Preparing for the 90th Academy Awards ceremony on March 4, Hollywood has faced a conundrum: How should it duly register its loathing for Trump via a slate of films that went into development before Trump became president? The solution it has apparently hit upon is to fawn over Guillermo del Toro’s ridiculous sci-fi Harlequin Romance, The Shape of Water, which may as well be called The Hunk from the Black Lagoon (or, as one pseudonymous Twitter user put it to me this morning, “Woke Splash”).
The Shape of Water was the big winner in this morning’s Oscar nominations, with 13 bids. A Cold War fantasy set in Baltimore in the fall of 1962, it’s about two women janitors (one mute, one black) and a gay man who join forces against a racist, sexist, militarist Cold Warrior who has captured and is torturing an immigrant from South America — a man-shaped sea monster. In its sheer quantity of anti-Trump talking points, the movie could hardly be better positioned to rule the Oscars if its villain (Michael Shannon) had said something about American greatness.
As for quality, well . . . borrowing from Jonah Goldberg’s important research on this matter, I compared The Shape of Water to Bigfoot erotica. But lately the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been intent on giving its top honor to films that reaffirm voters’ beliefs by making unmistakable declarations, if necessary in billboard-sized lettering: “Movies are magic” (2012’s The Artist, 2013’s Argo, 2015’s Birdman), “Slavery was cruel” (2013’s 12 Years a Slave),“Homophobia is wrong” (last year’s Moonlight). It doesn’t matter how hokey, trite, didactic, or blunt these movies are if their underlying point thrills the Academy with its importance. Moonlight actually contains an exchange in which a gay little boy asks his drug-dealer mentor, “What’s a fa***t?” and is told that, “A fa***t is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Our superhero movies are getting subtler than our message movies.
The one big contender that was actually filmed after Trump’s presidency began was Steven Spielberg’s The Post — and it got less love than it could have when the Oscar nominations were announced, earning nods for Best Picture and Best Actress (Meryl Streep) but not for Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, or Screenplay. As a drama about the Nixon administration’s effort to stop newspapers from publishing the classified Defense Department deliberations known as the Pentagon Papers, it has Oscar bait written all over it. Spielberg even rushed it into production just this past May as a response to Trump’s antagonism toward the press, yet it has underwhelmed awards-season voters. Perhaps the Academy found the film just a bit too by-the-numbers. Perhaps its longstanding lack of affection for Spielberg came into play, or voters thought the film was a bit too blatantly intended to capitalize on the anti-Trump mood. The Oscars are a fan dance; you have to campaign for them by attending an endless series of parties, discussions, special screenings, and other pseudo-events, but you can’t be too obvious about it.
Another film that appeared upon its release to be a strong Oscar contender, the gay romance Call Me by Your Name, is also fizzling on the awards circuit. It got nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Timothée Chalamet), and Adapted Screenplay but was shut out of the Best Director category. Only three times in 89 years has a film won Best Picture without being nominated for Best Director, so Luca Guadagnino’s film likely has no chance to win the top honors. In the wake of the Kevin Spacey scandal, the movie’s story of a 17-year-old boy having an affair with a grad student in his 20s might have made the Academy nervous.
Though The Shape of Water earned the most nominations overall, and the film with the most nominations usually wins Best Picture (57 out of 89 times, including Best Picture winners that were tied for the most nominations), no sci-fi film has ever nabbed the top prize, and only one fantasy film (The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) has done so. Its main competitors for Best Picture are now the horror-satire Get Out and the teen coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird, each of which received nominations for their screenplays as well as Best Picture and Director nods. Since neither was directed by a white male, a win for either would also satisfy Hollywood’s yearning to change the subject from the shame it feels about Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, et al. to its self-proclaimed inclusiveness and diversity. If your movie is about straight white males, you’ll just have to stay in your seat and look woke during this year’s Academy Awards. Sorry, Christopher Nolan.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.