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Was this the ‘Year of the Comeback’ at the Oscars?

A man in a suit holds an Oscar and points up
Brendan Fraser accepts the award for lead actor for his role in “The Whale” at the 95th Academy Awards on Sunday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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This year’s acting prizes were marked by a recognition of veteran performers, some in what can only be called comebacks. Others may have never gone away, but they have never before received the acclaim and prestige of an Academy Award.

Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Fraser and Michelle Yeoh all received recognition this year that was a long time coming. For all of them it was their first Oscar nomination and first win. This year even saw industry figures such as super producer Jerry Bruckheimer receive his first-ever Oscar nomination for “Top Gun: Maverick,” where Tom Cruise’s nomination as a producer on the film was his first in more than 20 years, since a supporting actor nod for “Magnolia.”

Quan was 12 years old when he was cast as the streetwise sidekick Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The next year he had a role in “The Goonies.” But as he grew up, roles became fewer and further between. Eventually he moved to a variety of jobs behind the camera, including assistant director and fight coordinator, a skill set particularly useful for some of the work on “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Within that film’s topsy-turvy multiverse, Quan was by turns a laundromat owner on the verge of divorcing his wife, a dashing romantic lead and an action hero.

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Now 51, Quan has said he continued to pay his Screen Actors Guild membership dues even for the years he was not acting, in hopes that one day he would return.

In accepting the supporting actor award, an emotional Quan said his 84-year-old mother was watching at home, and speaking directly to the camera said, “Mom, I just won an Oscar.”

Born in Vietnam, Quan made his way to America with his family and acknowledged his immigrant roots in his speech. “My journey started on a boat,” he said. “I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here, on Hollywood’s biggest stage.”

He added, “They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This, this is the American Dream.”

Oscar nominee Ke Huy Quan told ‘The Late Show’ about his comeback story and how his career is ‘different’ after ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once.’

Feb. 15, 2023

He acknowledged wife, Echo Quan, who, “month after month, year after year for 20 years told me that one day, one day my time will come. Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine. To all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive.”

He concluded by saying, “Thank you so much for welcoming me back.”

Among other awards this season, Quan was nominated for the British Academy Film Awards and the Critics Choice Awards and won at the Spirit Awards, Golden Globes, Los Angeles Film Critics Awards, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

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Throughout the awards season, Quan has given a series of deeply heartfelt and emotional speeches, obviously not taking this moment for granted. His smiling selfies with other actors have become an unexpected highlight of the season. Accepting a Spirit Award recently, he took time to thank the crew of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” many of them by name, including boom operator Kirbie Seis — “I’ve done this job before, it’s not easy,” he added.

A woman and a man pose with Oscar statuettes.
Jamie Lee Curtis, winner of the supporting actress Oscar, and Ke Huy Quan, winner of the supporting actor Oscar, both for “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” backstage at the 95th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Jamie Lee Curtis, who won the Oscar for supporting actress for her role as an IRS agent in one timeline and a loving long-term partner in another in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” was of course born into a Hollywood family, as the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis (both Oscar nominees). But Curtis has been acting since the age of 19, beginning with a brief appearance in an episode of the TV show “Quincy, M.E.,” and now has a long career all her own.

Though the “Halloween” franchise has been something of a constant — from her film debut in the 1978 original up to 2022’s “Halloween Ends” — she has appeared in many other notable films showing her range as a performer, including “Trading Places,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Road Games,” “Blue Steel,” “True Lies” and more recently “Knives Out.”

‘The most important thing is inclusivity and ... basically just f— more women,’ Jamie Lee Curtis said in the press room after winning the Oscar for supporting actress.

March 12, 2023

When her name was announced as the winner, a seemingly disbelieving Curtis could be seen mouthing the words, “Oh, shut up!”

In accepting the Oscar, Curtis said, “I know it looks like I am standing up here by myself, but I am not. I am hundreds of people.”

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She separately acknowledged her “Everything Everywhere” team, her behind-the-scenes team, her family, the genre film fans who long supported her career and her parents, each time saying, “We just won an Oscar.”

Accepting a prize at the SAG Awards recently, Curtis said, “My parents were actors and I married an actor. I love actors. I love acting. I love the job we get to do. It’s such a beautiful job. I know that so many people in our industry who are actors who don’t get to do this job.”

She added, “I’m 64 years old, and this is just amazing.”

Among other recognition throughout the season, Curtis was also nominated for a BAFTA and a Spirit Award, the latter of which she lost to her co-star Quan.

Brendan Fraser was once a huge box office star with films like “Encino Man” (which also featured Quan), “School Times,” George of the Jungle” and “The Mummy,” but had seen his career slow down considerably. Being given a leading role as demanding and challenging as that of a 600-pound man in “The Whale” brought a return to the spotlight and an Academy Award for lead actor.

For Fraser, 54, the comeback was hard won. He has dealt with physical injuries from stuntwork during his years making action pictures and also grappled with the trauma of an alleged groping incident he endured from the former head of the Golden Globes.

Brendan Fraser completes his comeback with a 2023 Oscar for his transformative, but controversial, lead performance in ‘The Whale.’

March 12, 2023

Fraser has been a humble and constant presence through a long awards season. When the “The Whale,” directed by Darren Aronofsky, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Fraser visibly wept during an extended standing ovation. At the Toronto International Film Festival, he received a special tribute award and was again obviously touched by the accolade. “This is new for me,” he said while receiving the award. “Normally, I’m the guy at the podium who hands these things out.”

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In accepting the award for lead actor, a tearful Fraser said, “I’m grateful to Darren Aronofsky for throwing me a creative lifeline.”

He added, “I started in this business 30 years ago and things, they didn’t come easily to me, but there was a facility that I didn’t appreciate at the time, until it stopped. And I just want to say thank you for this acknowledgment.”

Among other accolades for the role, Fraser won the Critics Choice award and the SAG award and was nominated for the Golden Globes and the Gotham Awards.

A woman in a white dress poses with an Academy Award statuette.
Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh in the photo room at the 95th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Lead actress winner Michelle Yeoh has also had an extensive career. The Malaysian-Chinese actor became a huge international star in the ‘80s and ‘90s in action films — where she did many of her own stunts — such as “Yes, Madam,” “The Heroic Trio” and “Supercop.” She appeared in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” and became even more of a global superstar with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000. More recently she has been seen in films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

Superstar Michelle Yeoh of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” scored an Oscar on her first nomination, becoming the first Asian lead actress to win.

March 12, 2023

In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Yeoh plays Evelyn, a woman who has been worn down by life and the pressures of caring for her ailing father (James Hong). She takes her husband (Quan) for granted and is disappointed by her daughter (Stephanie Hsu). But through the film she comes to appreciate all that she has.

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Among Yeoh’s other awards this season, she was nominated for the BAFTAs and the Gothams and won at the Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. Yeoh, 60, dedicated the award to her 84-year-old mother, who was watching in Malaysia.

After being announced as the winner of the lead actress prize, Yeoh said, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that dreams — dream big and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime.”

Call it a comeback, call it long overdue recognition, but this year’s acting prizes went to veteran performers who were finally getting the public acclaim they had long deserved.

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