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Original and Adapted Screenplay — Digging Into the Perplexing Nature of This Year’s Nominations

Films recognized at the Oscars have been traditionally a collaborative effort. The more collaborative, the more well liked. You can count on one hand the number of times a film has won Best Picture that was both written and directed by the same person, but that this person was also the sole writer. With Annie Hall, Woody had a co-writer, as did Alejandro G. Inarritu on Birdman. The Coen brothers wrote and directed No Country for Old Men but they adapted it from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. The Artist won Best Picture but Michel Hazanavicius did not win for his original screenplay. Platoon won Best Picture and was written and directed by Oliver Stone but it didn’t win Original Screenplay. In all of Oscar history, there has never been a Best Picture winner by a sole writer/director who also won Original Screenplay.

Barry Jenkins last year and Tom McCarthy the year before had co-writers. The idea here is that the Academy likes to spread the wealth, especially with an expanded Best Picture ballot. Films just do not sweep anymore. The preferential ballot and the extended nomination slate for Best Picture seems to prohibit it. Films with multiple nominations do go home empty-handed but it does seem to be that the process has honored collaborations rather than singular writer/director efforts. We’ll dig more into that later. What we want to look at today is the peculiar nature of the relationship between Original Screenplay and Best Picture this year.

There is only one Best Picture winner that did not win screenplay in the years since the preferential ballot was put in play (2009-present day) — The Artist. It was a silent film and though well-written, the Academy did not deem it worthy enough to win an Oscar. Instead, The Descendants (adapted) and Midnight in Paris (original) won. Both were Best Picture nominees. Since that time, three Best Picture winners were adapted and four Best Picture winners were original.

Screenplay and Best Picture are more locked together these days than even Director and Picture, which traditionally has been the case: the director used to get the credit for the Best Picture winner even if the producers took home the trophies. The preferential ballot has shifted this significantly. To make great art, one has to be divisive. To induce passion it’s often inevitable that some hatred is also induced. That’s why the competition for Best Director has taken its own path so often in recent years while Best Picture has to appeal to large degree to all voters, by being the least offensive, the most-liked overall. That has resulted in an often small trophy count for Best Picture winners, with the smallest being Spotlight, which won just two Oscars. Let’s look at the counts briefly:

2009 – The Hurt Locker wins 6 (+screenplay, director)
2010 – The King’s Speech wins 4 (+screenplay, director)
2011 – The Artist wins 5 (+director)
2012 – Argo wins 3 (+screenplay), Life of Pi wins 4 (+director)
2013 – 12 Years a Slave wins 3 (+screenplay), Gravity wins 7 (+director)
2014 – Birdman wins 4 (+screenplay, director)
2015 – Spotlight wins 2 (+screenplay), The Revenant wins 3 (+director), Mad Max wins 6.
2016 – Moonlight wins 3 (+screenplay), La La Land wins 6 (+director)

Isn’t that an odd trajectory? We’re seeing a clear evolution away from Picture and Director and towards a kind of dynamic where the big effects, more “visionary” film wins Best Director — films that win Best Director can be more experimental, even if somewhat divisive. Meanwhile, Best Picture goes to something more subdued, with a great screenplay that appeals more broadly across the whole membership — everyone has to really really like it.

I think it’s getting easier and easier to see where some of the films this year have been stationed. This year, The Shape of Water is in Gravity/The Revenant territory whereas Lady Bird is in Moonlight/Spotlight territory. And then there are those we’re not quite sure of, like Get Out. Is it more visionary, and therefore more divisive? Is it well liked across the board because of its writing? And what of Three Billboards? Where it seemed to be in the position of being a Spotlight kind of thing, there has been controversy around it that puts it more in the divisive category now. It is still well-liked but now you get a long lecture if you like it. You have to defend why you like it and hope people don’t think you’re a racist. By contrast, Lady Bird needs no such defense. You have to be a soulless asshole to not love that movie (raises hand), but most people do love it. It isn’t threatening in any way, least of all to men (the only pure hero in the movie is the dad). But The Shape of Water is the one that inspires more awe.

To find Best Picture, I think we have to ask which film is going to win Best Original Screenplay. So far Greta Gerwig did not win at the Globes, nor at the Critics Choice. She has another chance at the WGA and at BAFTA. Jordan Peele has won at the Critics Choice but was not nominated at the Globes. Martin McDonagh might have won at the BAFTA but the script was not eligible for the WGA. The Shape of Water could win the WGA, the BAFTA, and then go on to win the Oscars for Original Screenplay and Picture. It’s certainly possible if enough people fall in love with it.

This category is a mess. It’s a complete crap shoot. Maybe we’ll just have to chuck it all and call it for The Big Sick, which will win because all of the other movies split the vote.

Adapted Screenplay is a little easier: it’s down to James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name as the frontrunner vs. Mudbound, by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams. Call Me By Your Name is the only Best Picture contender in adapted this year, making it a surefire frontrunner. It also won the Critics Choice and probably wins the BAFTA. It will most likely be the beloved film’s only major win, but its fans (of which there are many) will rejoice.

At this point, with Picture and Original Screenplay we are really and truly flying blind. Not even the Producers Guild or the SAG gave us any real guidance in that regard. We build our charts, we listen to the reviews, we watch box office, we “feel the buzz.” But in the end, we are no closer to knowing what the Best Picture frontrunner is than we were a month ago.

The case for The Shape of Water — No film gets at what threatens American life like Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s The Shape of Water. Even a stupid smear campaign can’t stop this from being one of the most original, inspiring, and uplifting stories that encapsulates what much of the country feels right now. An invisible person finds a soulmate but we don’t find out why until the film’s final scene, when it all makes sense. It asks of us that we abandon convention. It asks of us that we accept a creature that society would deem a monster and that we reject a monster that society deems a leader. The film is about discards and outcasts who live and work on our streets as unnoticed and uncelebrated heroes. It is about loving a country that belongs to all of us, as much to the other living things as to humans. It asks us to embrace the strange, to love what can’t be loved, and to fight back with everything we have to stop those who threaten to rob the world, and this country, of its inherent beauty. It’s brilliantly written, hilariously funny, moves at a brisk pace and is absolutely worthy of winning both screenplay and Best Picture.

The case for Get Out — Out of the brilliantly funny mind of Jordan Peele comes a once in a generation cinematic expression of what it feels like to grow up black in America. It’s a story that isn’t often told, because it’s a story that makes a lot of white people uncomfortable, especially those who would have voted for Obama three times if they could have. The white narrative is the controlling narrative, and we seem to think that we can allow different stories to seep through as long as those stories reflect the history we’ve been telling, not the reality experienced by someone else. Though wickedly funny in places, Get Out also deals with the guilt the main character feels at having not helped save his mother. His deepest, darkest pain doesn’t come from being rejected by the white community. He just thinks that’s kind of funny and odd (until they try to kill him and steal his eyes), but his identity is wrapped up in his own history as a human being, not as a representation of a whole group of people. How rare that is for minority voices in Hollywood film, especially a genre horror film that appealed across the board to every kind of audience, bringing its box office take to $175 million. Jordan Peele is a brilliant writer, we already knew that. But his screenplay takes Get Out darker and deeper than it was required to go. It is by far one of the best screenplays and films of the year and absolutely deserving of the prize.

The case for Lady Bird — Greta Gerwig has done what seemed to be the impossible in creating a whole universe that mirrors her own universe. Women just don’t get to do that in movies — that’s the job of men. We get the vibe of what might have given Gerwig her start in life in Sacramento, but Lady Bird is not just drawn from her life — she’s created an array of vibrant, funny characters within that Gerwig universe. So many people came out of Lady Bird feeling as though Gerwig told their story. Either they went to Catholic school or they lost their virginity listening to Dave Matthews, or they grew up in Sacramento. They — men, women — felt that she was telling their story. So many people came out of Lady Bird madly in love with it. It’s true that it has received the biggest publicity push by far of all of these nominated scripts and that the narrative of it winning fits so well with Hollywood’s need to assert that women can win Oscars for writing and directing too. If Gerwig wins, that ends the argument. That is a powerful motivator, no doubt. I can’t pretend that I was one of the people who fell in love with Lady Bird — I think that’s pretty obvious by now. I was a daughter and raised a daughter in California and so it was more personal to me but I recognized how well written and well directed it is. I came away impressed with Gerwig as a force of nature, very deserving of her wins should they come her way.

The case for Three Billboards — It’s hard to make a case for a movie the snobs on Twitter have not only disregarded, but whose fans are routinely mocked by those folks. They even mocked the London Film Critics for giving it their prize. No matter what anyone thinks about this movie, the writing is, like In Bruges and anything else Martin McDonagh has ever written, crisp, funny, insightful, disarming. I don’t think any movie has given me more to think about and challenged me more as a viewer than this one. I didn’t love the movie the first time I saw it. But over time, the more people attacked it the more I began to appreciate it for what it was, knowing its intentions were not evil, but rather exactly the opposite of that. I also appreciate that someone out there decided to make a hero of a 60-year-old woman for whom life has become complete shit. There is brilliance behind the artist who came up with Frances McDormand’s Mildred. It deserves a win for that alone.

The case for The Big Sick — The only nominee without a corresponding Best Picture nomination is probably the most quotable movie in the lineup, alongside Shape of Water and Get Out of course. I find myself making Big Sick jokes a lot to people, and only some of them get it. The beating heart of this movie tends to take center stage, as well it should. But the humor throughout is, to me, where the brilliant writing comes from. Every scene is full of funny lines that you can watch over and over again and still not get everything. The collaboration of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon has given us a love story from two perspectives, two clear voices, two different cultural backgrounds and in so doing a wholly rich cinematic experience. It, like even script already written about here, is so good it deserves to win.

They ALL DO. How do you choose? HOW?

Here are the charts – please click for higher resolution.

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