The "Nomadland" victory, while widely expected, nevertheless capped the extraordinary rise of Zhao, a lyrical filmmaker whose winning film is just her third, and which - with a budget less than $5 million and featuring a cast populated by non-professional actors -- ranks as one of the most modest-sized movies to win Hollywood's top honor. Zhao's next film, Marvel's "Eternals," has a budget approximately 40 times that of "Nomadland." Only Kathryn Bigelow, 11 years ago for "The Hurt Locker," had previously won best director.
But "Nomadland," as a plain-spoken meditation on solitude, grief and grit, stuck a chord in a pandemic-ravaged year. It made for an unlikely Oscar champ: A film about people who gravitate to the margins took center stage.
"I have always found goodness in the people I've met everywhere I went in the world," said Zhao when accepting best director. "This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves and to hold on the goodness in other no matter how difficult it is to do that."
It's an unprecedented triumph in the awards show's most prestigious category for a film with a woman as both director and lead.
The Searchlight Pictures film earned a total of six nominations:
- Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand
- Cinematography: Joshua James Richards
- Directing, Film Editing, Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Chloe Zhao
- Best Picture: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey and Chloé Zhao, Producers
VIDEO: Chloe Zhao, Swankie from 'Nomadland' hit the red carpet
The film is based on a 2017 non-fiction book about modern-day nomads by Jessica Bruder. It stars McDormand as Fern, who sets off on a journey around the country in her van after the economic collapse of the company town in Nevada where she lived with her late husband. Along the way, she meets fellow nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, all played by real-life nomads who got paid the union rate to basically play themselves in the film.
"It was a joy. People all came for the joy of the experience," Wells told On The Red Carpet. "People are more hungry for a true quality of life, not just survival, a higher quality of life. And so when they see a real valid alternative, they're willing to take it."
While McDormand's character is the audience's fictional guide, it was writer-director Zhao who hired the real-life nomads.
"They put me in perspective. I will be really stressed out about something in the film. And for Brady, it's like, 'I gotta run my horses.' For Swankie, 'I gotta put the cake in the sun oven. That's more important,'" Zhao said in an interview earlier this year. "You realize, 'Yeah, I'm just making a movie. Everything's okay."
In addition to McDormand, David Strathairn is one of the few professional actors with a featured role in the film.
"Nomadland" won four prizes, including best picture, at the British Academy Film Awards, earlier this month, as well as the top award at the 32nd annual Producers Guild of America Awards. Zhao took top honors at the 73rd annual Directors Guild Association Awards. It also won best drama film at the Golden Globes.
The film premiered in September 2020 at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, and was released on Hulu in the United States in February.
The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of Hulu, Searchlight Pictures and this ABC station.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.