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Why The Shape of Water is a natural choice for Best Picture

It’s a safe choice for an industry that wants to signal its values.

The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water won four Oscars, including Best Picture, at the 2018 Academy Awards.
20th Century Fox
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Shape of Water was the most-nominated film at the Oscars on Sunday night, and it won in four categories: Production Design, Original Score, Director, and the all-important Best Picture.

A fantastical, watery romance between a mute woman and a fish-man, The Shape of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro, a beloved director of movies in many genres — horror (The Devil’s Backbone), gothic romance (Crimson Peak), action/sci-fi (Pacific Rim), comics (Hellboy), and fantasy (Pan’s Labyrinth).

The Shape of Water feels like his most accessible film in a while, fish-man romance notwithstanding. Somewhere between a fairy tale, a fable, and a fantasy, it’s garnered strong reviews from critics and done well at the box office. With a cast including Richard Jenkins, Sally Hawkins, and Octavia Spencer (all of whom were nominated for Oscars for their roles), it’s a film that’s easy to love.

It also makes perfect sense as a Best Picture winner in 2018. Though the past few years of nominees were smaller independent features like Moonlight and Spotlight — the kinds of picks that genuinely surprised many prognosticators — The Shape of Water feels in many ways like a classic Academy pick. It’s a beautifully shot movie with a story that follows the traditional arcs of a fairy tale romance.

And it’s also a tribute to “the power of cinema,” something the Academy loves to honor. The Oscars, after all, are professional guild awards that Hollywood awards to its own. And for films like The Artist (2012) and Argo (2013), that proclivity to praise films about moviemaking resulted in Best Picture awards.

The Shape of Water wears its classic Hollywood influences on its sleeve, up to and including a story that openly riffs on the 1954 sci-fi-horror classic The Creature From the Black Lagoon, a black-and-white dance sequence straight out a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire picture, and a main location set over a cinema that’s playing Henry Koster’s 1960 biblical epic The Book of Ruth. Though it’s not a movie about the movies, it certainly calls to Hollywood history for its look, its story, and many of its character details.

And yet, it’s thoroughly a movie made for 2018. In talking about the film throughout awards season, del Toro has been clear that he sees it as an allegorical film about embracing the other. Hawkins’s character is a mute woman, Jenkins’s is a closeted gay man, Spencer’s is a black woman, and the fish-man is, well, a fish-man. The film’s only villain is played by Michael Shannon: an angry, bitter, cruel boss-man who’s certain of his own superiority to everyone who isn’t a white man like himself, and whose religion hasn’t helped him learn anything like love.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The lines aren’t hard to draw: Though The Shape of Water is set half a century ago, it’s obviously meant as a commentary — from a Mexican director, no less — on the noxious nature of ideologies that leave no room for empathy. You can’t exactly call it political, but its social commentary has political ramifications.

Del Toro explained it to NPR this way:

The movie is about connecting with “the other.” You know, the idea of empathy, the idea of how we do need each other to survive. And that’s why the original title of the screenplay when I wrote it was A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times, because I think that this is a movie that is incredibly pertinent and almost like an antidote to a lot of the cynicism and disconnect that we experience day to day.

In the wake of movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp, which have been critical of Hollywood’s lack of inclusion of women and people of color — an exclusion that flies in the face of Hollywood’s supposed progressivism — the Oscars ceremony made a conscious effort to celebrate and spotlight the contributions of those people who have historically been excluded. That’s especially important in an industry rocked by revelations of sexual assault and harassment during this awards season, beginning with the now-disgraced former powerhouse producer Harvey Weinstein.

The ceremony was indicative of how the Academy likely wants to be seen: as making sincere strides toward a more open, equitable, safe workplace for people who don’t belong to its historically largest demographic.

A movie like Get Out, which explicitly and powerfully confronts progressive racism, may have been a stronger statement about the Academy’s direction. But it’s easy to see how The Shape of Water is a strong consensus pick. It’s still a movie about the power of cinema, but it is also critical of prejudices of many sorts, and thus feels like a statement too.

Is The Shape of Water the year’s best picture? That’s up for debate, but what it definitely is not is a surprise, given the Academy’s past, present, and imagined future. Whether it ultimately indicates a return to form or a move toward something new for the Academy remains to be seen.

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