Oscars rewind: How Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ won Best Picture

After having its world premiere at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival, Guillermo del Toro‘s “The Shape of Water” was awarded the coveted Golden Lion. From that moment on experts penciled it into their predictions as a front-runner going into the Oscars. Although at that stage in the race, there was still quite a long road ahead. Now that del Toro’s new animated film “Pinocchio” has made its Netflix streaming debut, let’s take a look back at how his “Shape of Water” Oscars windfall took shape.

Set during the Cold War in 1960s Baltimore, “The Shape of Water” follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute woman who works as a janitor in an underground research facility. She eventually meets and is intrigued by a mysterious amphibious man (Doug Jones) who is being held captive there, and the two of them develop a close bond that leads her to try to rescue him.

Early on in the season “The Shape of Water” earned Best Picture nominations from various critics groups, prevailing in Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Louis, and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Going into the Golden Globe Awards, the movie had seven nominations overall. It was expected to win three accolades, including Best Film Drama. The other two were Best Film Director (del Toro) and Best Score (Alexandre Desplat), both of which it indeed prevailed in.

However, Martin McDonagh‘s crime drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” overperformed that night. It not only won Best Film Drama Actress for Frances McDormand (which was expected), it also won Best Film Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell (over Willem Dafoe for “The Florida Project”), Best Film Screenplay for McDonagh (over Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird”), and Best Film Drama. Four days later, though, the Critics Choice Film Awards took place and “The Shape of Water” won four times: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, and Best Production Design. Nine days after that it won the Producers Guild of America Award. Suddenly, the race was on for the Oscar.

When Oscar nominations were announced, “The Shape of Water” led with 13 bids overall, including all the key categories that are usually required to win Best Picture (directing, acting, screenplay, and editing). “Three Billboards” also did well by receiving seven noms. Although one important category it was notably snubbed in was Best Director for McDonagh. It was especially shocking given that he was nominated for directing at each of the four major precursors: Golden Globes, Critics Choice, DGA, and BAFTA. Up to that point, only four films had managed to win Best Picture without a directing nomination: 1927’s “Wings,” 1932’s “Grand Hotel,” 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” and 2012’s “Argo.”

You’d think that would give “The Shape of Water” a leg up over “Three Billboards.” However, despite the former not missing any important categories at all on nomination morning, it had not received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best ensemble cast. At the time, that was concerning because no film since “Braveheart” back in 1995 had managed to win the Academy Award for Best Picture without a SAG ensemble bid. It was especially worth taking into account since in the previous two years the predicted frontrunners going into Oscar night, “The Revenant” and “La La Land,” notably weren’t recognized for their ensembles at SAG, and both were upset for Best Picture by SAG winner “Spotlight” and SAG nominee “Moonlight,” respectively.

And there was a third Oscar contender some were thinking was a possible dark horse for the win: Jordan Peele‘s psychological horror film “Get Out.” Despite being released the weekend before the previous Oscars, it was not only a huge box office hit, but also stayed in the conversation all year long due to its social commentary on race relations in America. It was consistently nominated for Best Picture precursors by critic and industry groups. And “Get Out” managed to receive four Oscar nominations, all of which were in major above-the-line categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), and Best Original Screenplay.

However, each of the three aforementioned contenders had disadvantages. In addition to “Three Billboards” getting snubbed for Best Director, it was also plagued with controversy over how it handled its racial themes. With “Get Out,” one important bid it didn’t receive on Oscar nomination morning was Best Film Editing. “Birdman” managed to overcome that hurdle just three years earlier, but before that you’d have to go back to 1980 when “Ordinary People” won without an editing bid. Plus, “Get Out” was a horror movie, a genre that typically isn’t in the academy’s wheelhouse. And in addition to “The Shape of Water” not receiving a SAG ensemble nomination, some were questioning whether it was going to be seen as “too weird” by older academy members as the story involves a woman falling in love with a fish man.

Going into Oscar night, the consensus of Gold Derby users settled on “Three Billboards” because of the momentum it had at that point in the race with wins from the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and BAFTAs. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro pretty much had Best Director locked up after having swept the season. As the presentation of the awards commenced, no one film seemed to dominate.

“Blade Runner 2049” won Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography. “Call Me By Your Name” won Best Adapted Screenplay. “Darkest Hour” won Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Actor for Gary Oldman. “Dunkirk” won Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing. “I, Tonya” won Best Supporting Actress for Allison Janney. “Phantom Thread” won Best Costume Design for Mark Bridges (who also won a jet ski for giving the shortest acceptance speech).

Then for Best Original Screenplay, “Get Out” beat “Three Billboards,” so things weren’t looking good for the latter; the last film to have won Best Picture without a corresponding win for directing or writing was “Chicago” back in 2002. So the winner was still anybody’s guess.

At the end of the night, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty reunited on stage to present Best Picture just one year after their infamous mishap with that category when Dunaway mistakenly announced “La La Land” as the winner before it was revealed that it was actually “Moonlight.” As the clip montage of the nine nominees played, audiences watching both at the Dolby Theatre and from their homes were on the edge of their seats. “Get Out” had only won Best Original Screenplay up to that point. “The Shape of Water” had won Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score. “Three Billboards” had won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. When the montage was over, Beatty finally said, “And the Oscar goes to … ‘The Shape of Water.'”

In the end, of the three top-tier contenders with an important nomination missing, the one with nothing missing from the academy prevailed. While “The Shape of Water” didn’t receive a SAG ensemble bid, perhaps it was in sixth place given the ensemble nature of the movie. Plus, it at least still had two individual acting noms there for Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins. We’ve seen in subsequent years that if your film isn’t nominated for best ensemble, but is still recognized in other categories at SAG, then that shouldn’t be too detrimental to your chances of winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Just ask “Green Book” and “Nomadland.”

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