In the end, it was almost fitting that CODA won Best Picture on a night when all anyone could talk about was an A-lister bringing a bit of Sunday Night Raw energy to the Oscars stage. All season long, Sian Heder’s movie was overshadowed by bigger, starrier contenders. But none of that mattered come final voting. Two Netflix films packed with celebrities, a gigantic sci-fi blockbuster, Steven freaking Spielberg’s remake of a former Best Picture winner — all lost to a little Sundance movie about a teenage hearing girl and her horny Deaf family.
CODA’s victory was a historic Oscars moment for multiple reasons. Most notably, it was the first Best Picture win for a streaming service, the culmination of the Academy’s yearslong emotional journey toward accepting that streaming films are as worthy of laurels as theatrical cinema. It is also the first Best Picture winner to have premiered at Sundance, a striking deviation from the recent dominance of the fall festivals. After The Hurt Locker and Nomadland, CODA is only the third film directed by a woman to win the top Oscar. And though I have not confirmed this with Academy historians, it is surely the first Best Picture win to be met with the audience rising up to give a standing ovation in silent applause.
How did a film that most pundits, myself included, pegged as just happy to be there wind up as the night’s big winner? A few reasons — some of which I outlined a few weeks ago, others of which only became apparent in retrospect.
It peaked at the right time.
To say no one saw CODA coming is a slight overstatement. Upon its premiere at a virtual Sundance, many reviewers took note of its broad emotionality and mainstream appeal and pegged it as the most obvious potential breakout. When AppleTV+ paid a record $25 million for the film, the reaction was “Wow, that’s a lot of money for a Sundance movie” not “Why CODA?”
Nevertheless, one reason experts downgraded CODA’s chances early in the season is that the movie didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it first hit streaming last August. It was released in the mid-August dead zone: Oscars watchers already had one eye on the films soon to debut at Venice and Telluride, while regular moviegoers were paying more attention to Free Guy, which was released the same day. Reviews were positive, but with no box-office figures and little social buzz around the film, it was hard to tell whether anyone was actually watching it.
Still, there’s a pattern I’ve noticed about Apple TV+ projects. Call it the Ted Lasso effect — an Apple TV+ title often doesn’t take off until it’s been on the streamer for a little while. Since Apple has less content on its platform to compete with, a film like CODA can hang around until it finds its audience. It doesn’t live or die based on its first-week numbers the way, say, a Netflix movie does. Add in the bottomless resources of a tech company determined to make a splash entrance to the awards landscape, and CODA was able to hang around the conversation. Noms from early precursors such as the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards proved that its buzz was in fact real, and by the time guilds such as SAG and the WGA joined in, the film seemed like a safe bet to make the cut in Best Picture, especially in a year with a guaranteed ten nominees.
Enough Academy voters got onboard that CODA wound up with three nominations. Still, this was not the picture of a future Best Picture winner: No film had won with so few since the 1930s. What explains the turnaround? This is just a hunch, but based on the way the season played out, I’d venture that a large percentage of Oscars voters simply hadn’t seen it by the nomination deadline. However, once they started catching up with all the nominees during phase two, they liked what they saw. And here, paradoxically, is where CODA’s muted opening actually seemed to help it. By the time final voting came around, films including The Power of the Dog, Belfast, and Don’t Look Up had already been picked over for months. Even though it had come out earlier than all of them, the fact that CODA had stayed so quiet actually made it feel like something fresh and new — a genuine discovery. (Yes, it was based on a 2014 French film, but if you’re wondering why that fact wasn’t brought up more, I’m guessing it’s because very few people have seen La Famille Bélier.)
The power of the Kotsur.
Speaking of discoveries, CODA’s Oscars campaign benefitted from having a perfect pitchman in Troy Kotsur. As much as the Oscars are about Hollywood’s biggest stars coming together to celebrate their accomplishments, the season includes an element of welcoming new members into the club. Over the years, we’ve seen figures as diverse as Glen Hansard, Quvenzhané Wallis, Bong Joon-ho, and Youn Yuh-jung play this part. There are layers here: The Hollywood establishment is excited about a new face and a little bit excited about playing the part of the magnanimous hosts. And beginning with his Supporting Actor win at the Gotham Awards in December, Kotsur proved a charming ambassador for his film.
In a series of acceptances delivered in American Sign Language, he was funny, earthy, humble, and visibly moved by each honor. In other words, his podium persona was a lot like CODA itself, and each winning appearance undoubtedly spurred audience members who hadn’t yet seen the film to check it out. It helped, of course, that he had given the performance of his life in the movie. Even those who found CODA slightly mannered in its adherence to Sundance-indie norms hailed his ability to inject the film with genuine human openness. In the words of noted hater Richard Brody, “without his wise and wry and exuberant performance, the formulaic movie would have no other nominations.” How many hearts he’d won over was evident from the way Youn announced his Best Supporting Actor win: in ASL, so Kotsur and other Deaf viewers would know before anyone else.
It was the right movie for the moment.
It’s no shade to CODA to note that even those who stumped hardest for the film’s Oscars chances would, when prompted, often admit they didn’t actually think it was the best film of the year; they just liked it. The Oscars are not sports, where you add up all the points and at the end you can objectively say who was better. For what it may have lacked in pedigree, CODA had one quality in abundance: It was exactly the film it set out to be. It was a “movie movie,” a film whose primary goal was provoking an emotional response in the viewer. The artistry it used to accomplish this was genuine if more subtle than most of its competitors. In a year when the Academy found nits to pick — however valid — with films such as Power of the Dog and Belfast, CODA had the benefit of simply being satisfying.
The Zeitgeist played a part, as it always does. Just as Green Book’s Oscar win can be explained partially by the fact that it took place around the same time as the Jussie Smollett and Covington Catholic controversies, and Parasite’s by the sour political mood of early 2020, I don’t think CODA would have resonated nearly so much had it not been playing in front of viewers who were spending the rest of their waking hours anxious about Omicron and Ukraine. In a time of crisis, the Academy was in need of a fuzzy blanket, and CODA just so happened to be expertly knitted from baby-alpaca wool.
And, of course, the pandemic had already nudged the door open for a CODA win earlier in the process. As movie theaters shut down in quarantine, streaming-only projects became the only projects. By the time cinemas opened up again, the idea of handing Best Picture to a streamer had gone from something worth picking a fight over to something that seemed inevitable. (Still, Apple should probably thank Netflix for spending the past four years acting as a meat shield for anti-streaming sentiment, allowing CODA to sneak through comparatively unscathed.)
What does this win mean for CODA’s legacy? I’ve seen some chatter that it will be unfairly dinged for its big win, that it will go down in history as the film that unfairly beat some career achievements from major directors. That may be true. But I’m also reminded of something Kotsur said on his press tour about being the first Deaf man to be nominated for an acting trophy: The achievement will be written in Oscars history, and nothing can take it away. There were so many ways that CODA — a film with few stars about a community that rarely gets the spotlight, which premiered at a virtual film festival in the darkest days of a pandemic — could have been forgotten. Now it’s the Best Picture winner. That’s not going away, either.
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