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Gurus of Gold: What Does Best Original Screenplay Really Mean?

When I was asked by Gurus of Gold to submit my predictions for Adapted and Original Screenplay I had to stop and think about it.  I’ve worn a groove over the years knowing how to predict in these categories.  Best Screenplay almost always means a second prize to a Best Picture/Best Director nomination.  It is usually the dumping ground for brilliant films that can’t get traction in the Best Picture/Best Director categories at best.  But most of the time, when you think of the major categories you start with Best Picture and Best Director. If it gets those two, chances are (unless its name is James Cameron) it will also get a screenplay nomination.  This year, like every other year, the Best Picture race is dominated by adaptations.  Adaptations of tested stories that have been brought to the big screen by great filmmakers.  But the story itself isn’t an original one.

The choosing of these possible contenders is tricky business.  You have to force yourself to think like an Oscar pundit, which means you say: it’s not what I WANT to get nominated, but what WILL get nominated.  To do that one must always second guess the writers branch at the Academy.

In trying to guess original screenplay I realized I was greatly underprepared.  What WERE the best original scripts brought to the big screen so far this year?  The first one that came to my mind was The Artist.  Written and directed by the brilliant Michel Hazanivicius, The Artist is deceptively simple until you realize what a layered and dense tribute it is to American film (through a Frenchman’s eyes, of course).   That is a no-brainer.  Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris is one I forgot to include on my Guru’s list for some bizarre reason, but of course, it is one of the best original stories this year — Woody Allen is one of the most valuable contributors to original stories at all, in any year, but this is one of his best.  Chalk two up to being locks in the category.

But what beyond that?

It seemed to me that the simple fact of having written and original screenplay and brought that story to screen in a wonderfully original, brilliant even perhaps, way was enough to be taken seriously for an Oscar nomination, certainly a Writers Guild nomination for Original Screenplay.   But the pesky WGA means you have to already be in their guild in order to qualify.  No such restriction is placed on the Academy.  At any rate, I began to run through the original scripts.

One of the more interesting films, and interesting stories, has to be Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan‘s Shame, which ought to be considered in the Best Director category but, given its NC-17 rating, and it’s kind of graphic nature, probably it won’t be (goes without saying that Oscars in the 1970s would have had no problem with it but this ain’t the 70s).  But McQueen takes my third spot.

The next two that seemed too good to ignore were JC Chandor’s Margin Call and Jeff Nichols for Take Shelter.   Both of these films, like Shame, Midnight in Paris and The Artist, are scripts written and directed by the same person.  It is quite remarkable, truly, to have so many successful auteurs in the race this year, even if the chances for Best Picture nominations for all but two of them feel slim to none.  But the chilling Take Shelter, which examines what is either a potential apocalypse or else a man slowly going insane, seems to capture our current mood like no other film does this year.  Likewise, Margin Call is so dense, so complex, with so much to say about not only the Wall Street bail-outs but human nature was tinkered with for over a decade.  Both of these carefully written, carefully conceived scripts deserve Oscar and WGA attention – and here I am, predicting what I WANT to get nominated instead of what WILL get nominated.

The other original screenplay possibility is completely on the other end of the spectrum but one that requires attention and that’s Kristen Wiig and Anne Mumolo‘s Bridesmaids, one of the most successful films of the year, written by women.  Bridesmaids is so the kind of script that that would get WGA attention but not Oscar attention.  Women and comedy writers are notoriously and continuously screwed.  I am not sure if Bridesmaids will get any sort of recognition, nor am I sure about its wonderful co-star, Melissa McCarthy.  But here I am, advocating nonetheless.

Terrence Malick for Tree of Life, Lars Von Trier for Melancholia, Diablo Cody for Young Adult, Sean Durkin for Martha Marcy May Marlene, Tom McCarthy for Win Win, Dustin Lance Black for J. Edgar, Drake Doremus for Like Crazy and John Logan for Rango are all also in the running, according to the Gurus of the Gold.   Contagion by Scott Burns, In the Land of Blood and Honey by Angelina Jolie, and Beginners by Mike Mills are also not out of the race yet, not by any means.

According to the Gurus, though, Best Original Screenplay is down to Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris vs. Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist.  I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty that, though it could go either way, if The Artist doesn’t win Best Picture it will most likely win Original Screenplay, at the very least, even though there are no words of dialogue in the movie.  Writing is not only dialogue.

But the Best Picture race, as always, will draw its fire usually from the adapted screenplay race.  And this year, Moneyball, The Descendants, War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Tinker Tailor, Dragon Tattoo and the Ides of March are all in the hunt for Adapted Screenplay.  Again, it means that it’s tied to the strong Best Picture contenders, not so much for the screenplays themselves.

Tintin, A Dangerous Method, and Carnage got just one vote a piece. My vote went to Rampart because, honestly people, you’re not going to pass up a chance to honor James Ellroy who wrote the original script for Rampart, which was then rewritten by Oren Movermen.  It’s an original screenplay, though I mistakenly put it in Adapted at the Gurus of Gold.

If you have James Ellroy in the race you can’t ignore the prestige of the name.  It’s like when Bob Dylan was nominated for Best Song, Larry McMurtry for Brokeback Mountain — some names are just too big to ignore.  And James Ellroy’s is one of the those. I suppose I’m the only Guru on the block who feels that way. I know that those five slots are meant for Best Picture contenders but surely someone is going to catch on that there is a legend in our midst.

So, in closing, my screenplay predictions would look like this:

Original
1. The Artist
2. Shame
3.  Midnight in Paris
4. Margin Call
5. Rampart
6. Take Shelter
7. Bridesmaids
8. Young Adult
9. J Edgar
10. Tree of Life

Adapted:
1. The Descendants
2. Moneyball
3. War Horse
4. Extremely Loud/Incredibly Close
5. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
6. The Help
7. Tinker Tailor
8. Hugo
9. The Ides of March
10. Drive