Oscars 2021: Nomadland's Chloé Zhao scoops historic best director win

Zhao was the first woman of color nominated for a directing Academy Award, while her film also took home best picture and best actress.

Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Jennifer Bisset
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Chloé Zhao shows off double Oscars.
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Chloé Zhao shows off double Oscars.

Chloé Zhao shows off double Oscars.

Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

Before Sunday, you might have known Chloé Zhao as the director of Marvel's upcoming Eternals, but now she's the Oscar-winning director of Marvel's upcoming Eternals. Beijing-born Zhao just won best director at the 2021 Oscars, beating Emerald Fennell and David Fincher, among others. The victory for her film Nomadland, a contemplative drama set in America's Midwest that also won best picture, makes her the first woman of color to take home the award and only the second woman in the Academy's 93-year history, after Kathryn Bigelow for 2008's The Hurt Locker.

"This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult is to do that," Zhao said. "You inspire me to keep going. Thank you."

Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as a woman who loses her job in the Great Recession and goes wandering, taking odd jobs, meeting other nomads and living in a transient community. McDormand's performance won her the best actress award.

What was Chloé Zhao up to before Nomadland? Aside from spending the pandemic editing Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani and even more big names, the 39-year-old cut her teeth and cemented her naturalistic and empathetic style in the indie realm. 2015's Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017's The Rider are both set in South Dakota and star untrained actors. They tell fact-based stories, focused on the human condition.

It's a slight leap from quiet character dramas to big blockbusters, but that's no roadblock. Zhao's next project? Dracula. A new take on the Count for Universal Pictures. A very different take, if Kevin Feige's comments on Eternals are anything to go by.

"Not only does Chloe make remarkable, small, personal movies in a remarkable, small, personal way, but she thinks in grand, cosmic, gigantic terms, which fit perfectly with what we wanted to do," Feige said of Zhao's pitch for the Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. "Eternals is a very big, sweeping, multimillennial-spanning story. And she just got it."


Frances McDormand plays Fern in Nomadland.

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Zhao's Dracula promises to be a sci-fi Western, with her singular lens intact. "I've always been fascinated by vampires and the concept of the Other they embody," Zhao said in a statement, following the news she would be directing the monster film. "I'm very excited to work with Donna [Langley], Peter [Cramer], and the team at Universal to reimagine such a beloved character."

If you haven't seen it yet, Nomadland is out on  Hulu  in the US and through Star on Disney Plus elsewhere in the world. (It's still in cinemas in some locations and should be seen on the largest screen possible -- if you can.)

Read moreOscars 2021 winners: Full list of results | How to stream the Oscars 2021 best picture nominees

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