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In The Shape of Water, a woman and a man go to a movie theater. She’s mute, he’s amphibian. Typical Hollywood characters, really: Creature From the Black Lagoon was a big hit in the Eisenhower era, and nobody onscreen could talk before 1927.
But director Guillermo del Toro situates these lovers, played by Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, within a world that would call them unconventional. They watch The Story of Ruth, a grand studio production, based on the Bible. Ruth came out in 1960, the year after the biblical epic. And nearly six decades after Ben-Hur received 12 Oscar nominations, a movie about a romantic fish-man just got 13.
With the Academy Awards, the movie industry defines its own excellence. And that definition is always changing. Art evolves. The industry does, too. A black man was never nominated for Best Actor, until he was. A woman was never nominated for Best Director, until she was. A transgender filmmaker was never nominated for anything, until — this year — Strong Island’s Yance Ford was. The history of the Academy Awards is the history of, well, history: conventional wisdom spurring unconventional rebellion, walls built to be broken.
The Oscars are, most simply, a reflection of how the film business sees itself. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been the preeminent awards institution in the entertainment industry for 90 years. EW’s special issue about Oscar’s Untold Stories explores those nine decades in depth, but every film fan has some broad feeling for the history behind the awards. Every young movie lover depends on the Academy Awards for a baseline definition of quality, a through-line from Lawrence of Arabia to Moonlight. And every slightly less young movie lover will, at some crisis moment, experience an epiphany about Oscar’s limitations. No nominations for Marilyn Monroe? No Best Director prizes for Spike Lee? No Best Picture nomination for The Dark Knight? No nominations at all for Mean Streets, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Big Lebowski, or Snowpiercer?
Watch the full episode of Hollywood’s Greatest Untold Stories now on PeopleTV. Go to PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device.
But then consider the activist hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It was a profound critique, and like all great criticism, #OscarsSoWhite was also an act of devotion. It was a message to the Academy, but also to anyone grown cynical, a way of saying: “Yes. This matters. Imagine all the ways it could matter more.” So this year’s Oscar nominees are an expression of thrilling, changing times. The five Best Director nominees hail from divergent origins: sketch comedy and mumblecore, low-budget horror and ’90s independent cinema and (hey!) The Dark Knight. Seeing the bloody, hilarious horror of Get Out in the Best Picture category must seem as disruptive to some as the presence of the X-rated Midnight Cowboy was for anyone who worked on Sergeant York — as disruptive, in fact, as the sound in The Jazz Singer was for an industry built on the blessed silence of pantomime.
It’s hard to watch The Jazz Singer today. The blackface scenes are their own literalization of the identity-appropriation horrors at the core of Get Out. But the power of the Academy Awards is how they give the movie industry — and we, the people — the space to grapple with the past and invent a new future. You can’t change history, except when you make it. The excellence of the 2018 Academy Awards is the excellence of the Academy’s 90 years, honoring history in all its complexity. It is the story of great big Hollywood epics playing in grand movie theaters — and the unconventional people, amphibious or otherwise, who sit in the audience and dream of the new fantasies they’ll create someday.
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