Deft rapper and fierce funny lady Awkwafina scored some major screen time in big-screen ensemble pieces in last year’s all-female “Ocean’s 8” crime-caper flick as well as the romantic “Crazy Rich Asians.” She even became the second East Asian female celebrity after Lucy Liu to host an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
But the comic formerly known as Nora Lum, a child of a Chinese-American father and South Korean mother, made a bold move this year by taking on a more dramatic role in filmmaker Lulu Wang‘s “The Farewell.” She plays Billi, a semi-adrift 30-year-old in New York City, who joins her Chinese family on a trip to their homeland to see her beloved grandmother who has received a terminal cancer diagnosis and only has a short time to live. But as the opening credits say, the film is “based on an actual lie” — drawn from Wang’s life — as they stage a wedding so the relatives have an excuse for a reunion and to be by their matriarch’s side while keeping her medical news a secret from her.
Awkwafina slumps her shoulders and tries mightily not to look like she is on the verge of tears whenever she glances at her smiling Nai Nai (popular Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen), whose warm and chipper spirit is infectious as she plans the faux wedding and basks in the glow of her loved ones. It’s a bittersweet homecoming for Billi as she reconnects with the land she left when she was 6, but the budding writer keeps her chin up — something that comes easy when she is near her chipper granny as she barks her war cry while doing exercises.
According to Gold Derby’s combined Oscar odds site, the comic — who taught herself passable Mandarin, which becomes a talking point among Billi’s relatives — is a serious threat for Best Actress. Awkwafina is currently in fifth place with 15/2 odds and there is a good chance she could make Academy Awards history as the first East Asian actress to compete as a lead (Note: India-born Merle Oberon, who was nominated for 1935’s “The Dark Angel,” is considered South Asian).
One point in Awkwafina’s favor: Oscar voters love it when someone known for their sense of humor does a serious role like Robin Williams, who won a supporting trophy as Matt Damon’s psychiatrist in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” or Sandra Bullock, who triumphed with her lead role as a wealthy woman who adopts a homeless high-school football player in 2009’s “The Blind Side.”
As for Zhao, she is coming on strong as well in fourth place with 8/1 odds. She could become just the fifth Asian actress to compete in the supporting actress category. Her predecessors? Japan’s Myoshi Umeki, who won for her role in 1957’s “Sayonara,” along with nominees Meg Tilly for 1985’s “Agnes of God” and her sister, Jennifer Tilly, for 1994’s “Bullets Over Broadway” — their father is Chinese American — and Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi in 2006’s “Babel.”
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