How much of an Oscar player is CODA, the prize-winning Sundance dramedy that has slowly built up a following since debuting on Apple TV+ seven months ago? A few weeks ago, I would have confidently told you it was stuck in the bottom half of the Best Picture rankings. But that was before Sian Heder’s film surprisingly took home the Best Cast award from the Screen Actors Guild, beating Belfast, Don’t Look Up, and King Richard. Now pundits are starting to speculate about whether it might be a sneaky Best Picture winner, and Awards Twitter has erupted into civil war over the issue. Is there something real going on here, or are we just in need of something new to talk about in the final month of the season? I’m inclined to say the latter, but when publicists repping other contenders start pointedly telling you why they don’t think CODA’s a threat, attention must be paid. Let’s look at the film’s Oscar bona fides from both sides.
At the moment, CODA appears to be the strongest alternative to The Power of the Dog.
When people ask me who’s winning Best Picture, I default to the safe choice, Jane Campion’s western. But I pause before proclaiming The Power of the Dog a lock. To me, it feels like the kind of technically accomplished epic that could wind up on the wrong side of a Picture-Director split. If not Dog, then who? Most of the other nominees have their own struggles; a few gushing West Side Story tweets aside, CODA is the only contender that’s had any good news recently.
The timing is right.
It has long been acknowledged among Oscar pundits that a serious auteur project like Power of the Dog has the potential to be upset in Best Picture by a more accessible crowd-pleaser. They just thought that movie would be Belfast. Since winning the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, Kenneth Branagh’s film has operated under the front runner’s curse: Viewers can’t always separate their feelings for a film from their feelings about it as a potential Best Picture winner. (Oscar bloggers bear much of the blame for this — sorry, Ken.) Though it debuted even earlier, CODA was free of such burdensome expectations. It flew under the radar for much of the season, allowing the film to feel like a genuine discovery for voters just getting around to it now.
It has a winning pitchman.
Going into the season, CODA’s biggest acting player was thought to be Marlee Matlin, the most famous name in the cast, who also happens to be a former Oscar winner. But a funny thing happened over the precursors: Her onscreen husband, Troy Kotsur, a workaday actor finally getting his big break, began showing up in Best Supporting Actor lineups. Then he started winning, and when he did, his heartfelt ASL acceptances were among the highlights of each ceremony. Kotsur is now considered neck-and-neck with Kodi Smit-McPhee in the Supporting Actor race and has been making the case for how important a film like CODA is for the deaf community. A Best Picture campaign often needs to come paired with a successful charm offensive, and Kotsur appears to be playing his role to a T.
It speaks to how Oscar voters want to see themselves.
After two years of plague, inflation, and now war, who could blame Oscar voters for rewarding something warm and fuzzy? In this, CODA is joined by Belfast and King Richard: All three are about parents making sacrifices for their children, and all three will almost surely make you tear up. But CODA has the additional resonance of its predominantly deaf cast providing representation for a community given short shrift onscreen. Not only does the movie feel good to watch, it also feels good to vote for — a crucial factor in the age of the preferential ballot.
Now let’s put on our spoilsport pants. Why should we say “No, duh” to CODA?
The Best Cast SAG doesn’t always go to a top-tier contender.
Parasite’s big SAG win was a crucial moment in its awards journey, but the award itself is not a guarantee of Oscar gold. The year before, the top prize went to Black Panther, which was not a player at the Oscars outside the craft categories. Two years before that, SAG awarded Hidden Figures, which went home empty-handed on the big night, as did last year’s winner, The Trial of the Chicago 7. From The Full Monty to Sideways, it is entirely plausible for a well-liked little movie to get its moment in the sun at SAG but never factor into the Best Picture race beyond that.
It may struggle to maintain its post-SAG momentum.
That CODA got two weeks of good press after its SAG win is due to a quirk of the awards-season calendar. Because of Omicron and other schedule shuffles, there hasn’t been another major precursor ceremony since. (The Independent Spirit Awards were last weekend, but their picks this year barely overlapped with the Oscar field.) That will change this weekend at the DGAs and BAFTAs, after which some other films will be riding high. CODA wasn’t nominated at either. Is SAG all it needs to get by?
Finally, why didn’t it get more nominations?
CODA’s only other recognition from the Academy came in Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay. You have to go back to the 1930s to find a Best Picture winner with so few nominations. And it’s not as if there was nowhere else CODA could have shown up. Matlin was in the mix for a Supporting Actress spot, and considering how much Oscar loves an ingenue, star Emilia Jones was bandied about as a dark horse Best Actress player. That neither of them made it in has to be factored into CODA’s chances. The lack of below-the-line love suggests the film may not have enough broad support to last long on the preferential ballot. Sure, no one’s marking it last, but will it garner enough No. 1 votes to survive the first few rounds of voting?
However, I also know this: People have been counting out CODA all season long, and it keeps staying in the race. I’m reminded of another orchestral term: fermata. It means you keep playing until the conductor says stop.