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Film

How will 'CODA' be remembered as a Best Picture winner?

@TylerGolsen

On any other night, CODA would be the number one story coming out of the 94th Academy Awards. Winning all three of the awards it was nominated for on Sunday, the film that centres on the hearing child of a deaf family took home the biggest Oscar of the night, Best Picture, as well as major awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur. At any other time, 2022 would have been “The CODA Oscars”.

But now this ceremony forever belongs to Will Smith, thanks to his slapping of Chris Rock and the subsequent storm of controversy, stunned reactions, and discourse that has followed. Any and all attention that had followed the groundbreaking wins of CODA has now been diverted onto Smith, Rock, and the topics of toxic masculinity and the defending of family. With one open-palmed smack, Smith rendered every single other moment of the 94th Academy Awards irrelevant.

But history books and Wikipedia pages will always list CODA as being the big winner of the night, despite it not being the biggest story of the ceremony anymore. A feature film that leaned heavily on American Sign Language and received more visibility than any deaf-centred film before it, CODA was a first-of-its-kind Best Picture win. With that pedigree comes a deluge of reactions, not all of which are positive.

It’s true that CODA is not a perfect film. At its core, it’s a feel-good story, complete with a happy ending, lots of levity, and plenty of schmaltz. It’s the kind of film that can translate to audiences who have grown tired of the overwrought themes and brooding darkness than often becomes synonymous with “Oscar bait”. For viewers who found the central pain of The Power of the Dog too weighty or the intricate analysis of Drive My Car too subtle, CODA is an easily digestible, crowd-pleasing tour de force.

Unfortunately, a number of movies with similar descriptions have not been remembered fondly in the history of the Academy Awards. In terms of tone and style (and also the notable use of silence), CODA is probably most like The Artist, which won Best Picture back in 2011 over the abstract expanse of The Tree of Life, the dynamic drama of The Descendants, and the hypnotic analysis of Moneyball. 2011 was a bad year for Best Picture, with unworthy films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close rubbing elbows with middling picks like Hugo and Midnight in Paris. Compared to those, The Artist seemed like a boundary-pushing, even somewhat transgressive pick.

Today, The Artist has no cultural footprint outside of its Best Picture win. Its throwback to the Silent Era of cinema reads as gimmicky and its feel-good ethos has warmed over into ham-fisted pap. Unless you’re trying to do a completist run of Best Picture winners, there’s really no reason to see The Artist ten years after it took home the Academy’s biggest prize.

So is CODA doomed to a similar fate? Well, what other films does CODA evoke? The slick sentimentality of Green Book? The streaming-only seclusion of Nomadland? The overcoming of adversity found in The King’s Speech or the celebratory nature of Slumdog Millionaire? Those are all fair comparisons, even if they don’t add up quite as perfectly. Sadly, those are not any of the most highly-rated Best Picture winners of the last 20 years, which seems to be a bad omen for CODA.

To be fair, CODA is unlikely to be seen as some egregious worst-ever pick for Best Picture the way that Crash or Shakespeare in Love have become. CODA isn’t as pedantic or preachy as Crash, and it doesn’t have the dubious distinction of taking away Best Picture from a more-worthy candidate the way Shakespeare in Love blocked Saving Private Ryan in 1998.

With any luck, CODA can take on the same status that films like Forest Gump or Out of Africa have garnered over the years: messy, imperfect films that rely on sentimentality but nevertheless remain beloved by a large number of those who have experienced it. CODA is certainly treading water hot off of its Best Picture win, with critics and talking heads uncertain if it’s going an Argo or a Driving Miss Daisy. Only time will tell, but at a ceremony where they were sidelined by Hollywood drama, CODA could very well live on as an underrated gem or a heartwarming rewatch in the years to come.

What’s clear is that, despite its overly-simplistic message, after-school-special attitude toward its main characters, and nauseatingly-mawkish ending, CODA is still a good movie. It won’t be remembered as a disaster or as a blocker for a more worthy film, at least not at this present moment. Does its win feel like Hollywood patting itself on the back for acknowledging deaf people, even though there has been strong representation in film and theatre for decades? Absolutely, but CODA isn’t a “disability film” any more than the 94th Academy Awards were the “Will Smith Oscars”. It’s all about how perception, and the perception of CODA will take at least another couple of years before it settles into the long and occasionally torrid history of Best Picture winners.