Film and TV

How did ‘The Shape of Water’ become the film to beat at the Oscars?

  • Author: Cara Buckley, The New York Times
  • Updated: February 7
  • Published February 7

Sally Hawkins in” The Shape of Water.” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

This awards season has been all about hitting the zeitgeist, or at least that's what the media, present company included, has been telling itself and you. Best picture nominees ought to tap into the #MeToo moment or, failing that, anxieties born in the age of Trump.

But is that narrative really true? And does it fully explain how a fairy tale about a janitor who hooks up with a fishman became the movie to beat?

The film, "The Shape of Water," stars Sally Hawkins as a cleaning lady who falls for a merman held captive in a government lab, and leads the race with 13 Oscar nominations, more than any other movie. It has also scooped up key precursor awards that often culminate in Oscar gold — last weekend, the Directors Guild of America gave filmmaker Guillermo del Toro its top prize, two weeks after the Producers Guild of America did the same.

That a fantasy film has made it this far is highly unusual. While some fantasy and sci-fi movies have been nominated for best picture ("Avatar," "District 9," "Inception" and "Mad Max: Fury Road"), with the exception of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," it is hard to name one that has gone all the way. Meanwhile, should del Toro nab best director, which is expected, it will mark the fourth time a Mexican filmmaker has done so in the last five years. ¡Viva Mexico!

The movie's winning trajectory has had its bumps. "Shape" was not nominated for best ensemble performance at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and, as forecasters invariably note, no film since "Braveheart" (1995) has won the best picture Oscar without previously landing a SAG ensemble nomination.

But while the winner of the SAG ensemble prize was "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," presumably making it the stiffest competition facing "Shape," the "Three Billboards" filmmaker, Martin McDonagh, did not get an Oscar nomination for best director, while del Toro did. Advantage, fishman.

I put the question of why "Shape" has surged to the fore to a handful of Hollywood insiders and academy voters, and received answers as varied as the colors of a merman's scales.

Among the many thoughts: The film was not just beautifully made but also emotionally resonant. It was an elegant genre piece that said something new. Some thought its success was helped by admiration that industry folks harbor for del Toro; others saw the handiwork of masterful marketers and campaigners, who overcame a familiar plot. Some said the ardor the film elicited had nothing to do with the zeitgeist, and besides, academy members don't think about such pedestrian matters when voting for best picture. Others said the film was totally plugged into the moment, with its story of a ragtag threesome of underdogs — a mute woman (who is sexually harassed), a black woman and a closeted gay artist — who work to save a demonized "other" from the man.

Richard Jenkins, director Guillermo del Toro and Sally Hawkins on the set of “The Shape of Water.” (Kerry Hayes/Twentieth Century Fox)

Michael Shamberg, an Oscar-nominated producer whose credits include "Erin Brockovich" and "The Big Chill," is among the full-throated lovers of "The Shape of Water." In a phone chat, Shamberg said the movie "hits every base of what filmmaking should do."

"It's well designed, well shot, well costumed, well acted, well made, and it moves you," Shamberg said. "What this guy del Toro has done is say something very emotional about human connection and love using the vocabulary of genre. And that's why people respond."

Shamberg scoffed at the idea that academy voters "think meta about a film to send a message." He added: "There's no lens for Trump that anybody is voting through in this category. The Oscars do celebrate filmmaking, and it's very rare that the best ones don't win out."

Dennis Rice, a marketing and distribution consultant who has worked at Miramax and Disney, said the fact that many people found "The Shape of Water" so moving helped explain why it is doing so well.

He also attributed its success to an ace marketing campaign, which, he wrote in an email, "focused on audiences' emotional connection to the film and led people away from the film's shortcomings, especially the derivative story," which he described as "Beauty and the Beast" meets "Splash" meets "Creature From the Black Lagoon."

Del Toro has said himself that his aim was make a version of "Beauty and the Beast" using a "Black Lagoon"-ish amphibious man, and that he had wanted to make the film for decades, a detail that was duly incorporated into the Oscar campaign: It was a passion project.

Affable and driven by childlike wonder, del Toro had been familiar to American audiences for years before he captured the academy's affection in 2006, with his lauded "Pan's Labyrinth," one of his fairy tales for adults. "He was not going to just put a guy in a superhero outfit and make a lot of money," Rice said. "He breaks the boundaries of reality and fantasy and real-time issues."

Some see real-time issues being addressed in "The Shape of Water."

Christine Langan, who is the chief executive of Baby Cow Productions, Steve Coogan's company, and the former head of BBC Films, said that at a moment when people are talking about women's agency, it was gratifying to see a female protagonist who cannot speak wholly drive the story. Langan also saw in the film a validation of cinema, "a reminder of why people go sit and watch," which of course is deeply comforting to industry folks anxious about the mighty rise of tiny screens and streaming services. "It's layered and intelligent and accessible but mainstream," she said. "It's just magical."

And Langan delighted in the casting of Hawkins, an Englishwoman. "She has a wonderful delicacy that suggests so much," Langan said, a sentiment that is likely shared by many in the sizable British contingent of academy voters.

Donna Gigliotti, an Oscar-winning producer whose credits include "Hidden Figures" and "Silver Linings Playbook," said there was little doubt that the academy's expansion of international voters gave a boost to del Toro. (Industry enthusiasm for the film predated an outcry over the lack of Latinos in the acting categories.) "He is regarded, and he is, an auteur," Gigliotti said.

Of course one of del Toro's Oscar competitors, Christopher Nolan, is also viewed as an auteur, and is an Englishman to boot. But while Nolan's war drama "Dunkirk" might be his most Oscar-ish film yet, earning him his first best direction nomination, it hasn't drummed up as much buzz.

With eight nominations, "Dunkirk" is up against "The Shape of Water" in many of the "below the line" craft and technical categories, like film editing, sound editing and production design. It also told its harrowing World War II rescue story from shifting viewpoints, and had no acting nominees. For all of its cinematic virtuosity, its lack of a protagonist gave little for the audience to connect with emotionally.

"It's a cinematic accomplishment, and 'Shape of Water' by contrast is very human," Langan said. And "Shape," she added, "fulfilled a need at the moment in generating hope."

There we are. In the time of #MeToo and divisive politics, del Toro has served up the cinematic equivalent of Calgon — with steamy bath scenes, no less — to take us all away.