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And the Winner Is... Academy Awards 2018 Overview

Written by Patrick Pilkington.

Photo from the article Perhaps it was to be expected; a year after the disaster of “Envelopegate” and the historic Best Picture win for Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel presided over an Academy Awards show that was characterised by safe choices. The incendiary reckoning promised by “Time’s Up” -" a campaign against sexual harassment in Hollywood spurred by the exposure of abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein - sputtered with the inclusion of Ryan Seacrest on the E! network’s red-carpet coverage and seemed to entirely dissipate with wins for Kobe Bryant and Gary Oldman (the latter complete with standing ovation from the crowd). This year’s show consisted of the usual assortment of tedious comedy bits, musical numbers and starry presenters, with highlights including an appearance by the legendary Eva Marie Saint (who noted that, at 93, she is older than the Oscars themselves!) and a hilarious, irreverent bit with Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph assuring the audience that the Academy wasn’t becoming “too black”.

This was, as it turned out, not to be an issue. Jordan Peele became the first African-American to win the Original Screenplay award with his ingenious script for Get Out (2017), but the film - which had become a surprise frontrunner over the course of the year - received no further honours. The foreign language win for Chile’s A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017) and the film’s star, Daniela Vega, becoming the first openly trans presenter both received oddly muted responses from the crowd; as did the presenting trio of Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino and Annabella Sciorra representing “Time’s Up”. During a ceremony featuring a pre-taped piece in which celebrities pled the case for more stories that did not centre on straight white men, Get Out and the excellent gay romance Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017) received one award apiece; Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017)and Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017) received none. Meanwhile the controversial Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, (Martin McDonagh, 2017) criticised for its racial representation and tone-deaf treatment of a racist cop character, picked up two acting awards (including a Best Supporting Actor win for Sam Rockwell playing the aforementioned cop). As ever, there was a general sense of the Hollywood establishment patting itself on the back for doing the bare minimum; every step forward countered by a couple of steps back.

As if to compensate for the one-two shock of last year’s mix-up and Picture winner, a majority of the ceremony’s winners were already sure bets by the time the ceremony started - with the notable exception of the main prize itself. The recent introduction of a preferential voting system and changes to the votership made in the name of greater inclusivity had resulted in two consecutive surprise Best Film winners - with Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) and Moonlight beating respective juggernauts The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). Going in to the ceremony this year, it seemed an unusually open race with the main contenders including Best Director frontrunner Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy-romance The Shape Of Water (2017), Greta Gerwig’s richly observed portrait of female adolescence Lady Bird, cultural phenomenon Get Out and the provocative Three Billboards.

Ultimately The Shape of Water prevailed. The 1960s-set fairytale depicts the romance between a mute cleaning lady, Elisa Esposito (played by a radiant Sally Hawkins) and a captured amphibian man at the top-secret research facility where she works. Combining elements of romance, fantasy, Cold War drama, sci-fi and horror, it features director Del Toro’s trademark visual beauty punctuated by grotesque violence. Not only is it the first winner with a female protagonist since Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood) in 2004, it’s notable for both the acknowledgment and the object of her sexual desire (one wonders whether its Best Picture title will halt or accelerate its reputation as “the fish fucking film”).

Doesn’t sound like your typical Best Picture winner does it? Del Toro’s stylised fantasy may seem on the surface an unlikely prestige picture, but despite its genre trappings there is also a strong case for seeing its win as of a piece with several recent and longstanding Oscar traditions. In a moment when anxiety over the death of cinemagoing is at its greatest since the television boom of the 1950s, it offered the kind of visually extravagant and effects-heavy spectacle the Oscars have been increasingly keen to award in recent years (with above the line wins for Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) and The Revenant indicating a propensity for a new kind of prestige blockbuster). It also belongs to another recent trend of awarded films that both dramatize and formally quote classical Hollywood filmmaking. The Shape of Water may not depict film-making but it features as many allusions to 1940s and 50s cinema as the lauded La La Land and The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011), and inadvertently plays into a current desire to reward films that shine a positive light on Hollywood and its history, particularly as a much-needed source of escapism and contrast to the difficulties of real life.

Most significantly, the film contains enough contemporary socio-political resonance to be deemed “timely” - but, focused upon a fantasy creature and set firmly in the historical past, also avoids posing a challenge to the assumptions of the average liberal voter. For voters who were put off by Get Out’s scathing critique of white liberal hypocrisy or Call Me By Your Name’s age-gap same-sex romance (I give these examples specifically because they both come up as “problems” in various anonymous Oscar voter ballot articles), The Shape of Water’s well-intentioned and empathy-led resistance narrative, presenting a magical realist version of American history that neatly delineates between good and bad individuals while featuring sympathetic but supporting roles for gay and black characters, might have become a more appealing prospect. In a context that requires comparative evaluation, The Shape of Water emerges as the Best Picture option that is political but not “too political”, its queer and POC characters not too foregrounded, its perspective feminine but not “too feminine” (the hurdle for Lady Bird if, again, we take the veiled comments of anonymous voters as representative) and its narrative centred on a love story that is not as discomfortingly complex - human, even - as the one in Paul Thomas Anderson’s twisted romance Phantom Thread (2017). The Shape of Water’s magical realism allows the viewer to draw connections between the amphibian man and any number of marginalized groups while maintaining the escape hatch of being “only” a fantasy. Thus, The Shape of Water suddenly emerges as a “safe” Best Picture option - a word that is often carelessly applied to discourses surrounding the Academy’s choices, but one that deserves to be considered as the nexus of what the Hollywood establishment deems both uncontroversial and worthy in a given year.

I have no doubts that The Shape of Water’s ultimate victory was a pleasant surprise for its filmmakers; the genre-mix Del Toro played with alone disqualifies it as typical “Oscar bait”. But in times of tremendous socio-political unrest, notions of what is ideologically and aesthetically palatable to a large establishment group will shift, and we should try to be attentive to how those shifts manifest and what they mean. We are at a moment where the Academy’s gradually diversifying votership and the preferential voting system are especially likely to result in some kind of compromise identifiable in the final selection. It is worth considering what opposing ideologies are being weighed up in these decisions, and what is happening in a culture and an industry where the unusual-yet-typical The Shape of Water stands as what the Best Picture award really represents: the closest cinematic approximation of how Hollywood wants to sees itself in the midst of a tumultuous time. This year (as in many others) the Academy views itself as resolutely empathetic, progressive but not radical, and precariously pitched at the meeting of real-world engagement and the ever-tempting escape into fantasy. We should have been predicting The Shape of Water all along.

This article was published on March 06, 2018.

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