Usually, the visit to the White House comes after the victory, not before.
But when the cast of “CODA” went to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday and shook hands with President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, with the U.S. Marine Band serenading everyone with the film’s signature song, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” it felt less like a meet-and-greet and more like a victory lap.
A few nights later, “CODA,” the sweet story of a child of Deaf adults (the acronym in the title) connecting with her family and realizing her dreams, won the Academy Award for best picture, a victory that no one could have imagined when the awards season began. Not writer-director Siân Heder, who won the Oscar for adapted screenplay. Not Apple TV+, which became the first streaming service to win the best picture Oscar.
Maybe Marlee Matlin, the first person cast in “CODA,” could have imagined it. When I interviewed her in January 2021, before the movie screened at the virtual Sundance Film Festival and subsequently sold to Apple for a record $25 million, she said she hoped “CODA” would create a “tidal wave” of awareness for the Deaf community. A couple of months after the movie began streaming on Apple TV+ in August, Matlin revisited that comment, changing “tidal wave” to “tsunami.”
“People who might not have given us a second thought, now see us in all our humanity,” Matlin, the first Deaf actor to win an Oscar, for 1987’s “Children of a Lesser God,” told me. (Her “CODA” co-star, Troy Kotsur, became the second, winning the supporting actor trophy Sunday.)
Matlin’s unshakable faith notwithstanding, “CODA” stands as one of the most unlikely best picture winners in the history of the Oscars. Simply securing a nomination was far from assured, as academy members have rarely recognized feel-good family tales over the years. At the Oscars, family dramas tend to be feel-bad affairs. (Think “Marriage Story.”)
But it was precisely the movie’s heartwarming, heart-wrenching sweetness, made all the more affecting by the way Heder established the emotional bonds between the family members — high school senior Ruby (Emilia Jones) and her Deaf parents (Kotsur and Matlin) and Deaf brother (Daniel Durant) — that won over voters.
“I assume you understand the impact you had on the whole country,” President Biden told the cast in the Oval Office. “It helped so many people.”
Biden could have been referring to issues of representation. Heder insisted upon casting Deaf actors in the primary roles. American Sign Language is subtitled, rather than translated, highlighting its vibrancy as a form of communication.
It’s likely, though, that Biden was zeroing in on “CODA’s” core appeal. It’s a feel-good movie for a feel-bad era. And as Apple began screening the film in the late summer and kept at it through the fall and winter (“the long runway helped us,” a studio source told me, “giving us the opportunity to screen this movie so many times”), the streamer began to notice guild and academy voters returning for repeat viewings. (“And they’d bring friends too,” the source added. “Usually fellow voters.”)
Apple also quickly discovered its secret weapon: “CODA’s” cast. Aside from the Oscar winner Matlin, the “CODA” ensemble is composed mostly of relatively unknown actors, all of whom were happy to travel back and forth across the country to participate in events and post-screening Q&As. Their enthusiasm for the film was genuine — and proved contagious. Establishing buzz was a slow build, but the word-of-mouth was always exuberant.
The best picture nod materialized when Oscar nominations were announced Feb. 8. “CODA” earned three in all, including for Heder and Kotsur, a low total for a best picture contender. And it didn’t pick up nominations for directing or film editing, categories a movie historically needs to win the big prize. (1932’s “Grand Hotel” was the last movie to win best picture without at least one of these noms.)
By the end of February, those omissions seemed to matter a bit less when “CODA” won the film ensemble honor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Seeing the cast take the stage produced a palpable sense of joy in the room, much like when “Parasite” won the ensemble award two years ago. Then again ... there was a lot of excitement when “Black Panther” and “Hidden Figures” won at SAG too, films that did not go on to win the Oscar. So “CODA’s” crew didn’t get too carried away.
The most significant outcome from that SAG Awards evening — which also saw Kotsur, a mainstay at Los Angeles’s Deaf West Theatre, win an individual honor — was the boost in awareness it gave the movie.
“I heard from so many people afterward, telling me they were finally watching the film,” Heder told me at the Oscar nominees luncheon. “Better late than never, right?” She laughed. “I think it just helped with people taking the movie much more seriously.”
Once it won the best picture honor at the Producers Guild Awards last weekend, everyone in town was taking “CODA” seriously. Suddenly, this little movie, which premiered at Sundance 15 months ago, had become a formidable front-runner, though its campaign kept positioning it as the race’s scrappy underdog to the end. (And who doesn’t love to root for the underdog?)
“You can dream about something like this, but it’s still hard to believe,” “CODA” producer Patrick Wachsberger told me at the nominees luncheon. “The movie just gets to people. It’s about dreams and family and the things that we hold close to our hearts. You see a lot of people wiping away tears when the lights come up.”
Indeed, the movie’s final 20 minutes — which careens from a heart-to-heart talk between mother and daughter to a beautiful moment between father and daughter to the use of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in a way that literally embodies the lyrics “Tears and fears and feeling proud/ To say, ‘I love you’ right out loud” — delivers a well-earned, emotional roundhouse. Teamsters on the set were crying during filming.
Come to think of it, maybe “CODA’s” competition never stood a chance.
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