything Everywhere is remarkable on several counts: Firstly, it represents a tremendous step forward for recognition of Asian and Asian-American talent from the Academy. It’s also an innovative, low budget, genre-blending raunchy cult comedy– in short, it’s weird. On each count, the film isn’t the first of its kind: Asian and Asian-American filmmakers have been recognized in the past, particularly in recent years, and many low budget and genre films have been nominated or won Academy Awards. So, too, with nontraditional and ribald filmmaking. And yet, the beauty of Everything Everywhere‘s astounding swath of nominations in the context of Oscar history is precisely its intersection between these categories, its refusal to categorize itself, and the joy it takes from telling a meaningful story in a fun, wacky, and deeply unexpected way.
Looking back at Oscar history, there has been a significant increase in Asian and Asian-American representation in recent years. While in 1957, a Japanese actress, Miyoshi Umeki, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Sayonara, a period drama starring Marlon Brando that explores interracial marriage in WWII-era Japan, it wasn’t until Michelle Yeoh’s nomination for Everything Everywhere that an Asian-American woman was knowingly nominated for Best Actress– in 1936, Merle Oberon, whose mother was South Asian, was passing as white when she was nominated for her starring role in Dark Angel. More recently in 2020, Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s drama following the challenges of a Korean family as they adjust to life in rural Arkansas in the 1980s, received six Academy Award nominations in the midst of controversy over the Golden Globes’ choice to nominate the film in the Best Foreign Language category rather than Best Drama. The previous year, though, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won both Best International Feature and Best Picture, highlighting the absurdity of this controversy; in so doing, it became the first South Korean film and non English-language film to win Best Picture. Bong also took home the Best Director accolade, a prize given to Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao for her film Nomadland the following year. Everything Everywhere, for its part, has garnered nominations for almost all of its lead actors, including Ke Huy Quan, who, along with Michelle Yeoh, has been public about his struggles overcoming racism in casting since his breakout as a child star in classics like The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
As for weird nominees in the Best Picture category, there’s plenty to reflect on– lest we forget, Babe received that accolade in 1995. The choice to nominate some films over others is always obscurely political and a topic for hot debate (and not all selections stand the test of time). However, it’s worth celebrating those moments when the Academy chooses to highlight truly outside the box and low budget filmmaking over more straightlaced fare that, either, no one saw (as exemplified by a recent Saturday Night Live sketch), or that fails to inspire (period dramas like Shakespeare in Love come to mind). Looking back, idiosyncratic headtrips like Kiss of the Spider Woman, Arrival, Ghost, and All That Jazz earned Best Picture nominations. While these films exhibit a range of sensibilities and subject matter from expressionistic queer dramas and psychedelic sci-fi odysseys to comedic supernatural capers and musical examinations of death, they share a genre-blending freshness in their modes of expression. Everything Everywhere, with its madcap universe-jumping and zany visuals that underlie a fundamentally sensitive portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, class conflict, and troubled marriages, reflects this same boldness on a low budget.
Similarly, in terms of raunchiness, it’s likely not since A Clockwork Orange that a Best Picture nominee has featured a comically oversized phallus as a central prop. That being said, films like Pulp Fiction with its discussions of foot fetishism and Her (“choke me with the dead cat!”) share some of Everything Everywhere’s playful openness to sexual provocation in “serious” filmmaking. Ghost‘s most famous scene may be a dalliance with eroticized pottery-throwing, however its tender scene of spirit-possession by way of lesbian intimacy is one for the books and outlandish enough to bring Jamie Lee Curtis’ hot dog fingers to mind. Likewise, while Oliver Stone’s JFK is associated more with its conspiratorial thinking and disinformation than its gay nightclubs, nipple clamps and poppers, Joe Pesci’s performance as David Ferrie is indeed a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. While Peter Farrelly had to distance himself from his roots in comedy (the Green Book director is likely better known for There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber), the Daniels managed to bring the bawdy humor of past projects like The Death of Dick Long (a black comedy with a heart of gold whose plot revolves around gross-out and bestiality plot twists) through to the Oscar stage.
Based on its sweeping performance at other awards shows, Everything Everywhere All at Once is primed to take the top award at the Oscars this year. The film is special in a lot of ways, but by putting some of these seemingly disparate achievements together, its uniqueness shines through. As its name suggests, Everything Everywhere All at Once manages to unite silly comedic virtuosity with moving storytelling, compromising nothing in between, representing the success of the types of low budget, genre filmmaking from independent artists and people of color that the Academy often overlooks.