The Oscars 2022 pendulum is swinging — and it seems to be towards Sian Heder’s Coda.
About a month ago, it was nowhere near the awards conversation, with nominees such as The Power of the Dog and West Side Story expected to clean up. Then it won two Screen Actors Guild prizes, including the award for ensemble acting in a movie.
Last week at the Baftas, Coda star Troy Kotsur made history as the first deaf male to win Best Supporting Actor. Heder also took the prize for adapted screenplay (the film is a loose remake of the 2014 French movie La Famille Belier). Now, the Producers Guild Awards offers a strong hint that Coda might just be the feel-good film Oscar voters are turning to. Indeed, when Kotsur’s co-star Emilia Jones performed Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now at the Baftas — a song that features poignantly in the movie — it felt like a heart-melting turning point in the awards race.
In the film, Jones plays Ruby, the only member of the Rossi family who can hear; her father Frank (Kotsur), her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) are all deaf. As a Coda (child of deaf adults), her folks lean on her heavily to communicate with those around them, especially regarding their fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts. But, in the best tradition of teenage coming-of-age movies, she has other ambitions — such as applying for Berklee College of Music to pursue her love of singing.
For a story that’s all about following your dreams, Coda has been one of those movies that’s been living a fairy-tale of its own this past year — ever since it premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and won an unprecedented four awards, including the US Grand Jury Prize and US Dramatic Audience Award. Then the unthinkable happened, with Apple paying a record-setting $25 million for the rights to stream the film on its growing platform.
When I spoke to Heder last year, she was understandably delighted with the Apple deal. “They have so much reach as a company and I think such powerful intentions in terms of making change for good in the world,” she said. “This could be a film, but it could also be a movement — that maybe there are apps to be developed around the deaf community to make life easier to live, maybe there’s more content and projects to support to raise awareness around disability and inclusion.”
If that’s the case, it’s been a long time coming. Back in 1987, Matlin became the first deaf actress to ever win an Oscar for Children of a Lesser God, although she doubtless would’ve swapped that for a world where Hollywood regularly told more inclusive stories. Yet recently, from Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck to horror film A Quiet Place and last year’s Sound of Metal, which won two Oscars from six nominations, stories about hearing-impaired characters have become more widespread.
A win for Coda, though, would feel like a major step forward in on-screen representation.
Scroll through the gallery below to see Marlee Matlin and other best-dressed stars at the Producers Guild Awards 2022:
So does it have a chance? The Academy has a history of not always going with the most critically acclaimed film (think Dances with Wolves beating Goodfellas, as one example) and siding with more sentimental/commercial movies. And when compared with The Power of the Dog's adoring reception among critics, CODA has only been warmly received.
Plus, The Power of the Dog director Jane Campion may have scuttled her chances after last week’s Directors Guild of America ceremony. During her acceptance speech, she said to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams - whose father is the subject of King Richard, another of the high-profile contenders - “you do not play against the guys, like I have to”, a pointed reference to the fact her fellow nominees were all men.
It was enough to cause outrage on social media, with many viewing Campion’s remarks as insensitive towards the Williams’ sisters’ achievements. Meanwhile, CODA just keeps on winning new admirers, helped by Kotsur’s heart-warming acceptance speech at the Baftas, where he offered himself up for a role in a future James Bond movie.
At the right time, CODA is saying all the right things - and it just so happens to be in sign language.