A Fantastic Woman has won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Oscars, beating out On Body and Soul, Loveless, The Insult, and The Square—and making history as the first Oscar winner in which the transgender protagonist is played by a trans person.
Trans stories and characters have been recognized before tonight, but unlike Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club and Hilary Swank as Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry, Daniela Vega’s masterful turn as Marina isn’t predicated on a physical transformation (and, by extension, a potentially harmful dissonance between actor and character). When Vega stood on stage this evening as the first trans person ever to present at the Academy Awards (introducing a song from Call Me By Your Name), she only reinforced what we already knew about Marina’s identity.
Vega has also used her newfound stardom to push for change in her home country, where it is still exceptionally difficult for a trans person to legally change their name and gender. The film’s affirmation of Marina’s womanhood despite that helps show that trans lives are valid irrespective of the state’s approval. And that message is reaching a significant swath of the population—A Fantastic Woman, now the first Chilean film to take home an Oscar, is still in theaters nearly a year after its debut there.
This historic win and enduring audience interest marks an important counter to one of the most common arguments against casting trans actors: That only a more mainstream, cisgender actor (say, Eddie Redmayne) could ensure the film’s critical and financial success. It’s a risk director Sebastián Lelio was aware of, but didn’t allow to deter him. As he told Variety, “I knew I could pay a price for making Daniela the focal point of the film, but if it succeeded, then we would gain something precious.”
He was right: The result is something rare and essential. Vega, who was credited in Lelio’s acceptance speech as the inspiration for the film, worked closely with him and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza for more than a year to ensure that the script was true to life as a trans woman in Santiago, and she imbues the role and the story as a whole with the kind of authenticity that can only come from experience. A Fantastic Woman is a celebration of Marina’s fortitude and humanity that, unlike so many stories of trans martyrdom, ultimately allows her to triumph. To see that rewarded with a real-life victory is gratifying and exciting.