Chloé Zhao won the Best Director trophy at the Oscars on Sunday night for “Nomadland,” her expansive but bracingly intimate film exploring the lives of 21st-century itinerant workers across the American West.
The Chinese filmmaker, who emerged as a clear front-runner early on this awards season with wins at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs last month, now stands as the first woman of Asian descent and the second woman ever to win the Best Director award in the 93-year history of the Academy Awards.
After an introduction from last year’s winner, “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, Zhao took the stage Sunday to accept the award. She first thanked her “Nomadland” company, remarking on the “crazy, once-in-a-lifetime journey” they’ve been on since the film premiered in September.
Zhao went on to talk about finding the goodness in ourselves and others, drawing from classic Chinese poems and texts from her childhood.
“People at birth are inherently good,” she said after reciting the phrase in Chinese. “Those six letters had such an impact on me when I was a kid and I still truly believe them today. Even though it might sometimes seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I’ve met everywhere I went in the world.”
“This is for anyone who had the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves,” she added.
Five women have been nominated in the Best Director category before: Lina Wertmüller (1976’s “Seven Beauties”), Jane Campion (1993’s “The Piano”), Sofia Coppola (2003’s “Lost in Translation”), Kathryn Bigelow (2009’s “The Hurt Locker”), and Greta Gerwig (2017’s “Lady Bird”).
Until Zhao’s win this year, Bigelow was the only female filmmaker to take home an Oscar for Best Director.
This year’s field notably marked yet another Oscars first: More than one woman was nominated for Best Director, with “Promising Young Woman” director Emerald Fennell joining Zhao in the category. Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”), David Fincher (“Mank”) and Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) rounded out the list.
“Nomadland” stars McDormand as Fern, a middle-aged widow who decides to journey across the vast expanse of the American West and live out of her van after the economic collapse of her hometown. Along the way, she picks up odd jobs, including a somewhat controversial stint at an Amazon warehouse, as she finds a community with her fellow nomads and grows accustomed to the open road.
Heading into the night, the film, which Zhao also edited and adapted from journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book of the name, was up for a total of six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.
“Nomadland” first debuted to immense critical acclaim at Venice and Toronto film festivals in September, picking up both the Golden Lion and the People’s Choice Award. Zhao has gone on to win more than 50 awards for the film since, most recently scoring a trio of trophies at the Independent Spirit Awards on Thursday.
While her first three films have been quiet, relatively low-budget projects ― Zhao previously helmed 2015’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and 2017’s “The Rider” ― her next two features will plant the director in strictly blockbuster territory. Zhao recently completed production on Marvel’s comic book epic “The Eternals” about an immortal race of superheroes, starring Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan and Kumail Nanjiani. She’ll next tackle an “original, futuristic, sci-fi Western” based on “Dracula” for Universal Pictures.