After Winning the Best Director Oscar, Guillermo del Toro Has Options, So Now What?

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Guillermo del Toro WinnerGetty Images

I’ve said it before in this space, and I’ll say it again: The Shape of Water was my favorite film of 2017. I was thrilled that it took the Best Picture trophy the other night, just as I was that deservedly took home Best Director. As I’ve talked about the movie over the last few months, and people have asked me if it’s worth seeing, I’ve always given it a high recommendation, even when someone tells me, “Yeah, but I’m not a big del Toro fan.” “It’s okay,” I always respond, “I’m not, either.”

After his double win over the weekend, I was reminded of this attitude towards his work, and it made me think of the other directors who have won this ultimate honor and consider where he fits into the overall hierarchy of those who came before him. Because not every winner of this award is a Steven Spielberg, a Martin Scorsese, or an Ang Lee — or going back further in time, a John Ford, a Billy Wilder, or a William Wyler. There is a long line of directors who won the Oscar for a film that far surpassed anything else they might have done in their careers, either before or after.

For all the Hall of Famers on the list of this century’s winners, there are plenty of talented, capable helmers like Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) — hell, even Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) — who captured the Academy’s imagination with something special, but haven’t come close to reaching the level of their Oscar-winning work, even if their other films earned various other Oscar nominations.

I bring this all up because del Toro is an inventive, talented filmmaker who made some visually stunning pictures over the years, but who never came close to putting it together quite the way he did with The Shape of Water. I know that Pan’s Labyrinth has its defenders, but come on, it’s nowhere near what he accomplished with his latest film. While the work he has done might have suggested to some that he was capable of something like this, it certainly never occurred to me. My surprise at how beautiful Shape was, both visually and emotionally, carried through to my second and third viewings. This, I realized, was a tour de force, and I just never knew the director of Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak — his last two movies before this — had it in him.

Which is why I now wonder what’s next for him. Will he take the ball and run with it, or will he go back to making visually dazzling, but ultimately lesser films like before. You can argue that many of those movies were simply genre flicks, but that defense doesn’t really fly, because truly great directors can elevate material beyond the confines of its genre. Like Ang Lee taking the framework of a kung fu flick and giving us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Spielberg turning a standard war movie into Saving Private Ryan. Up to now, I don’t think del Toro has done that. His previous films were mostly solid, with a couple real clunkers in there, but nothing that elevated him to the next level of filmmaker where everything he does must be paid special attention.

Except now, he has done something that puts him in that category, and so whatever he decides to do next — be it the live-action version of Pinocchio, a remake of either Fantastic Voyage, The Haunted Mansion or the little-seen 1947 noir thriller Nightmare Alley, or something else entirely — suddenly carries a great amount of weight and importance. Del Toro has a unique opportunity to build on his triumph at the Academy Awards, and thereby avoid the same fate that has afflicted so many other winners of the Best Director award.

Working in his factor is his tendency to take chances and make films that aren’t necessarily mainstream. That’s why I think that whatever he does, whether it’s one of the above mentioned projects or not, it’s going to at least look good, and will take certain risks that many mainstream directors, if not most of them, probably wouldn’t take. That, in fact, is exactly what’s behind the success of The Shape of Water, a period love story involving a woman and a fish man, that he somehow elevated beyond its humble genre origins. For the first time, del Toro figured it out, which makes me think that when the next opportunity comes, he might be able to repeat the trick.

I once had a conversation with a director who won an Oscar, and he said that the best thing the award did for him was give him pretty much carte blanche to do a couple things that he really wanted to do, and no one was going to immediately penalize him if they didn’t work out quite right. That’s the position that del Toro now finds himself in, and I’m sure he’s fully aware of that opportunity, even as he takes a victory lap for The Shape of Water.

The question becomes whether del Toro wants to take full advantage of this moment, or whether he’ll settle for the “yes’s” that he’s already received around town. Does del Toro hunger for a whole new level of acclaim and respect, and is he even able to attain it after his Oscar win, or has he hit his ceiling? I’m obviously not sure, but I’m definitely hoping that he’ll continue to push himself to new heights. I’m absolutely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until we see what’s next, whatever it is. He’s certainly earned my blind faith after Shape.


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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4 Comments

  1. Rolan Mai-Aiz on

    “I bring this all up because del Toro is an inventive, talented filmmaker who made some visually stunning pictures over the years, but who never came close to putting it together quite the way he did with The Shape of Water. ” – yet another smirking turd on the internet dismissing the career of a great, compassionate, diverse artist with a sweeping, ignorant statement. The writer’s ignorance is reinforced by statements like “Ang Lee taking the framework of a kung fu flick and giving us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” – Crouching Tiger is part of a long line of films stretching back to Hu King’s seminal work in the late ’60s and early ‘7os, and expanded upon by Ashes of Time and countless other films.

    Here’s another gem – “The question becomes whether del Toro wants to take full advantage of this moment, or whether he’ll settle for the ‘yes’s’ that he’s already received around town. Does del Toro hunger for a whole new level of acclaim and respect, and is he even able to attain it after his Oscar win, or has he hit his ceiling?” Del Toro has been one of the most respected filmmakers in world cinema since Devil’s Backbone. Apparently, in this writer’s mind, gold-trophy success in the narcissistic black hole that is the mainstream American cinema-product apparatus is the only real success an artist can have.

  2. If he can’t get AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS made now then he never will.

    Just throw a few Chinese actors in it and scoop up all that lovely Mainland money. He might not even need a US studio.

  3. I agree that he should capitalise on his success but trying to move forward with getting ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ made.

    I’d be much more interested to see him make that than a remake of ‘Haunted Mansion’, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ or ‘Pinocchio’. I’m sure I speak for many when I saw we’re sick of constant remakes (smacks of laziness and corporate greed) and would much rather see a move version of ‘Madness’ finally be made.

    My suggestion to Del Toro would be for him to try to attach Leonardo DiCaprio to lead ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ as attaching a major movie star, combined with the commercial and critical success from ‘Shape of Water’, should be enough to finally see that film get made.

  4. Normally I cut and paste quotes of the most stupid things said in an article, but here there are so many (and so annoying) that I don’t feel like it.

    Suffice to say that many consider this movie to be extremely poorly written. In particular I strongly suggest you read the review by Robert McKee (who at the ends summarizes it as “a thinly disguised juvenile wanking dream, complete with bestiality”): https://mckeestory.com/the-shape-of-water-2017

    PostScript:

    1986: A white woman directs a superb romantic drama about a young deaf white woman that features a memorable and lyrical scene of under-water love-making between her and her (heaven forbid!) white male lover.

    2018: A Mexican man directs an otherwise cheezy B-movie about a young mute white woman that features a memorable and lyrical scene of under-water love-making between her and her non-white/non-human male lover.

    Such is “progress” in the age we live in, which values Political Correctness far more than quality (or originality).

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