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Oscars: How ‘The Shape of Water’ Rallied a Consensus

As the 90th annual Academy Awards drew to a close Sunday night, Warren Beatty intoned the (correct) words that answered the season’s biggest mystery: “The Shape of Water.”

Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-romance picture, subtitled “A Fairytale for Troubled Times” in early drafts, was in many ways the catch-all for a year brimming with films that spoke to the moment: “Darkest Hour” and leadership, “Dunkirk” and defiance,” “Get Out” and insidious racism, “Phantom Thread” and toxic masculinity, “The Post” and press freedom, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and reconciliation — so many of the best picture nominees this year had the zeitgeist in their sights in varying ways.

But “The Shape of Water” carried its message with subtlety and nuance in an entertaining genre package. That graceful and accessible touch goes a long way when you’re aiming to appeal to some 7,200 voters. Del Toro’s movie, as he’s said, is about fear of “the other.” It’s about what results from a world of barriers and boundaries. “The greatest thing our industry does is erase the lines in the sand,” he said in his best-director acceptance speech. “We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”

It’s simple, it’s elegant, but it’s a theme that carries a lot of weight because it actualizes in so many different ways from viewer to viewer. Obviously “The Shape of Water,” with 13 Oscar nominations and admiration across multiple disciplines, would be the consensus choice for the year. But nothing felt obvious going into an Oscar ceremony one year removed from the biggest jaw-dropper in Academy history. Understandably, pundits copped to confusion this time around.

But there was a lot in the air that made the whole thing exhilarating. The sense that “Get Out” could outpace expectations one more time was very real. The dominance of “Three Billboards” at other awards venues was undeniable. The love lurking for films like “Dunkirk” and “Lady Bird,” whatever the stats said, was a significant X-factor. Who could possibly be sure? (Though let’s pause to marvel at how decidedly and delightfully unconventional the eventual winner — a handcrafted genre fable centered on an Amazonian river god — truly was.)

Speaking of stats, for those playing at home, “The Shape of Water” became the first film to win best picture without a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nomination since “Braveheart” 22 years ago. It also became the first-ever Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner, as well as the first genre film since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” to win Hollywood’s top prize. So barriers continue to topple.

“‘The Shape of Water’ carried its message with subtlety and nuance in an entertaining
genre package.”

And where does this leave Fox Searchlight? Gobbled up in the Disney-Fox deal, the wildly successful Oscar player has now claimed a fourth best-picture trophy in 10 years. Is the heyday over or will the company’s new parent find value in peddling prestige? Because clearly, no one in the game has quite the same stroke. For that and so many other reasons, it’s an asset the Burbank suits ought to protect. Potential Searchlight contenders for the 2018 Oscar competition include Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” Marielle Heller’s Lee Israel biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with Melissa McCarthy and Wes Anderson’s animated “Isle of Dogs.”

But let’s not dive into that too much quite yet. For now, a truly great and generous artist is on top of the industry. At his Variety cover story shoot Monday morning, clutching an Oscar in each paw, del Toro was a ball of infectious passion, as always. It took him 25 years to realize this moment. Let it echo as long as possible.

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