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'The Shape of Water' gives Baltimore an unexpected — and unexplained — Oscar connection

Sally Hawkins plays a Baltimore gal in love with an amphibious humanoid in writer-director Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-nominated "The Shape of Water."
Sally Hawkins plays a Baltimore gal in love with an amphibious humanoid in writer-director Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-nominated "The Shape of Water." (Kerry Hayes / AP)

Who knew there was a secret government laboratory studying gill men right here in Baltimore?

At least, there is in “The Shape of Water,” writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s much-honored movie about a mute janitor and the intimate bond she forms with an amphibious humanoid creature hailing from South America, who some crazed U.S. government types think might help us win the Space Race.

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(Think a high-class sci-fi hybrid of “Splash” and “The Creature From the Black Lagoon,” and you’ll get the idea.)

It leads the Oscars pack with 13 nominations for the awards presentation March 4 in Los Angeles. And the film’s action takes place right here in Charm City.

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The secret lab is in Baltimore. The non-amphibious lead character (played by British actor Sally Hawkins, who received one of those 13 nominations) lives in an apartment above a grand old movie theater in Baltimore (not The Senator, although it’ll make many of us think of that grand old doyenne on York Road). There’s even a roadside bench displaying a look Baltimoreans will recognize (although it doesn’t say “The City that Reads,” or any other message y’all would recognize).

Aaron Maybin, the Baltimore educator who drew attention to the city's cold schools, is now looking to start another campaign to benefit his students: taking them to see Marvel's "Black Panther."

Heck, the heavy in the film, Michael Shannon’s bigoted, power-hungry colonel who sees the gill-man as his ticket to the big time, gets to sneer at one point, “no one likes Baltimore.”

(Local audiences seem to always react to that line — whether in agreement or disagreement, it’s hard to say.)

Tough to determine why our fair city gets such a spotlight shone on it. “The Shape of Water” was shot mostly in Toronto. Its characters eat a lot of hard-boiled eggs and bad pies, but no crabcakes. Del Toro, who hails from Mexico, has no obvious connection to here. None of the film’s press materials offers any explanation, and none of the movie’s major cast or crew seem to be Baltimoreans. (And in case you’re wondering, no, neither “Splash” nor “Black Lagoon” has any obvious B-more connections.)

An email to representatives of co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor came back with the simple reply, “This is a question for Guillermo!" So far, representatives for del Toro have not responded.

Maybe del Toro was simply looking for the nearest waterside city to Washington, D.C., and its slew of assuredly evil and easy-to-make-into-the-heavy government types. (If so, we would like to point out to the likely Best Director Oscar winner that Baltimore is a waterfront, but not an oceanfront, city, despite what a key plot-point suggests.)

Whatever the case, we’ll gladly shine in the reflected glory. And when visitors start showing up here and asking where the gill-man can be found, might we suggest just pointing them toward the National Aquarium and smiling mysteriously? Who knows, this could be the start of a major advertising campaign.

Starting Thursday, you’ll no longer be able to bring a big bag into Cinemark Theatres, according to a notice on the company’s website.

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