“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro’s striking, sensual fantasy film, won the Producers Guild of America’s top honor Saturday night at the PGA Awards, cementing its place as one of the front-runners of this year’s wide-open Oscar best picture race.
Del Toro did not attend, with “Shape of Water” cast member Richard Jenkins saying he was in Mexico with his ill father. Jenkins read a letter from the Mexican filmmaker, dedicating “a little moment and the honors of this night to both my father and my mother, to whom my infinite gratitude belongs and, in turn, as a father to offer to my kids also, may they be free to pursue their dreams and fantasies and may they stand by my side when I fade away.”
On a day with the government partially shut down and women marching in protest across the country, with an estimated 600,000 turning out in downtown Los Angeles, many of the evening’s honorees had politics on their minds. And, of course, the #MeToo movement and gender and representational inequities were also prominently mentioned in the night’s speeches.
“It feels like we are living in the sunken place right now,” said “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele, accepting the Stanley Kramer Award, making a reference to the film’s signature moment that he sees as a symbol for the marginalized.
“We won’t be silenced,” Peele continued. “We won’t be suppressed. Art is our weapon ... we can break out of the Sunken Place together.”
Presenting the honor to Peele, Norman Lear, 95 (when he mentioned his age, many in the audience gasped, owing to his energy and wit), praised “Get Out” for the “surgical way it takes on the racist fear that runs riot in America today.”
“You can use my body for your brain any time,” Peele told Lear, referencing his movie’s sinister, transmutation plot point. “You’re the only person in the world I’d be honored to coagulate with.”
The PGA also has an award named after Lear, and this year’s winner, television multi-hyphenate Ryan Murphy, devoted his speech to women, saying his career was created and carved by women and that his company now employs women in 60% of its directing slots.
The death of producer Allison Shearmur, who died Friday in Los Angeles after a battle with lung cancer, also weighed heavily on many in attendance. Shearmur produced the “Hunger Games” movies, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the upcoming “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” She was 54.
“I’ve spent the last 24 hours in shock over the loss,” said Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley, recipient of the Milestone Award. “She was an extraordinary friend to many of us in the room.”
Ava DuVernay, accepting the Visionary Award, gave a heartfelt tribute to Shearmur, noting that the late producer had been on her mind all day. DuVernay passed along praise from several people who had worked with Shearmur, all of them women or minorities.
“Don’t think of diversity as a good thing to do,” DuVernay told the audience, emphasizing collective responsibility. “Think of it as a must. An absolute must.”
Other film honors: “Coco” won best animated feature. “Jane” took the documentary prize.
On the television side, “The Handmaid’s Tale” continued its roll, taking a PGA honor following wins at the Emmys and Golden Globes. The British sci-fi anthology series “Black Mirror” won for long-form television. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” earned the live entertainment and talk category. Amazon Studios’ “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” prevailed for comedy series.
“Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath” won for nonfiction program. (“Scientology, an organization that uses its power and its money to intimidate and silence its critics,” Remini said. “As evidenced tonight, they have not succeeded.”) “The Voice” took the reality competition prize.
For a time, winning the PGA film award had been a strong precursor to an Oscar best picture win. After both the academy and the PGA expanded their best picture slates and adopted a preferential ballot to determine the victor, the two groups matched six years running. (That includes the strange 2014 PGA ceremony that somehow produced a tie between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.”)
But two years ago, the academy favored “Spotlight” over the PGA winner, “The Big Short.” And last year, “Moonlight” prevailed over “La La Land,” the PGA’s choice.
All to say: It’s nice that “The Shape of Water” has a mark in the win column. But with so many variables in this year’s race — not the least of which is that “Shape” failed to earn a key ensemble nomination at Sunday’s SAG Awards — the eventual best picture Oscar will be a subject of much debate until the envelope is opened March 4.