How Did The Shape of Water Pull Off That Best Picture Win?

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Guillermo del Toro. Photo: Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

It felt for the longest time like a wide-open Best Picture race, but in the end, Guillermo del Toro’s whiz-bang fish-bang fantasy The Shape of Water took home the Oscars’ top prize, beating strong competitors like Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. After an auspicious early-film debut at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the coveted Golden Lion, del Toro’s film ran a slow and steady race through awards season: The Shape of Water picked up scattered, significant prizes here and there — wins at the Directors Guild and Producers Guild were crucial — but compared to other, buzzier contenders like Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name, this retro romance took a mostly under-the-radar path to worldwide box-office riches and, ultimately, the Academy’s top prize. Here are five behind-the-scenes reasons why this interspecies romance triumphed over stiff competition.

Del Toro’s award-season availability made all the difference

Often, when actors or directors expect to be Oscar-nominated, they won’t take on new projects from November to March so that they can dedicate themselves to a full-time job of awards-season campaigning. Del Toro was among the most omnipresent of this year’s Oscar contenders, and his passionate after-screening Q&As won over many of the Oscars voters we spoke to. “Guillermo is literally the loveliest fucking person ever,” one Academy member told Vulture, while another gushed, “To hear Guillermo talk about his inspiration for that movie and what he wanted to tell and how he wanted to touch people … that resonated with me.” Del Toro’s heartfelt words gave him a leg up on the other veteran director in this field — you’re not going to hear Christopher Nolan waxing on about the power of love for 20 minutes at a talkback — and gave his movie the context that voters needed. Even if you already adored The Shape of Water, you loved it more after you heard del Toro explain why his heart compelled him to make it.

It had strong below-the-line support

Best Picture contenders Lady Bird and Get Out scored a handful of nominations each in the top eight Oscars categories but earned no support from the other branches, while close rival Three Billboards pushed into a few craft races but not nearly as many as del Toro’s sumptuous fantasy. Those below-the-line categories proved key to The Shape of Water’s appeal: All season long, even when Shape lost the top prize at shows like the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, it at least scored all the key nominations it needed with craft nods in races like cinematography, editing, sound, and costume design. That deep bench of industry support helped alleviate the only award-season snub that really stung Shape — the lack of an ensemble nod from the Screen Actors Guild — and it didn’t hurt that del Toro, the director of several technically audacious blockbusters, has already worked with many voters from those craft branches in the past. They think of him fondly, and Oscar finally gave them the chance to show their devotion.

Del Toro had a stealth “overdue” narrative

Christopher Nolan entered Oscars season as the director who had famously been given short shift by the Academy: After all, the Best Picture field expanded from five nominees in large part because Nolan’s The Dark Knight didn’t score a nod that year, and though the 47-year-old director is one of Hollywood’s biggest A-listers and his film Inception was nominated for Best Picture, he still hadn’t been nominated for a Best Director trophy himself. Perhaps all of the hubbub around Nolan obscured that del Toro had an “overdue” narrative, too: His 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth came on strong in late Oscars voting and scored six Oscar nominations and three wins, and it’s possible if the voting period had gone on just a little bit longer that year, Best Picture and Best Director nominations would have been within reach. With that in mind, handing del Toro those two Oscars this year serves as something of a make-good.

It was the consensus choice of older voters

The Shape of Water is a period-movie pastiche that tended to do better with the older Academy members we spoke to, who have more of an affinity for the setting and films it references. “Amongst many other remarkable things, it’s a love letter to Hollywood and movies,” one voter told Vulture. Another actor in the over-50 set put it even more succinctly: “It’s a movie-lover’s movie,” he said. In that way, The Shape of Water shares a lot of qualities with The Artist, another recent Best Picture winner that wears its old-school cinematic influences on its sleeve. Both movies even have mute lead characters, which may account for the fact they are the only two Best Picture winners from the last decade to take that top prize without also winning a screenplay Oscar.

Academy members have settled into the Trump era

Last year, the retro-leaning La La Land was up against the utterly contemporary Moonlight, and in the shadow of Trump’s inauguration, the latter pulled out an upset win. It took nothing away from the immense quality of Moonlight to note that many Oscars voters felt that by picking it, they could at least move their industry forward even as the world appeared to be spinning backward. While The Shape of Water has more contemporary relevance and progressive heft than it often got credit for, its Best Picture win does not send as explicit a message. Had the trophy gone to Lady Bird, it would have been a historic victory for a female director making her solo debut behind the camera. Three Billboards surely would have represented a controversial Best Picture pick, but it would have said something about the country’s inchoate rage at those who are supposed to protect us. And if Get Out had triumphed, the Academy could have recognized the most contemporary contender, canonized a scalding satire of racial politics, and scandalized the Fox News set all at once. The Shape of Water’s victory is not destined to spawn as many think pieces: It won because they liked it the most. In the end, for weary voters grappling with a metric ton of depressing real-world headlines, an escape into del Toro’s romantic fantasy was all they wanted.

How Did The Shape of Water Pull Off That Best Picture Win?