Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, story by Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones
Firsts are everything in life – first steps, first words, first kiss. The same is true for the Oscars. Here are some important firsts for Oscar wins:
- First Woman Writer: Frances Marion for The Big House (1929-1930), and again with The Champ (1931-1932)
- First Musical Best Picture: The Broadway Melody (1929)
- First Black Winner: Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress, for Gone With The Wind (1939)
- First Woman Director: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009)
- First Black Writer: Geoffrey S. Fletcher, Best Adapted Screenplay, for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009)
- First Gay Themed Best Picture: Moonlight (2016)
Well, 2017 was no different, with Jordan Peele (Get Out) being the first black writer to win an Oscar for Original Screenplay, while The Shape of Water was the first film with themes of bestiality to win Best Picture. On the one hand, that there are still new metaphorical worlds to be conquered at the Oscars in heartening. On the other hand, the more firsts happen, the more unusual they have to be in order to continue happening.
What’s It About?
Dateline – Baltimore 1962. It is the height of the Cold War and the US government has brought the Creature from the Black Lagoon back to Baltimore to study. Eliza (Hawkins), a mute woman who works nights cleaning the government facility where the Creature is kept, makes an improbable connection with the Creature. Turns out, he’s not just a monster, but has some sentience and sensitivity. Nevertheless, their bond is threatened when the military men running the Creature eventually decide to do a more “thorough” investigation of him – i.e. vivisection. Desperately, Eliza decides to free him and enlists a neighbor, and a friend from work, to help get the job done.
The Shape of Water is explicitly a fairy-tale – in fact, the movie wants it known it’s a fairy-tale, even naming one of the DVD extras “A Fairy Tale For Troubled Times.” And while the film was born out of Del Toro’s failure to bring a version of Creature from the Black Lagoon to the screen, the movie is just as rooted in Beauty and the Beast than anything else. But while it’s a fairy-tale, it is one aimed squarely at adults, as the level of blood and violence, and overt sexuality – a nude Eliza opens the movie masturbating in the bathtub, then culminates in her having sex with the Creature – is probably not what most parents would show their kids.
As Eliza, Hawkin’s has the most demanding of the roles, given playing a mute woman deprives her of her voice, leaving her to do the work of conveying her internal life, and longing, mostly with her eyes, body language, and facial expression. The danger there is she could overplay it like she’s in a silent movie – after all, for Hawkin’s it is a silent movie – but she is controlled and always avoids caricature. Yes, there are times when she’s big, but when she is it feels honest and true to the story and the character and not needlessly comic.
Michael Shannon is equally good as the villain, which is no surprise as Shannon always gives good villain. In the movie he is the lead security agent overseeing the Creature and takes to the role with his usual gusto. In fact, this is almost a role Shannon can play in his sleep, and we’ve seen this sort of thing form him before. But if you know anything of Michael Shannon you know he does not do anything by rote. He never turns up and sleepwalks a role like Bruce Willis. No, he goes for it, invests in it, and makes you believe in what is motivating his character. That’s what makes him better than many other actors of his stripe – he is always believable. And what do you have to believe about Shannon? He’s actually the good guy. His motivations are pure and you easily see he is just doing what he thinks is right and logical. What makes him the villain, though, is we just don’t agree with him.
Also putting in fine performances are Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. Jenkins plays Giles, Eliza’s neighbor, who also happens to be a homosexual artist. In the role, Jenkins is sensitive and wise and also lonely, playing all three in all the right ways. He is the perfect Gal Friday. Spencer plays Zelda, a co-worker from the government facility. While Spencer doesn’t have a ton to do in the role – in a lot of ways it’s a sad commentary on the world when an Oscar-winner has to take these kinds of parts – she is wonderful. She is vibrant. Rather than show up and get her paycheck and act like she can’t be bothered, she does the job like a professional and does the job well.
At the start of all this I basically made a joke of the bestiality elements of the film, which is a bit unfair given the subject is handled delicately. It’s hardly salacious. And while this sort of storyline might seem revolutionary – and it is – the true bit of progress in the film is really in how it treats Eliza’s sexuality. In another movie, Eliza might find herself demonized or shamed for being in control of her own desires, but in this movie it’s treated with a shrug. Her masturbating, or having physical needs, is just another thing she does during the day. Make your breakfast, brush your teeth, have a bath, masturbate. It’s just what you do.
That said, it is weird that Sally Hawkins is fully, frontally nude in the film, more than once, then has sex with the creature, but at no time do we see the Creature’s dong. To be clear, I’m not advocating putting a fish-man’s dingus on screen, but have to wonder why you’d show one nude and not the other. Especially given there is a semi-explicit discussion of the dong afterwards between Eliza and Zelda. Under those circumstances, not seeing it was the disappointment.
The movie is too long by about 15 minutes – most movie’s are – and has a gaping plot hole in it I don’t think can ever be reconciled without eliminating the need for half the movie.
Here it is: after Eliza breaks the Creature out of the facility, she takes him back to her apartment to hide out for a few weeks, until the rains come and fill in the canal to the sea. The thing is, they don’t have to wait. After all, Eliza lives in Baltimore, and used her neighbors car to help the Create escape, and so with ocean inlets less than an hour from her house, there’s no reason she needed to keep the creature around for some canal to fill. She could have gotten rid of him that night. Of course, if she did that the love story, and the Creature-banging, don’t happen. So…cest la vie.
After having already seen Eliza masturbate twice, we later see her hanging out with Giles, and pouring herself a bowl of Corn Flakes for breakfast. As she goes about it, Giles says offhand that, “Corn Flakes were invented to prevent masturbation.” Eliza immediately stops eating and glares at the bowl of flakes in her hands with horror, and you half expect her to spit out the bite of flakes in her mouth at the thought of losing her one sexual release, mostly because we’ve already seen her spit out a bite of key lime pie. But then, Giles says, “Didn’t work,” and she goes right back to eating. I laughed loudly at this moment in the theater when I saw it, and laughed even louder when I watched it again at home.
Also see the Also Rans Project here.
 They don’t say explicitly that’s who they’ve gotten, but come on, that’s who they got.