The Shape of Best Picture: What the Academy Awards Got Wrong
I’ve seen The Shape of Water. It’s a pretty good movie, all things considered. Sally Hawkins turns in a particularly memorable performance, especially given that her character was mute - I know from experience it’s a lot harder to act when you don’t have many lines you can work with, and she had none, so props to her. The shot composition in the movie was also great, as were the practical and special effects. The story, while initially a little hard to swallow - a romance between Hawkins’ character and what was ostensibly The Creature from the Black Lagoon - was charming within the universe that Guillermo del Toro created to tell it in. All in all, a perfectly fine movie.
Best Picture, though? In any other year, sure, why not? Not in 2017.
But as of March 4, Best Picture it is. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided that, of all the movies nominated for the award, it should go to what I don’t even think is Guillermo del Toro’s magnum opus. And I feel that’s a disservice, not only to the other nominees, but to del Toro himself. See, del Toro deserves an Oscar - he’s a terrific filmmaker, no doubt - but this one is a few years too late; he really should have gotten it for Pan’s Labyrinth back in 2006 (which was nominated when it came out for Best Foreign Language Film, but lost to Germany’s The Lives of Others). The Academy has a tendency to do that, I’ve noticed, when people feel that a director is owed, in a sense, an award. It’s what happened when Martin Scorsese’s The Departed won Best Picture, also in 2006 - a good movie, sure, but not the best out of all the nominees from that year. I think Babel and Little Miss Sunshine are both better than it, and it was not Scorsese’s best film. 1980’s Raging Bull, which lost Best Picture to Ordinary People, and 1990’s Goodfellas, which lost to Dances with Wolves, are both better, more memorable movies than The Departed, and because they lost their respective Best Picture races, it’s been speculated that the Academy awarded Scorsese in 2006 to make up for it. And all this was from back when there were only five nominees for the award. We’re up to ten now, and the Academy still hasn’t corrected themselves!
See, the Academy has a tendency to be particularly myopic when it comes to the winners of Best Picture. What do I mean? Well, let’s go back to Ordinary People and Raging Bull. Between a fairly serviceable movie about a dysfunctional family going through a divorce and a movie that redefined the sports genre from the triumphant underdog stories of Rocky to gritty, down-to-Earth, tales of human failure, the Academy went with the former. And now, Raging Bull sits at #24 of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list (and at #4 of the Redux list 10 years later). Ordinary People, meanwhile, is on neither of those lists, and if you asked people on the street if they remember the movie, you would probably get blank stares. Orson Welles literally changed the game of filmmaking when he created Citizen Kane back in 1940, yet it lost at the Academy Awards to How Green Was My Valley. Guess which one is considered one of the best films of all time, and which one I had to Google to see who won Best Picture that year? Some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, such as Rear Window (1954, when On the Waterfront won), Vertigo (1958, when Gigi won), and Psycho (1960, when The Apartment won) weren’t even nominated for the award!
Looking at what was nominated this year, I don’t think the fish-human romance novelty of The Shape of Water is going to be memorable past the next few years in ways that the much more raw feelings of grief of Three Billboards over Ebbing, Missouri, the tense relationships of Lady Bird, or the taut war imagery of Darkest Hour or Dunkirk will. Heck, even Call Me By Your Name, barring the one scene with the peach that I think scared the Academy voters away, will more likely be remembered as a champion of LGBT filmmaking and storytelling than The Shape of Water would.
One could argue that it’s impossible to NOT be myopic; how was the Academy supposed to know how much influence a certain movie would have ten, twenty, even sixty years into the future? And yeah, there is a case to be made that the Academy Awards are basically a gamble. But most gamblers stop after they’ve gone for a few hours without a lot of wins. When you’ve been playing for 90 years and haven’t picked out that many true winners, you might have a gambling problem. And the Academy might want to pick up some glasses on their way out of the casino.