Oscars Deliver a Landmark Winner and a Messy Brawl of a Show

In a year of bad news, and at the end of a stormy show, Oscar voters were drawn to the feel-good movie

oscar coda
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In a victory that was starting to feel inevitable even though traditional Oscar statistics said it was impossible, Apple Studios’ “CODA” won the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday night. And in doing so, it proved that most of the usual metrics by which we measure the Oscars just don’t work anymore.

The surprise victory also suggested that in a year in which we’re all surrounded by bad news, Oscar voters were inescapably drawn to the feel-good movie about a deaf family with a hearing daughter.

The “CODA” win came at the end of a stormy and strange Oscars show that was supposed to be a faster, funnier, hostier, more mainstream Oscars. It turned out to be 20 minutes longer than last year’s show, which unlike this one presented all 23 categories live. The producers’ mainstream tendencies peaked with “fan favorite” and “best moments” Twitter polls that were essentially hijacked by Zack Snyder fans to go in a direction that the Academy surely never envisioned (which is one reason why they were a bad idea to begin with).

And the jokes were completely overwhelmed by the fact that Will Smith took exception to a Chris Rock punchline aimed at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and went on stage to strike Rock and then scream obscenities at him.

Those things turned an Oscars show that came in with high stakes into an awkward and confusing affair that had some great moments but didn’t solve any of the problems it was supposed to be tackling. (We’ll see how it did with solving the ratings problem on Monday.)

But it also provided an historic win, and an unusual win in a lot of ways: “CODA” was the first Sundance movie to take the top prize, the first to not be nominated in either the Best Director or Best Film Editing categories at the Oscars, the second in which the film’s director was not even nominated by the Directors Guild of America and the first winner since 1932 to have less than four total nominations.

Statistic after statistic said that Sian Heder’s crowd-pleasing drama about a child of deaf parents who wants to become a singer could not bring down “The Power of the Dog,” “Belfast,” “West Side Story” and other films that ticked more of the usual boxes for Best Picture winners. But after staying under the radar for a full year, “CODA” made a last-minute surge that began when it won the Screen Actors Guild Award for ensemble cast and continued when, in the midst of Oscar voting last weekend, it took the all-important Producers Guild Award and then added the Writers Guild Award.

Along the way, the film acquired the patina of being the Oscar race’s scrappy little underdog, a remarkable trick when you consider that it sold for a record $25 million at 2021’s Sundance — and that it was bought by Apple, which happens to be the most valuable company on the planet.

So Goliath backed David to take down Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” Campion’s Netflix film was a presumed front runner for most of awards season, but one that always had nagging doubts hanging over it: Do voters really like it as much as critics do, and is it too divisive to win? 

When “The Power of the Dog” landed the most Oscar nominations of any film, it seemed to be in good shape. But even before Sam Elliott mouthed off with an ill-considered rant about how he didn’t like the gay cowboys or the fact that it was shot in New Zealand rather than Montana, anecdotal evidence suggested that support for the film wasn’t as widespread in the Academy as it was with critics. And since the ranked-choice voting system that the Oscars uses in the Best Picture category looks for a consensus favorite, “The Power of the Dog” never had the air of a strong front runner that the statistics suggested it deserved.

Like a Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope, Apple’s campaign was patient and opportunistic, not kicking into high gear until “CODA” won the SAG ensemble award and established itself as the prime alternative to “Power.” When that happened, “CODA” became a must-see for awards voters who hadn’t caught up to it yet – and since there seemed to be a lot of those people, it had an element of surprise that other films didn’t.

The “CODA” win dealt a real blow to Netflix, which came into the show with the most nominations but only won a single award, for Campion’s directing, and delivered a huge victory for Apple, which got into the movie business only recently and now has claimed its biggest prize.

The show began as a tribute to “Dune,” which won four of the five feature-film categories that were handed out before the live broadcast began and then immediately added cinematography and visual effects, two of the first three categories on the live show. Those six wins sealed its status as the night’s biggest winner within the first 45 minutes of the show, although it wouldn’t win anything else for the rest of the night.

But “Who won the most?” is not the question people ask about the Oscars. Instead, the focus is on Best Picture, Best Director and the writing and acting categories, as the Academy tacitly admitted when it moved five below-the-line and three short-film categories into that hour before the broadcast began. And all the way to the final “CODA” win, those awards went as expected: Campion for director, “CODA” and “Belfast” for screenplay, Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”) and Troy Kotsur (“CODA”) in the supporting categories, Will Smith (“King Richard”) and Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) for actor and actress.

The results meant that “The Power of the Dog” became the first film since 1968’s “The Graduate” to win Best Director and nothing else and made “CODA” the fifth Best Picture winner in the last decade to win a trio of Oscars. (“Green Book,” “Moonlight,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Argo” were the other four, while “Spotlight” was the one movie to win less, with two.)

Now comes a tough moment of reckoning for the Academy, which has seen an Oscars show that was supposed to save it go off the rails in a few different ways, from Smith’s fisticuffs to the almost unanimously panned experiment of handing out those eight awards ahead of time.

The show gave the Academy a landmark winner, but the Oscar show itself still needs a lot of work.