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The ‘Shape of Water’ Best Picture Win Is Not a Return to Oscar’s Dark Past

Even though fan favorites like ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Get Out’ were mostly shut out, Guillermo del Toro’s sad, strange film still carves a new kind of path in movie history

Guillermo del Toro Photo by Matt Sayles/A.M.P.A.S via Getty Images

I should have trusted my gut, the one that told me that major guild support, preferential balloting, and a summit moment for a well-liked and respected filmmaker often means Oscar gold. I laid out the case for Guillermo del Toro and The Shape of Water quite clearly here. And then I blinked. Too many spirited conversations with colleagues and young members of the movie industry, too much excited chitchat about how everything had changed, too many tweets riven with Sunken Place GIFs, and too much wonder over what it would mean for the future of the Oscars if the show could follow its historic Moonlight moment with a genuinely transgressive acknowledgment of Jordan Peele’s social-thriller-horror-comedy-documentary as best in class. Oh well.

But wait. Have we all seen, processed, and considered what’s happening in The Shape of Water? This is a movie about — yes — fish sex. Sure. It has become a dismissive shorthand for the story of Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor who silently mops the halls of a secret government laboratory. Read the last part of that sentence back and let me know whether that sounds at all like Chariots of Fire or Driving Miss Daisy or Dances With Wolves or A Beautiful Mind or any of the staid, dull, forgettable movies that have reeled in Best Picture in the past four decades. It doesn’t, and isn’t. Del Toro’s movie is about something quite plainly: disenfranchisement, diminution in the face of power, and the delirious influence of genre. And then the pathway to defying those things. (And sure, fish sex.) The triumph of The Shape of Water, in its way, is a revolutionary act for Oscar.

Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican filmmaker who has been weaving horror, gothic romance, comic books, demonic superheroes, mythic tales, and creatures into the DNA of his films since his debut, Cronos, which premiered almost exactly 25 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival. The win for him as Best Director (and Best Picture) is a common coronation. In fact, his best friends, two-time winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman and The Revenant) and Alfonso Cuáron (Gravity) recently experienced the exact same sensation — Iñárritu was 51 at the time of his first win; Cuáron was 52. Del Toro is 53. The Academy is telling us something: It was time to fully recognize the Three Amigos, winners of four of the past five Best Director prizes. That their films are daring, innovative, and sometimes profound is not a mistake. The Artist won Best Picture six years ago. We’ve come a long way since then.

As for what did not win: It’s disappointing. But maybe not so shocking. The division of multiple-award-winning films was more balanced than usual — Shape took home four, Dunkirk three, Blade Runner 2049 two, Coco two, Darkest Hour two, Three Billboards two. Guess what we do not see there: Get Out (1), Lady Bird (0), Phantom Thread (1), Call Me by Your Name (1). The four films that I think can safely be described as the most youthfully supported are the same ones that performed least well. There just aren’t that many young people in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Is this a rejection of last year’s Moonlight story, a defiance of progress? No. Is it a little disheartening, especially after the swell around Jordan Peele after his Best Original Screenplay win? Of course. So what is there to do about it? Nothing. The Oscars are like electoral politics in America: Every time it feels like an arc bending toward progress, the wind blows back some. In this case, it shifted toward the highly professional, sincere, phantasmagoric work of a man who loves Creature From the Black Lagoon more than the people who made that schlocky Universal monster movie from the 1950s. This is its own kind of progress. It makes me think a movie like Girls Trip or Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be nominated in a major category in the future. What The Shape of Water’s win creates is a far more subtle change, one that tells the story of the ongoing push-pull of popcorn movie acceptance in the Academy.

If Moonlight’s win was an earthquake, think of tonight’s events as a series of tremors: Frances McDormand tossing “inclusion rider” into the national dialogue. Kumail Nanjiani casually burning Perfect Human Chris Pine from the presenter’s stage. The recognition of Rachel Morrison’s historic nomination for Best Cinematography. And yes, again, the fish sex. I’d love to take this ceremony nearly 50 years into the past and show the attendees of the 41st Oscars a reel of tonight’s show — that’s when Oliver! was victorious over Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Rachel, Rachel, and Romeo and Juliet for Best Picture. It would be a gobsmack. The industry’s axis seriously shifted one year later, when Midnight Cowboy won the big prize, setting a course into the ’70s for Best Picture winners like The French Connection, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Deer Hunter. That period became known as the New Hollywood, and it turned the expectations of the industry on its ear — different, challenging, altogether unlikely films became mainstream.

We may not quite be at a moment that profound or culture-changing right now. But things are different. There’s something in the water. And it isn’t a fish-man.

Some Gripes and Glory

Gripe: Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water. Awarding Desplat again, just three years after his win for The Grand Budapest Hotel. I am truly sorry for Jonny Greenwood, who probably doesn’t really care that he hasn’t won an Oscar for his work on Phantom Thread, because he’s in Radiohead and doesn’t crave the validation of acceptance that is a disease in Hollywood. Still, he should have won.

Glory: Coco! Two big wins, an unsurprising Best Animated Feature victory, and a statuette in a contentious race for Best Original Song. Coco is exceptional, should have been nominated for Best Picture, and makes people feel great about the world and their lives. Let’s embrace that next time.

Gripe: the Musical Performances, particularly: Why were Moses Sumney and Annie Clark asked to perform alongside Sufjan Stevens if they weren’t going to be introduced, spotlighted, or recognized in any way? That was a bizarre choice.

Glory: Roger Deakins, Oscar Winner. It took only 14 chances, but the deeply respected lensman behind Barton Fink, The Shawshank Redemption, Sicario, and dozens of other favorites, finally got his Oscar. And he looked like a touring bassist for the Rolling Stones, to boot.

Gripe: Dear Basketball. I really didn’t care for Kobe Bryant’s Oscar win, or for the movie that won Best Animated Short. It was, plainly, the worst film in the bunch. But as I noted last week, this is a Lakers town.

Glory: Sam Rockwell’s character in Three Billboards may have been the most polarizing movie figure I’ve ever written about, and his role in the movie remains a vexing avatar for its flaws. But Rockwell’s win was a sweet, ebullient way to start the show, and his dedicating the award to his friend Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the most (only?) touching moments of the night.

Double Glory: Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, responsible for maybe the funniest five minutes in recent Oscar history. May they be rewarded with hosting duties at awards shows, vast sums of money, and the co-leading roles in the next Paul Thomas Anderson film.