The Oscar campaign for “CODA” has touted the film as “history-making.” If you wanted to be a literal-minded curmudgeon about it, you could say that the history it’s talking about was already made — when Marlee Matlin, in 1986, became the first deaf performer to win an Academy Award for best actress, for her great, ardent, wounded performance in “Children of a Lesser God.” Matlin deserved to win (the other nominated actresses that year were Jane Fonda for “The Morning After,” Sissy Spacek for “Crimes of the Heart,” Kathleen Turner for “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and Sigourney Weaver for “Aliens,” which is the only one I’d put in Matlin’s league).
Nevertheless, history works in waves. Sidney Poitier made history by becoming the first Black actor to be a Hollywood star, as well as the first to win an Academy Award for best actor (in 1963, for “Lilies of the Field”). But in 2001, there were three Black actors nominated for lead performance at the Oscars: Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball,” Denzel Washington for “Training Day,” and Will Smith for “Ali” (Berry and Washington both won, of course). And that was history-making too: a recognition of the leap from the world of Poitier, who for too many years was Hollywood’s one and only Black movie star, to an era when Black actors achieving that level of success and recognition could be the new normal. Revolutionary “firsts” matter. But when something becomes the new normal, that’s revolutionary too.
And that’s the history that “CODA,” Sian Heder’s transporting family drama, is now in the middle of making. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, when Troy Kotsur, the deaf actor who is blisteringly powerful as the film’s crusty impassioned fisherman father, gave his acceptance speech for best supporting actor and recalled all the years he’d spent sleeping in cars and dressing rooms, he was referencing that history: the steep-to-vertical climb that deaf actors have had to make — even after Marlee Matlin, 36 years ago, busted down that door. And when Matlin, who is one of the stars of “CODA,” stood onstage with her fellow cast members and accepted the award for best ensemble (the SAG equivalent of best picture), her speech colored in every step of that journey with a light-humored poetic humanity.
The title of “CODA” stands for “children of deaf adults,” a phrase that describes too many families to count. “CODA,” among other things, is a wrenching and ebullient domestic drama that captures the experience of deafness as a new normal. That’s part of its beauty and its meaning. Yet it also achieves that meaning in a way that transcends categories. It’s a universal child-growing-up-and-leaving-the-nest weeper that opens the hearts and minds of its audience to different levels of experience.
It is, in other words, an ideal and quintessential Oscar movie. But not because it was designed to be. When “CODA” came into the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, without much pedigree beyond the presence of Matlin, it was just another little movie that could. But Apple TV Plus bought it from Pathé International for $25 million, with an understanding of the rich chord the movie would strike. Believe it or not, after more than 30 years of the contemporary indie film movement, “CODA,” were it to win best picture, would be the first Sundance movie — ever — to do so.
Yet the idea that it could win still feels a little surreal, since “CODA,” as nimble and moving as it is, has seemingly come out of nowhere to enter the hot zone of the Oscar conversation. From the start, the film was acclaimed, but it was never anointed. Not like “The Power of the Dog” and “Belfast” and “West Side Story” were anointed. It wasn’t a chosen property — with an ”It’s time” cachet — of the Oscar-media-pundit-water-cooler-industrial complex. If “CODA” won, it would be one of those times when the whole momentum of the awards season veered off script.
I’ll leave it to others to parse its chances, citing only one key statistic: that “CODA” has a grand total of just three Oscar nominations (best picture, best supporting actor, best adapted screenplay), and those aren’t the stats that generally — or, like, ever — add up to a best picture win. If “CODA” took the grand prize, it would be a game-changer. But we’re in a moment when the rules for everything, from delivery systems for entertainment to the post-war European world order, seems to be changing virtually overnight. So who’s to say what could happen?
What captivates me is the meaning of the showdown: the fact that if “CODA,” with its seismic SAG win, has suddenly become the key potential challenger to “The Power of the Dog,” then that means that the Oscar race, for the first time in history, is about streamer vs. streamer. (A less riveting drama, to be sure, than “Kramer vs. Kramer,” though one some will surely shed a few tears over.) Since “CODA” is a classic crowd-pleaser and “The Power of the Dog,” the movie the conventional wisdom says has a good shot to sweep the Oscars, is a compellingly crafted but austere psychodrama with some rather heady abstractions on its plate (the myth of the American cowboy as a signifier of queer repression; and how did Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character get to be such a cool-headed executioner anyway?), the Oscar race could be shaping up into one of those Mainstream vs. Art contests that have periodically defined the awards in recent decades. “Forrest Gump” vs. “Pulp Fiction.” “Avatar” vs. “The Hurt Locker.” “The King’s Speech” vs. “The Social Network.” “Rocky” vs. three of the films it was up against.
To me, “CODA” could slide into the key challenger slot because it delivers the total emotional knockout punch that “Belfast” and “West Side Story” (as good as the first two-thirds of it are) do not. And the film’s big SAG win moves the needle more than these things usually do. A guild award always helps with Oscar momentum, but in an era so overloaded with product that it’s a serious question how many nominated movies each Academy member even sees, the SAG win, in this case, is a massive advertisement that tells everyone to watch “CODA”; and when they do, I don’t think they will be disappointed. “The Power of the Dog,” by contrast, is a movie it’s hard not to be impressed by but also one that doesn’t exactly wrench the soul. It’s darkly exacting and a touch remote. It could win Jane Campion the best director award and still lose.
For a few years now, as Netflix has strived to burnish its brand with a best picture Oscar, spending a zillion dollars to do so, its candidates — “The Irishman,” “Roma,” “Mank” — have come up short. Many have theorized that the Netflix factor is itself a negative with Oscar voters. As in: People don’t want to vote for the paradigm shift that will put the movie industry as we know it out of business. The same would be true, in theory, if they voted for an Apple TV Plus film. Yet maybe one difference is that “CODA” isn’t a movie that’s been pushed with the awards-marketing equivalent of carpet bombing. It’s a movie that a lot of Oscar voters may only just be discovering. It’s a movie that, perhaps, they don’t feel like they’ve been ordered to like. That could make the difference. In streamer vs. streamer, you want to feel like the Oscar winner is still a movie rather than the company that’s using that movie to change the industry.