“The Shape of Water” won a leading four Oscars this year: Best Picture, Best Director for Guillermo del Toro, Best Original Score and Best Production Design. While any film would be grateful to earn four Oscars, especially the top prize, this total is low compared to many other Best Picture winners throughout history, particularly technical achievements such as this one. Does this mean the era of Best Picture winners sweeping the ceremony has come to an end?
Oscar history shows that 49 Best Picture winners have collected at least five trophies throughout the night. Yet, the only BP winner to do so this decade is “The Artist” in 2011, which won five awards, but even in that case it tied the night with “Hugo” also winning five. The sweet spot for most of the decade’s Best Pictures seems to be in the lower range, with four for “Birdman,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Shape of Water,” three for “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo” and “Moonlight” and just two for “Spotlight.” In fact, “The Shape of Water” is the first Best Picture this entire decade to be the night’s biggest winner without tying another movie.
As you look just one decade earlier at the 2000s, you see many big Oscar hauls for Best Picture winners, including five for “Gladiator,” six for “Chicago” and “The Hurt Locker,” eight for “Slumdog Millionaire,” and the grandaddy of them all, 11 for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” One thing all of those films have in common is that they are impressive on both a story and craftsman level, as these kinds of sweeps are difficult to pull off without winning tech categories. For a visually and sonically stunning film like “The Shape of Water” to not win categories it could have conceivably won, like Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and the two sound categories, suggests voters may be looking to spread the wealth more than ever before.
We have seen over the past few years that academy voters are really paying attention to actual merit for each category, rather than just checking off the same movie over and over. This year there was a real sense of wealth-spreading as seven of the nine Best Picture nominees walked away with at least one trophy, and they still found room to reward films like “Blade Runner 2049” for its gorgeous cinematography and “Coco” for its timeless song “Remember Me,” defeating Picture nominees in the process. The same thing happened last year as six of the Best Picture nominees earned trophies, while voters also split the sound categories and gave Costume Design to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” This suggests that voters are doing their very best to appreciate the work of their peers, and if that means the Best Picture winner only walks away with two or three other trophies, then so be it.
As the academy continues to invite younger artists from diverse backgrounds to join as members, we will likely keep on seeing a lack of sweeps for one movie. Just like our culture, the Oscars are now becoming more of a melting pot, with allegiances divided. While the academy may seem like a monolithic organization, in reality it is made up of all kinds of wildly different opinions on what makes good art. And let’s face it, there is never just one film that deserves all the awards in a given year. Gone are the days of “Titanic” and the final “Lord of the Rings” film swallowing up the competition. In the years to come we should expect to see not just one movie dominate the Oscars but many, as the academy looks to celebrate all different types of movie magic.