Each Oscar season, it often seems that one or more films become the “bad guy” of that year on the Internet. Sometimes it brings up extremely valid reviews of the film (ahem, “Green Book”). But other times, the non grata nomination of a major Oscar nominee happens purely because people feel the need to find something new to talk about during the months of awards season.
Over the past month, emerging as a favorite for best picture, Apple TV+ comedy-drama “CODA” has emerged as this season’s villain. A month ago, it won Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards, a major precursor that’s often (but not always) predictive of Best Picture at the Oscars, cementing its status as a movie to beat.
One of the main narratives that emerged among detractors was that it was too nice and crowd-pleasing to win Best Picture. Some have even gone so far as to call “CODA,” which won the Grand Jury Prize when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year to critical acclaim, a “glorified lifetime movie.”
It’s a terrible way to treat a film that was historic and significant on so many fronts: the first film with a mostly Deaf cast to win Best Picture, only the third winner of Best Picture Ever Directed by a Woman, and the first time a best movie The winner of the image is from a streaming service.
Directed by Sian Heder, “CODA” follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a talented high school student from a small fishing town in Massachusetts whose music teacher encourages her to apply to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. But Ruby is torn between her dreams and her family obligations. As the only hearing member of her family – a child of deaf adults (hence the film’s double-meaning title) – she often serves as an interpreter, navigating bureaucratic situations for her family’s fishing business. . She also feels guilty that her deaf parents and brother cannot fully participate in her musical talents and ambitions.
Of course, its plot quickly becomes predictable and contains a sentimental and – depending on your tastes – syrupy sweet ending that ties the story together in a neat arc. But that’s no reason to diminish it with the harshness of its detractors.
Many uplifting and uplifting tales with familiar narrative beats win Best Picture. Also, being a sentimental crowd pleaser isn’t a bad thing in itself or indicative of the quality of the film. And “CODA” is important for telling a broadly engaging and marketed story in a way that Hollywood has long neglected.
The film’s success is a huge – albeit long overdue – step forward for the representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood. As Ruby’s father, Frank, Troy Kotsur is now the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar. He joins ‘CODA’ co-star Marlee Matlin, who became the first – and so far – only deaf performer to win an Oscar, when she won Best Actress for ‘Children of a Lesser God” in 1986.
Matlin was by far the most prominent deaf actor — or let’s face it, disabled actor — in Hollywood, when there should have been plenty more to follow in his footsteps. According to a 2017 report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 2.7% of characters in the top 100 movies had disabilities.
This is despite the fact that the majority of Best Actor wins in Oscar history have gone to able-bodied actors playing disabled or ill characters – leading to some truly horrific and dangerous films about people with disabilities. Many of these Oscar winners also portray people with disabilities as objects of pity or inspiration.
In “CODA” however, the film’s disabled characters are humanized and treated as three-dimensional characters, thanks to deaf actors.
That’s why Matlin lobbied for deaf actors to be cast in deaf roles in “CODA.” Matlin, who was the first deaf actor to star in the film, put his foot down when producers pressured Heder to cast a non-deaf actor as Frank. Matlin told Time in August that she found the idea “outrageous” and threatened to quit the film.
“I don’t really have the luxury of doing this all the time,” she said. “But in this case, I knew it was wrong. I believed in it and I fought.
She added, “You can’t have hearing actors play deaf characters, no matter how big the name you put on it or the box office. Playing a deaf character is not a costume you can put on or take off at the end of the day.
Despite this, “CODA” is not a perfect representation of deafness. There have been valid and thoughtful reviews, for example, that the film centers on a hearing person to tell a story about the representation of the Deaf and seems to aim to make hearing people understand the experiences of Deaf people. But that doesn’t take away from its importance, and its success will hopefully (again, belatedly) open up more varied stories about deaf characters and bigger roles for deaf actors.
The “CODA” Best Picture award may also help reshape the idea of an “Oscar movie,” as previous breakthrough Best Picture winners like “Moonlight” and “Parasite” have done.
For example, films directed by women or centered on women or girls are often overlooked at the Oscars. It’s telling that Heder wasn’t nominated for Best Director, despite the film’s other major nominations and wins. The academy often seems to view family comedy-dramas as too small and national in scope to win major awards.
It’s telling that when we imagine an “Oscar movie” it’s often about its size and scope. Epics with explosive visual effects, for example, tend to be first. In contrast, more intimate movies like “CODA” are often unfairly categorized as “small,” insultingly implying that they involved less effort.
Despite its last-minute push, the “CODA” Best Picture award isn’t all that surprising either. The academy’s preferential voting system favors films that appeal to a wide audience — something in the middle of the road. It’s easy to see a variety of voters, perhaps those with very different choices for a number one slot, agreeing on “CODA” and ranking it as their second or third choice. Plus, the cast made plenty of jolly appearances throughout Oscar season, becoming great ambassadors for the movie, which can definitely help tip the scales. (Granted, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after Kotsur’s wonderful speech when he won Best Supporting Actor.)
Despite the academy’s best efforts to improve the diversity of its membership, the perception of what makes an “Oscar movie” – while slowly changing in tandem with increasingly diverse members – is still quite limited.
A good chunk of this year’s Oscar contenders were coming-of-age stories by and about middle-aged white men, which unfortunately still seems to be the academy’s default demographic. Films that feel good and please the crowd, featuring, for example, a protagonist’s search for identity and a triumph over the odds, are the kind of films that appeal to a wide audience and touch a large number of viewers. “CODA” continues that tradition while featuring a story we haven’t seen represented on that big stage is a hugely important win for the Oscars, for Hollywood – and for moviegoers everywhere.