Chloé Zhao Is First Chinese Woman Nominated for Best Director at the Oscars

The “Nomadland” filmmaker scored other Oscar mentions: best adapted screenplay and best editing. Her film is up for best picture and her star, Frances McDormand, is up for best actor.

By Stephanie Goodman

With the announcement of the Oscar nominations on Monday, the filmmaker Chloé Zhao has become the first Chinese woman and the first woman of color to be nominated for best director.

Zhao directed “Nomadland,” which she also adapted from the nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder. Zhao was also nominated for her screenplay and for editing. The drama is up for best picture.

In the movie, Frances McDormand, who was nominated Monday for best actress, stars as Fern, a widow with a strong independent streak who takes up van life and itinerant work, meeting similarly uprooted fellow travelers on the road. Praising the director in his review, The Times’s co-chief film critic A.O. Scott wrote, “‘Nomadland’ is patient, compassionate and open, motivated by an impulse to wander and observe rather than to judge or explain.”

Zhao is at work on her next movie, the Marvel superhero team-up “The Eternals,” but issued a statement on Monday: “I’m so thrilled for our nominations! Thank you to the academy. I’m grateful to have gone on this journey with our talented team of filmmakers and to have met so many wonderful people who generously shared their stories with us. Thank you so much to my academy peers for recognizing this film that is very close to my heart.”

Zhao, 38, grew up in Beijing and, according to a profile in New York magazine, moved to Los Angeles in 2000 to attend high school. After film school at New York University, she made her feature debut with “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” a 2016 drama set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that she followed up in 2018 with the much praised western “The Rider.”

In China, her accomplishments this season were initially celebrated. But then nationalists found an old interview she gave criticizing China, and references to “Nomadland” (including hashtags on social media) were removed. But the film is still scheduled for an April 23 release there.

Only five women have ever been up for the best director Oscar: Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”), and Lina Wertmüller (“Seven Beauties”). And only Bigelow went on to win, in 2010.

Could Zhao become the second? All along this awards season, she has been a front-runner, picking up the Golden Globe for best director last month and the Critics Choice award in the same category this month, as well as a string of honors from critics groups in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere.

Zhao is known for casting nonprofessional performers and drawing character details from real life. Adapting the Bruder’s book herself, a task that included researching how itinerant Americans live, she hired some of the people depicted in the book to play themselves onscreen. She pushed her star, Frances McDormand, to work the jobs her character, Fern, does, like working in a warehouse.

“It’s very interesting, the layers of it,” Zhao told The Times’s Kyle Buchanan. “Fran is playing Fern, but even the name ‘Fern’ came from herself and who she thinks she might be if she hit the road.”

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