At the end of an Academy Awards show that painted a vision of an inclusive, diverse and compassionate culture and country, perhaps it was inevitable that the big winner would be a movie that embraced diversity and compassion with so much passion that it included a relationship between a woman and a fish-man creature.
You can’t get much more all-embracing than Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” his riff on “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” in which the creature gets the girl and the viewer gets a rapturous fairy tale about accepting the Other.
It went into the Oscars with the most nominations — 13 — and with crucial wins from the Producers Guild and Directors Guild. But it was by no means assured that “Shape of Water” would actually win Best Picture on Sunday, even after del Toro won the directing award.
For the last three years, the flashier film won Best Director while a smaller film that perhaps reflected the time was named Best Picture: “12 Years a Slave” over “Gravity,” “Spotlight” over “The Revenant” and “Moonlight” over “La La Land.”
Those results were due in part to the preferential system of counting ballots in the Best Picture category, which works to ferret out a consensus favorite of the entire Academy rather than simply giving the award to the film with the most No. 1 votes. But the changing face of the Academy meant it was broad enough to nominate genre films like “Get Out” and “Shape of Water” alongside more traditional Oscar titles like “The Post” and “Darkest Hour.”
Between an Academy that is growing bigger, younger and more diverse each year and a voting process that finds the film that comes closest to uniting a disparate membership, perhaps there is no such thing as an “Oscar movie” anymore. There is just a movie that finds a way to stand for the year in cinema and the year in society.
Several of the other nominees seemed as if they could be that movie, notably Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” But “The Shape of Water” was a warm and embracing film that was not divisive enough to let another contender sneak in the way “Gravity” and “The Revenant” and “La La Land” had apparently been.
And while some of the older members of the Academy might have been resistant to the tougher “Get Out” or “Three Billboards,” they could go along with the word used most often in the film’s final ads, and embrace “The Shape of Water.”
The movie was from a genre, fantasy, that typically doesn’t get much love at the Oscars, but del Toro was a wildly popular ambassador for his film. And Fox Searchlight successfully positioned it not just as an aquatic fairy tale but as a film that moves you emotionally as it’s speaking against the currents of fear and intolerance in today’s culture.
The director said as much in his acceptance speech, encouraging young filmmakers to “use the genre of fantasy to tell stories of what is happening in the world today.”
And make no mistake, this was a very much an Oscar show about the currents in society. In a way, its clever opening, a black-and-white film done in the style of old Hollywood newsreels, was a feint, a suggestion that the show was going to have fun with the movies before it turned into something else entirely.
It’s not that these Oscars didn’t celebrate cinema — they did, nearly redeeming the oft-maligned art of award-show film montage in the process. But over the course of almost four hours, the show became a vision not just of cinema but of a more generous and accepting America.
It did so without much in the way of political speeches — there were shots at Donald Trump, to be sure, but they were mostly between the lines. And there were more shots aimed at the culture of Hollywood itself, from Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue skewering the likes of Harvey Weinstein, to Frances McDormand’s fiery speech demanding more opportunities for the female nominees in the room.
On a night when the favorite won virtually every award except in a couple of the short film categories, those moments are what will be remembered.
That, and the super large print on those foolproof new envelopes.