And the Oscar goes to... The Shape of Water! The Academy Awards are over and done with for another year. After months of campaigning, with the 2018 race offering one of the most open fields the top category has seen in quite some time, the ultimate victor was Guillermo del Toro's genre-bending romance. He also picked up Best Director.
Going into the evening, the betting odds had been in favor of Martin McDonagh's black comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with The Shape of Water on its tail, followed by Best Original Screenplay winner Get Out. While Three Billboards had won most of the precursor awards - the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the SAG Award - there was no guarantee it would sail to the top prize on the night. After all, last year we were convinced until the very end that La La Land had it in the bag. Ultimately, the most nominated film of the night took home top honors, and rightly so. Going into the Oscars, The Shape of Water had scored various big wins, mostly for del Toro, so its odds were solid for the win. The film had emerged from the 2017 Venice Film Festival as an undeniable front-runner for the award, and it maintained that momentum for well over six months.
This year's awards were a strange beast, in that there was no guaranteed front-runner for Best Picture, and most of the nominated films eschewed preconceived notions of "Oscar bait". The Shape of Water ended up being something of a safe choice for many, despite it being a sci-fi fantasy romance set during the Cold War where a mute woman has sex with a fish-man. Yet, in many ways, the film is perfect for those old-school Oscar voters. The story is a massive homage to classic Hollywood, particularly Golden Age musicals and the work of Douglas Sirk. It even has a Fred and Ginger style dance number in the middle of the action.
Stylistically, this was something the Oscars could easily latch onto, with stunning production values that scored nominations in most categories. Thematically, it also heavily resonated with the Academy. This is a monster story where the monster is the hero, the ragtag underdogs are maligned minorities living under the scourge of 1950s paranoia, and the villain is a bigoted sociopath with seething hatred for anyone who breaks the mold. Stories like that tend to unite voters, and it proved popular among tough competition.
All of this makes The Shape of Water sound rather safe and quaint, as if Oscar voters go for this kind of thing all the time. That couldn't be further from the truth. Sci-fi and fantasy stories are rarely nominated for Best Picture, and they win the big prize even less. Speculative fiction is still labeled as a frivolity, something where technical work can be recognized but not the full package. The Shape of Water excels on all those fronts - it's hard to believe this beautiful film only cost $20m - but it's also a proud genre piece that manages to walk a fine line between mainstream appeal and niche weirdness. This would never have been considered an Oscar film even five years ago: That it was the "middle of the road choice" in 2018 speaks volumes as to how far we've come.
This Oscar season, the awards campaigns were notably less aggressive than they used to be, especially in the mid to late '90s (in the post-Harvey Weinstein age, it feels wrong to replicate his campaigning tactics, regardless of how effective they were proven to be). Instead, campaigns were mounted more on likability and the personalities of the major competitors. That benefited films like The Shape of Water, as there are few directors more lovable and charismatic than Guillermo del Toro.
Related: 2018 Oscars Winners List
The director was a regular on the campaign circuit, doing all the big interviews and attending all the right parties. It's a move that paid off, and many already felt like he was overdue from the days when Pan's Labyrinth didn't win Best Foreign Language Film. Fox Searchlight, its distributor, is also one of the best indie distributors in cinema. They have a history of mounting winning awards campaigns (other Best Picture winners from the company include Slumdog Millionaire, Birdman and 12 Years a Slave).
Regardless of what you thought of The Shape of Water, it's hard to deny the power and refreshing nature of its Best Picture win. It's a delight to see such a proudly odd film be considered the "normal" choice of the Oscar season. A beautifully made film that fit with the times and had a beloved director at the helm felt right for the win, especially with a powerhouse distributor leading the campaigns. Now, we have a few days of quiet reflection before the work for the 2019 Oscars begins.
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