I suppose it was inevitable. Almost immediately after Guillermo del Toro’s adult fantasy The Shape of Water was announced as Best Picture by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway came the claims that somehow its win was ‘conventional’ or ‘safe.’ Was it conventional in theme – underdog triumphing over a greater evil – sure. But in subject and execution – absolutely not.
I think that some of the Monday morning quarterbacking that happened after its win came from the thought that Get Out was the more progressive and forward-thinking film that could have (should have?) represented the more progressive and forward-thinking Academy that the two-years-in diversity pledge promised us. We saw it last year when Moonlight was able to topple La La Land, so why not this year, is what I feel some were thinking. I held steadfast to the end that Get Out would be able to triumph but with The Shape of Water as my runner-up. I don’t regret sticking with Get Out, nor do I think The Shape of Water is in any way a compromise win.
This year was going to give us another piece of the preferential ballot puzzle as well as where this ‘new’ Academy was going to take us. What The Shape of Water gave us in terms of the Oscar race was a genre-busting, transgressive achievement. To paraphrase director del Toro in his acceptance speech, it “kicked the door open” on some very long-standing streaks and statistics that we have been holding onto like security blankets. First, and the biggest, was the SAG Cast stat. By now we all have banged the drum that since the inception of the Screen Actors Guild Cast award in 1996 (the 2nd year of the awards) only one film – Braveheart – has been able to win the Best Picture Oscar without that nomination. La La Land couldn’t even do it with its 14 nominations and total awards season domination. This year was extremely fractured, with The Shape of Water and Three Billboards volleying wins back and forth but with the latter holding an edge. Or at least that’s what a lot of people thought. Three Billboards having the Drama Globe, SAG Cast and BAFTA Film wins looked stronger than The Shape of Water‘s Critics’ Choice, PGA and DGA wins. But the key was in that PGA win. All of Three Billboards‘ wins against the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner were on plurality ballots – meaning a simple ‘most votes wins’ ballot. When the two films went up against each other at the PGA – who use a preferential ballot like the Academy – it was The Shape of Water that came out on top.
The next two streaks it knocked down both involve the 2004 film Million Dollar Baby. That was the last Best Picture winner to have a female lead and be a December release. Again, something that La La Land was not able to achieve. That is now erased. The Shape of Water also became the first science fiction film to win Best Picture. It also is the first film since 1997’s Titanic to win without any acting or screenplay wins. The trend for the last few years had been a separation of Best Picture and Director and more towards Best Picture and Screenplay. Amazingly, The Shape of Water is also the highest grossing Best Picture winner of the last five years. One major bit of trivia, and one that needs a very bright light shined on it, is that The Shape of Water is only the 2nd Best Picture winner since World War II to have a credited female screenwriter behind it, del Toro’s co-writer Vanessa Taylor (props to AW contributor Jonathan Boehle for pointing this out). SECOND. SINCE WORLD WAR II. The last were The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King‘s co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens (who also won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar). As we are in the throes of the most revolutionary upheaval of Hollywood in how it treats women, how it represents and hires women, a fact like this need to be screamed from the Hollywood sign. Every day.
But let’s get back to the ‘conventional’ talk. It’s hard to wrap my head around chatter like that when you have a film with such a subversive subject matter, an interspecies romance, at its center. Add to that band of ragtag heroes that includes a fishman, a mute woman, a black woman and a gay man – all in the 1960s – going up against the Goliath of and evil white guy and Cold War Russia and you have a story that is fantasy, romance, drama, comedy, homage and speaks to right now. I’m not really sure how you can label that conventional, wrapping up contemporary ideals in a package of throwback weirdness. Convention implies it’s something expected or familiar, neither of which The Shape of Water is.
What it did was show the world that there’s no such thing as ‘an Oscar film.’ In fact, any of the frontrunners this year would have taken aim at that old chestnut. Only Dunkirk and Darkest Hour really fit into the stale idea of what an Oscar film is or worse, should be. What it did was show us that non-traditional stories and ways of telling them are the future. That a Mexican immigrant who has a love of movies probably unmatched in Hollywood has the same hopes as a kid in Middle America who has a dream of being a filmmaker. It showed us that stories about women matter. That stories about good vs. evil will always be an easy place to start but that giving us heroes that look different opens up the spectrum of what’s possible.
In an era of such a divided America, of black and white politics, of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ film discourse, blurring the lines of what is and what could be is where the future is and that’s anything but conventional.