Oscars: Why 'The Shape of Water' Won Best Picture (and Other Speculation)

THR's awards columnist Scott Feinberg dissects the results of an Oscar night to remember.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
'The Shape of Water' wins the best picture Oscar.

Last year's 89th Oscars ended in chaos and confusion, making it the talk of the world. Conversely, Sunday night's 90th Oscars — which was hosted, directed, produced and even stage managed by the exact same people — went about as smoothly as the Academy could have hoped, but it, too, deserves its own chapter in the history books.

This was an Oscars ceremony that had a lot going for it. Humor and charm (Jimmy Kimmel is the Bob Hope of his generation, and this year, as best I can recall, President Donald Trump's name never came up). Memorable presenters (it was lovely to see Golden Age legends like Eva Marie Saint and Rita Moreno receive standing ovations, and surreal to see Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway present best picture again). Diverse and popular winners (I had never seen a standing ovation for a cinematographer until Roger Deakins' first win on his 14th nomination, or a quicker standing ovation than the one accorded Jordan Peele's best original screenplay win or any standing ovation during a commercial break until Guillermo del Toro returned to his seat with his best director Oscar). And truly special moments (including Kimmel and friends' trip across Hollywood Boulevard to thank the moviegoing public, and the performances of the five impressive best original song nominees, one of which featured 10 people who "stood up for something").

Sure, some of the montages and presenters were a bit random, but overall, the show played really well.

But they don't keep me around to review Oscar telecasts (that's Daniel Fienberg's domain!); instead, I'm here to try to dissect how we got the results that we got — even though we'll obviously never know just how close the vote totals were because of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which had a great ceremony relative to last year's — so here we go.

How did The Shape of Water, a genre-blending movie about an unlikely romance between a mute cleaning woman and a hunted fish man, with nary a household name in its cast and a director heretofore best known for a Mexican monster movie, not only win best picture, but do so in the age of the preferential ballot, which is designed to find a consensus choice?

Well, because people — at least in the business — loved it, of course.

Each of this year's nine best picture nominees spoke, in some way, to this moment in time — Get Out captured our Trump-era racial tensions, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri our anger and rage at public officials not getting the job done, Lady Bird our new era of female empowerment and the list goes on. But Shape of Water captured the zeitgeist in a less on-the-nose — and therefore, perhaps, more digestible — way than the others. It's about a group of outsiders banding together to help one another. It's about not judging people by the way they look, but by the content of their character. (The "monster" in this film isn't the fish man.) And it's about love. (And who doesn't like that?)

Additionally, there is immense goodwill in the community towards the people responsible for Shape of Water, especially del Toro. My personal favorite of the best picture nominees, Dunkirk, is a masterful film, but its director Christopher Nolan is not a warm and friendly guy, and did not benefit from spending a season alongside del Toro, who is a gregarious teddy bear. Should this matter? I suppose not, but Academy members are humans like the rest of us, and considerations like these do come into play: People vote for other people who they not only deem worthy, but who they also want to see celebrated. (Incidentally, del Toro's best director nod marks the fourth time in the last five years that a Mexican filmmaker has won that prize; all four are split between "The Three Amigos," the other two being Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Inarritu.)

Moreover, Shape of Water is an acting showcase, and none of the Academy's 17 branches is larger than its actors branch (which accounts for nearly 17% of the voting body). Understandably, many were surprised and concerned about actors' level of enthusiasm — or lack thereof — for the film when it failed to land a nomination for the best ensemble SAG Award, without which no film — not Gravity, not The Revenant, not La La Land — had managed to win the best picture Oscar since Braveheart 22 years ago. But when three of Shape of Water's principal actors — Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer — received individual Oscar noms, it seemed likely that the Academy had no widespread reservations of the kind, and that proved to be the case. (The only things to which I can chalk up the discrepancy is a very competitive year for ensembles, and the fact that the SAG Awards' 2,500-person nominating committee votes much earlier in the season than Academy members.)

Most of all, Shape of Water offered something for everyone. It is an indie film, made for just $19.5 million and unveiled at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, but it sounds and looks like a big studio film made for $60 million. It could be called a "genre film," and indeed genre films have always played better with the public than with the Academy, but upon closer inspection it's really a hybrid of drama, comedy, fantasy, romance, musical and monster movie, effective at each of those things individually and collectively. And, fundamentally, it's a hopeful, optimistic, feel-good film, unlike many of this year's other nominees.

What's nice is that almost all of Shape of Water's fellow best picture nominees also have something to show for their night. Dunkirk bagged three technical awards — best film editing and both best sound editing and sound mixing, marking only the 17th time that both sound prizes have gone to the same film. Three Billboards scored two acting wins — best actress for Frances McDormand, 21 years after she won in the category for Fargo, and best supporting actor for Sam Rockwell, who had never before been nominated. Get Out won best original screenplay, making possible a nice moment for first-time filmmaker Jordan Peele. Darkest Hour won the two prizes it most deserved, best actor for Gary Oldman, a long-overdue first-time winner, and best makeup and hairstyling, for the people who morphed him into Winston Churchill. Call Me by Your Name was the choice for best adapted screenplay, making James Ivory, at 89, not only a first-time winner, but also the oldest-ever winner of a competitive Oscar. And Phantom Thread was honored with best costume design.

Only Lady Bird and The Post left empty-handed — unless you count Lady Bird's writer and first-time solo director Greta Gerwig's newfound status as one of the hottest filmmakers in the business.

Also honored on Sunday night: I, Tonya's Allison Janney won best supporting actress on her first-ever nomination — it was clear she was Oscar-bound after the film's world premiere. Blade Runner 2049 won not only best cinematography for Deakins but also best visual effects (a blow to the War for the Planet of the Apes team, which, as with the prior two installments of the rebooted Apes trilogy, arrived at the Oscars having won the top Visual Effects Society Award, only to lose out on the big one). Coco won not only best animated feature, but also best original song, with "Let It Go" winners Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's "Remember Me" topping formidable competition (I have no doubt that nine-time nominee Diane Warren's day will still come). Icarus held off Faces Places and Strong Island to win best documentary feature, marking Netflix's highest-profile Oscar win yet (kudos to director Bryan Fogel and Netflix docs chief Lisa Nishimura and her team).

The shorts Oscars, meanwhile — the categories during which many go to the bathroom, but which tend to make or break Oscar pools — went to Dear Basketball (animated), Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (documentary) and The Silent Child (live action). So yes, Kobe Bryant, the most popular man in L.A. not named Vin Scully, is now not only a five-time NBA champion, but also an Oscar winner.

Thus ends this year's six-month journey from Telluride to the Dolby, which — for this observer, anyway — was one of the more exhausting but memorable ones yet. Until next time, thanks for joining me along the way.