The Best Picture winner usually comes down to how the Academy wants to see itself and the message it wants to send. This year, with the membership diverging between the older (read: whiter) contingent and a younger, more international and diverse membership who have joined in the past three years, the likely winner was far from clear.
Finally, Guillermo Del Toro’s hopeful fairy tale about two outsiders in love was both beautiful and inspiring, with impeccable performances and craftsmanship. It ticked the boxes of inclusion; Mexican Del Toro is the fifth Latin American director winner in Oscar history, joining his chums A.G. Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron. Actually, what he did on a $20 million budget — developing the aquaman design on his own dime and putting his salary into the movie — was remarkable. “Shape” also marks the first fantasy to win the Best Picture Oscar since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004.
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In four of the past five director races, the award has not gone to the director of the Best Picture winner, but to the director who mounted the most technically sophisticated production. Backed by Fox Searchlight, which now has notched four Best Picture wins, “The Shape of Water” had the scale and scope to warrant a Best Director Oscar, with its complex production design and haunting score, achievements that saw their own wins.
It was a great night for Latin America, as Disney/Pixar’s Mexican celebration “Coco” won Best Animated Feature and Best Song (“Remember Me,” from the songwriters behind “Frozen” hit “Let It Go”) and Chile notched its first Foreign Language Oscar win, for “A Fantastic Woman” (Sony Pictures Classics).
Greta Gerwig had to celebrate the four nominations for “Lady Bird,” including only the fifth nomination for a woman director, as she went home empty-handed. But she landed on the cover of Time and has a long career ahead.
“Blade Runner 2049” took Best Cinematography for the extraordinary work of Roger Deakins, who was happy to win after a long slog through 14 nominations, and its innovative visual effects, which served the narrative without becoming overwhelming. Backstage, Deakins looked back fondly on “Sid & Nancy,” which he made with Gary Oldman lo these many years ago. “It’s wonderful to be in the same space,” he said. “It’s all part of your film memory.”
Also from Fox Searchlight, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” had strong support from the Academy actors and took home acting prizes for Frances McDormand (who also won for “Fargo”) and Sam Rockwell. “I’ve got some things to say,” said the blunt-speaking McDormand in her fiery speech. (She channeled John Wayne for her angry and vengeful Mildred Hayes.) Backstage she said she likes the power of sending messages via awards shows as well as billboards, she said, referring to the recent viral billboard activism. “Billboards work!” she said. “Off the screen and onto the street! The message we’re getting to send to the public is we’re one of the small industries that can make a difference… We are making powerful images.”
As expected, actor’s-actor and first-time nominee Sam Rockwell took the first win of the night for “Three Billboards,” continuing his awards sweep for somehow making empathetic his often hilarious role as Dixon, the bigoted, narrow-minded, incompetent, heavy-drinking mama’s boy of a sheriff’s deputy. Rockwell indulged in the luxury of three months of research, he said backstage, thanking his acting coach Elizabeth Himelstein, who also coached Oldman and Margot Robbie. “You could locate this story in any working-class community around the world,” he said. “It’s timely … It’s a dark fairy tale of sorts.”
Marking the first horror contender since “Black Swan,” “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele took home Best Original Screenplay for his racial horror thriller, a surprise Sundance breakout for Universal that opened back in February and scored $255 million worldwide off a $4.5 million budget. He’s the first African-American to win that category.
“It’s a renaissance,” he said backstage. “I almost never became a director because there was a shortage of role models, there was Spike Lee, John Singleton and the Peebles,” he said. “I’m so proud to be part of a beginning of a movement,” citing his colleagues Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler and F. Gary Gray.
“This is an independent film, we sweated for it,” he added. “When the nominations came out, I had the feeling of looking at the 12-year-old who had a burning in my guts for this kind of validation. This is about more than me, it’s about paying it forward to the young people. I almost didn’t do it because I didn’t think there was a place for me.” He thanked Whoopi Goldberg for her acceptance speech that inspired him to keep going.
Oldman won his first Oscar (and second nomination) for “Darkest Hour” and his energetic, bombastic portrayal of British prime minister Winston Churchill. “It only took 20 years for us to work together,” he said of director Joe Wright. “It was worth the wait.” He also saluted Churchill, “who was marvelous company on an incredible journey,” and his 99-year-old mother. “Put the kettle on,” he said, “I’m bringing the Oscar home.”
Oldman brought out of retirement first-time winner Kazuhiro Tsuji (nominated for “Norbit” and “Click”) and the makeup master responded with the greatest achievement of his career. Inspired by legendary Dick Smith’s transformations, he turned the 59-year-old actor into the iconic PM, fusing their faces together with light, flexible, sculpted prosthetics. “We made history,” said Tsuji backstage. “I’m just doing what I love to do,” he said, refusing to think about being the first Asian makeup winner.
Once Oldman “stepped off the ledge” with Joe Wright to take on Churchill, he said backstage, he insisted on Tsuji. “He’s delivered,” he said. “To win for arguably playing one of the greatest Britains who ever lived makes it doubly special.”
The only win for “Call Me By Your Name” (Sony Pictures Classics) went to 89-year-old James Ivory, now the oldest man to win an Oscar. “It was a rejuvenating experience,” said Ivory backstage. “You relive your own life. The story had a good amount of personal relevance for me.” And the thrice Oscar-nominated director loved shooting in Italy, where he filmed “A Room with a View.” He thanked two important people who are gone from his life, his partner, producer Ismail Merchant, as well as screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won two Oscars for Merchant Ivory films “A Room with a View” and “Howards End.”
Celebrating her first Oscar, Allison Janney yelped on stage: “I did this all by myself!” The audience loved it, and Janney added, “Nothing could be further from the truth.” While “I, Tonya” is a hugely popular film, with her first nomination Janney is an example of a hard-working veteran television actress who was adored by Oscar voters as she participated enthusiastically in the campaign process.
When she got to the press room, she removed her shoes. “I have to be at a table read for (CBS TV series) ‘Mom’ at 10 AM,” she said. “I am so happy I have a job to go to after a night like this. It goes to your head. This whole journey since the Toronto Film Festival has been extraordinary. I’m glad I have the people at ‘Mom’ to keep me focused.”
The Emmy-winner had given up on getting something like an Oscar, she said, as the movie roles weren’t coming her way. She thanked writer Steven Rogers for writing the juicy role of Tonya Harding’s mother for her. “I’m going to have to get him a Rolex,” she said.
As expected, Christopher Nolan’s spectacular action epic “Dunkirk” wound up with three technical awards for Sound Editing and Mixing and Editing. Finally, the World War II movie did not fit into any of the zeitgeist narratives. Too many people found it — and its filmmaker — too cold.
On the other hand, transgender drama “A Fantastic Woman” (Sony Pictures Classics) fit perfectly: warm, accessible, well-made and political. Chilean actress Daniela Vega inspired filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, who finally cast her in the movie. She’s the first transgender actress to present at the Oscars. When asked about bringing more Latin American representation to Hollywood, Leilo said, “Include them in the stories, hire them for the roles, and just understand that stories come from so many different sources.”
Marking the only win for Paul Thomas Anderson’s edgy “Phantom Thread,” Mark Bridges won for his extraordinary original costume design which required that he create character looks as well as high fashion for Daniel Day-Lewis’ designer Reynolds Woodcock. Backstage, Bridges said Day-Lewis worked closely with him in choosing his wardrobe and was allowed to pick his own outfits every day, waiting for him in his closet. Whatever helped to nourish the performance, Bridges said.
Politics impacted this year’s documentary voting, as Bryan Fogel’s Russian doping expose rode the winds of the Olympic scandal. The highest-profile documentary in this year’s Oscar race, “Icarus” was picked up by Netflix at Sundance for $5 million and marks Netflix’s second Oscar win after last year’s documentary short “White Helmets.” Fogel thanked his Netflix partners Ted Sarandos, Lisa Nishamura, and Adam Del Deo and dedicated the award to his subject Dr. Grigory Rodchenko, “our great whistleblower who lives in mortal danger,” reminding the audience of “the importance of telling the truth now, more than ever.”
Not missing a beat, host Jimmy Kimmel quipped, “Now we know Putin didn’t rig this competition, right?”
Netflix marketers adeptly surfed the news cycle to make sure their subscribers in 190 countries as well as Academy voters knew this movie was at the center of the Russian doping scandal. With the Olympics front and center at the height of Oscar balloting, “Icarus” was well watched and squeaked past its two main rivals, Cannes prize-winner Agnes Varda and JR’s “Faces Places,” and “Last Men in Aleppo,” which got a fresh wind of attention from the Muslim travel ban.
As a racing cyclist, Fogel thought he could create a “Super Size Me” movie about doping in sports. Instead, he stumbled onto a much bigger story with global impact: the Russian Olympic doping scandal and riveting drama of his doping expert, Russian scientist Rodchenko, who ran the government’s anti-doping lab until he fled the country in danger for his life.
Backstage, Fogel called for the resignation of Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee chairman. “He is a crook,” he said, saying that the IOC gave a country that committed fraud a mere “slap on the wrist,” allowing 160 athletes to compete (including two caught doping) without taking responsibility for any of their actions. “They lifted the ban on that country. What a corrupt organization! That man needs to be ashamed of himself and resign!” He also accused the Russian media of not reporting accurately on the scandal. “The truth is the truth is the truth,” he said. “The truth does not set you free, it makes you wanted and a hunted man, and that is tragic.”
While “Mudbound” marked the streaming site’s first entry into the major Oscar categories after competing for Best Documentary in years past, landing four nominations for Supporting Actress, Best Song, Adapted Screenplay, and an historic nomination for female cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the movie had to settle for its Indie Spirit Robert Altman ensemble award.
Despite the backlash against Kobe Bryant for his sexual assault charge back in 2003, and the limited scope of his animated short, “Dear Basketball” was favored to win the Oscar. Towering over his director, former Disney hand-drawn animator Glen Keane, he thanked composer John Williams, Verizon, and his family.
The press room went wild for Bryant backstage, whooping it up as the NBA superstar insisted that learning how to write a screenplay and earning an Oscar for his work was even more gratifying than winning a championship. Bryant, who wrote the text he reads in the short, is the first NBA player to land an Oscar nomination or win.
In the tight competition between timely live action short “DeKalb Elementary,” about a kid with a gun threatening a school, and the heart-warming British story about a neglected five-year-old deaf girl, “The Silent Child,” the humanistic drama won. The filmmakers crowdfunded the movie on IndieGoGo.
And artful documentary short “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” which combined a harrowing portrait of an abused woman with her dramatic artwork, beat out the Netflix frontrunner on the opioid epidemic “Heroine(e)” and elder romance “Edith & Eddie.”
In the contest between timeliness and art, the Oscars sometimes go one way, then the other. It’s often the Best Picture winner than combines both.