Every Oscar ceremony carries with it its share of firsts. Sometimes, those firsts are in categories lots and lots of people pay attention to, as when Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win Best Actress 20 years ago. More often, those firsts happen in categories where too much ground remains to be broken. (Did you know a woman still hasn’t won Best Cinematography, and only two women have ever been nominated for that award?)
Yet viewers are also increasingly aware of how many opportunities just aren’t available to the various performers and craftspeople who have the potential to make history. And even when we take the idea of breaking new ground for diversity out of the equation, we’re still left with lots of questions about who wins awards in an industry that is rapidly changing. As watching movies at home via streaming services becomes more and more central to how many of us consume film, the Oscars have been reluctant to embrace that change, even as more and more streaming films are nominated for major awards.
That in mind, here are three firsts marked by the 2022 Oscars, two of which are thanks to people who broke down longstanding barriers within the Academy, and one, thanks to shifting business models that the Oscars finally, begrudgingly acknowledged.
Ariana DeBose becomes the first openly queer woman of color to win an acting Oscar
Ariana DeBose’s electrifying turn as Anita in West Side Story has won her a BAFTA, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and now an Oscar. Before West Side Story, she was a Tony nominee for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, a member of the original Hamilton ensemble, and a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance. (She was quickly eliminated. Injustice!)
DeBose is also openly queer and has talked at length about making it as a queer woman in the entertainment industry, especially in the build-up to her Oscar win. She is also in a relationship with another woman. That makes her the first queer woman to win an acting Oscar while being open about her queer identity.
Figuring out the nature of DeBose’s historic first is hazy, simply because queerness is not something to be closely policed. But to my mind, the openness matters. Other queer women have won acting Oscars — Jodie Foster has won Best Actress twice, for instance — but they were not publicly out as queer at the time they won. What’s more, DeBose, who has Puerto Rican, African American, and Italian ancestry, was the first openly queer woman of color to ever be nominated for an acting Oscar, much less win.
And DeBose nodded to all of that in her acceptance speech, pointing out her existence as an openly queer, Afro-Latina woman holding an Oscar and hoping that doing so would give hope to others like her who might not see a path forward just yet. “To anybody who has ever questioned your identity or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: there is indeed a place for us,” she said.
Troy Kotsur is the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar
Troy Kotsur’s work as Frank, a deaf father trying to keep his business afloat while also supporting his hearing teenage daughter’s dreams of being a musician, proved a highlight of Best Picture winner CODA. It was the culmination of a long stage career, including several productions with Los Angeles’s Deaf West Theatre, where I have seen him multiple times. (He’s a tremendous stage actor.) CODA didn’t just let him break through to a wider audience, however. It also won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Kotsur is the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar and only the second deaf person to win, after his CODA co-star Marlee Matlin, who won Best Actress for her work in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. Actors in the disabled community are too rarely allowed to play disabled characters, as those parts often go to able-bodied actors who are hoping to win an Oscar. And, indeed, the producers of CODA struggled to find funding for their film when they insisted on only casting deaf actors as deaf characters.
Seeing CODA now, it’s impossible to imagine anybody but Kotsur in the role of Frank because he brings such warmth and beauty to the part. I am not the world’s biggest CODA fan, but when Kotsur started winning awards for his work, even I said, “Well, of course.” He’s tremendous in the film.
Kotsur’s speech was an emotional highlight of Oscar night, culminating in a tribute to his father. “My dad, he was the best signer in our family, but he was in a car accident and he became paralyzed from the neck down and he no longer was able to sign,” Kotsur said. “Dad, I learned so much from you. I’ll always love you. You are my hero.”
CODA is the first movie from a streaming service and the first movie to debut at Sundance to win Best Picture
The Sundance favorite has been a staple of the Oscars for years and years now. From Little Miss Sunshine to Beasts of the Southern Wild and from Precious to Winter’s Bone, lots of movies that have been nominated for and even won major Oscars have debuted at the January film festival that celebrates independent film. But none of those films have won Best Picture, despite the fact that Sundance has been going since 1984.
Similarly, streaming movies have made a huge dent in the Oscar race in the last handful of years, with Netflix contenders Roma (2018) and The Irishman (2019) standing as major contenders at the Oscars. But a movie released by a streaming service hasn’t won an Oscar for Best Picture just yet. (I am sure some will quibble that Searchlight’s 2020 Best Picture winner Nomadland technically also debuted on streaming alongside a theatrical release, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Searchlight is not a streaming company.)
Yet here’s CODA, this year’s big winner that is somehow both the first movie to win Best Picture after a Sundance debut and the first movie backed by a streaming company (Apple TV+) to win Best Picture.
One could quibble with the fact that CODA is a festival acquisition, and it was not specifically made by Apple in the way that, say, Netflix directly provided a substantial degree of funding to get fellow nominee The Power of the Dog made. It’s also a little rich how CODA — which, granted, is an independently produced Sundance movie — has been turned into a scrappy underdog against Netflix’s behemoth when its Oscar campaign was underwritten by Apple, the biggest corporation in the world.
But none of that matters. Netflix and Prime Video have both taken shots at winning Best Picture and come up short. Apple beat them to the punch — and with a movie that had to hang around all year since the 2021 Sundance festival, no less. CODA is a rather unassuming movie to make this much history, but it did make that much history.