Congrats to CODA (2021), a little film about a high school girl and her deaf family, that won all of its three Academy Award nominations, including the big one: Best Picture.
To some, the victory came as a surprise since CODA doesn’t seem like a typical Oscar winner. For starters, it cost $10 million to make opposed to the production budgets on Don’t Look Up ($75 million), West Side Story ($100 million) and Dune ($165 million). However, CODA’s toughest competition came from Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog ($39 million) which was the awards season front-runner.
But what CODA lacked in pricey production values, it made up for in heart. And as the race drew to a finish, it was clear voters wanted to reward a feel-good film with diversity. Yes, the Academy had an equity itch that only CODA could scratch.
Throughout Oscar’s 94-year history, CODA is among just 21 Best Picture winners told from a female character’s point of view. Also, it’s arguably the first Best Picture that primarily falls into the coming-of-age genre. But more importantly, it offers deaf representation.
Since the late ’40s, the Academy has been recognizing work that reflects the deaf community. For playing hearing impaired men, Alan Arkin and Riz Ahmed earned Best Actor nominations per The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968) and Sound of Metal (2019), respectively.
Beyond Silence (1960), See What I Say (1981) and Language Says It All (1987) received nominations for Best Documentary Short as did Sound and Fury (2000) for Best Documentary Feature. Germany’s Beyond Silence (1996) was up for Best Foreign Film and The Silent Child (2018) won Best Live Action Short.
Deaf characters are included in the Best Picture nominees Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Babel (2006) and There Will Be Blood (2007). Sign language is featured in Best Picture winner The Shape of Water (2017) and used as the primary means of communication between Best Actress winner Holly Hunter and Best Supporting Actress winner Anna Paquin in The Piano (1993).
Jane Wyman was named Best Actress for portraying a deaf woman in Johnny Belinda (1948). Helen Keller In Her Story (1955) won Best Documentary Feature. And The Miracle Worker (1962), which is based on Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, merited Oscars for Best Actress Anne Bancroft and Best Supporting Actress Patty Duke.
In 1987, Marlee Matlin became the first and only deaf woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for Children of A Lesser God (1986). This year, her CODA co-star Troy Kotsur became the first and only deaf man to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Together, they play the randy parents of a deaf son Leo (Daniel Durant) and hearing daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) in CODA. The film’s title stands for “Child Of Deaf Adult,” while the word “coda” refers to a concluding piece of music that follows the main movement. In other words, when the audience thinks the work is over — it’s not.
The title cleverly sets up writer/director Sian Heder’s dramedy wherein Ruby wants to become a singer yet feels she must remain as her family’s interpreter. Then, just when it seems her dreams are over, she gets a chance to attend a prestigious music school.
But not before she receives some tough love from her vocal coach (Eugenio Derbez) who says, “You’re late, you’re unprepared. You wouldn’t last two days at Berklee. Out! Go! You had what? 17 years on this planet? You don’t know shit. You wanna know why I’m a teacher? Because I’m good at it! But I can’t do my job if you don’t do yours.”
Despite the heavy-handed dialogue, Heder received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (it’s based on 2014’s French-Belgian film La Famille Bélier). For those who are willing to ignore the tropes and formulaic plot, CODA can generate laughs and tears.
Still, the viewing experience is akin to watching a teen saga on The WB. In fact, the film would make an excellent pilot for a series, perhaps on Apple TV+, which could employ deaf actors over a long period of time and allow their characters to become more nuanced as the story progresses.
For now, CODA is playing in theaters and can be streamed on Apple+.