Every Oscars season, there often seems one or several movies that become that year’s “villain” on the internet. Sometimes, this brings up extremely valid critiques of the movie (ahem, “Green Book”). But other times, designating a major Oscars contender non grata happens solely because people feel the need to find something new to talk about during the monthslong awards season slog.
Over the last month, as it emerged as a Best Picture front-runner, the Apple TV+ dramedy “CODA” became this season’s villain. A month ago, it won Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards, a major precursor that is often (but not always) predictive of the Oscars’ Best Picture prize, cementing its status as the movie to beat.
One of the major narratives that emerged among detractors was that it was too feel-good and crowd-pleasing to win Best Picture. Some even went as far as calling “CODA,” which won the Grand Jury Prize when it premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and has garnered widespread critical acclaim, a “glorified Lifetime movie.”
It’s a terrible way to treat a movie that has been historic and significant on several fronts: the first movie with a majority-deaf cast to win Best Picture, only the third Best Picture winner ever directed by a woman, and the first time a Best Picture winner has come from a streaming service.
Directed by Sian Heder, “CODA” follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a talented high school senior in a small fishing town in Massachusetts whose music teacher encourages her to apply to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. But Ruby is torn between her dreams and her familial 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 their interpreter, navigating bureaucratic situations for her family’s fishing business. She also feels guilty that her deaf parents and brother can’t fully take part in her musical talents and ambitions.
Sure, its plot quickly becomes predictable and contains a sentimental and — depending on your taste — syrupy-sweet ending that ties up the story in a neat bow. But that’s no reason to diminish it in the harsh way its detractors have.
Plenty of feel-good, inspirational tales with familiar narrative beats win Best Picture. Moreover, being a sentimental crowd-pleaser isn’t an inherently bad thing or representative of the quality of the movie. And “CODA” is significant for telling a widely appealing, commercialized story in ways Hollywood has long neglected.
The movie’s success is a huge — albeit long-overdue — step forward for disability representation 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 until now — only deaf performer to win an Oscar, when she won Best Actress for 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God.”
Matlin has been by far the most prominent deaf actor — or let’s face it, disabled actor — in Hollywood, when there should have been many more to follow in her footsteps. Only 2.7% of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies were disabled, according to a 2017 report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
This is despite the majority of Best Actor wins in Oscars history having been given to non-disabled actors playing disabled or sick characters — which has led to some truly horrific and dangerous films about disabled people. A lot of these Oscars winners also portray disabled people like objects of pity or inspiration.
In “CODA” however, the disabled characters in the film are humanized and treated like three-dimensional characters, thanks to deaf actors.
This is why Matlin pushed for deaf actors to be cast for the deaf roles in “CODA.” Matlin, who was the first deaf actor cast in the film, put her foot down when producers were pressuring Heder to cast a non-deaf actor as Frank. Matlin told Time in August that she found that idea “outrageous” and threatened to leave the film.
“I don’t really have the luxury to do that all the time,” she said. “But in this case, I knew it wasn’t right. I believed in this, and I fought.”
She added: “You can’t have hearing actors play deaf characters, regardless of how big of a name you put in there, or 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” isn’t a perfect representation of deafness. There have been valid and thoughtful criticisms, for instance, that the movie centers on a hearing person to tell a story about deaf representation and seems geared toward making hearing people understand the experiences of deaf people. But that doesn’t take away from its significance, and its success will hopefully open the door (again, very belatedly) for more varied stories about deaf characters and more starring roles for deaf actors.
“CODA” winning Best Picture may also help reshape the idea of an “Oscar movie,” as previous groundbreaking Best Picture winners like “Moonlight” and “Parasite” have.
For example, movies directed by women or centering on women or girls often get short shrift at the Oscars. It’s telling that Heder wasn’t nominated for Best Director, despite the movie’s other major nominations and wins. The academy often seems to consider family dramedies too small and domestic in scope to win major awards.
It’s telling that when we picture an “Oscar movie,” it’s often about how big and sweeping it is. Epics with explosive visual effects, for instance, tend to be front-runners. By contrast, more intimate movies like “CODA” are often unfairly classified as “small,” insultingly implying that they involved less effort.
Despite its late-breaking surge, “CODA” winning Best Picture isn’t all that surprising, either. The academy’s preferential ballot voting system favors movies that appeal to a wide audience — something middle of the road. It’s easy to see a variety of voters, maybe those with wildly different picks for a number-one slot, agreeing on “CODA” and ranking it their second or third choice. Plus, the cast has made many joyful appearances throughout Oscars season, becoming great ambassadors for the film, which certainly can help tip the scales. (Surely, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after Kotsur’s wonderful speech when he won Best Supporting Actor.)
For all the academy’s efforts to improve the diversity of its membership, the perception of what makes an “Oscar movie” — while slowly changing in tandem with the increasingly more diverse membership — is still fairly limited.
A good chunk of this year’s Oscars contenders were coming-of-age stories by and about middle-aged white men, which disappointingly still seems like the academy’s default demographic. Feel-good, crowd-pleasing movies featuring, say, a protagonist’s search for identity and a triumph over the odds, are the kind of movies that appeal to a wide audience and reach a lot of viewers. “CODA” continuing that tradition while featuring a story we haven’t seen represented on this big of a stage is a hugely significant win for the Oscars, for Hollywood — and for movie lovers everywhere.
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