Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited on NPR to talk about the adapted screenplay race. It surprised host Rachel Martin that the screenplay race, it turned out, wasn’t so much about the individual screenplays as it was about the Best Picture category. This is probably the hardest thing to grasp about the way Oscars vote. Everybody votes for everything when it comes to picking the winners in the various categories. So you have actors voting for cinematography, editors voting for screenplay, costumers voting for animation, publicists voting for actors — and everyone votes for Best Picture. The truly best indicator of what the professional industry thinks are really the guild awards.

She was also surprised to hear that those voting for adapted screenplay don’t have to have seen all of the films nominated. Heck, the year Brokeback lost to Crash many Academy members came out and admitted they didn’t see the movie. This year, if you polled Academy members I bet you’d find that there are those voting members who still have to have seen all nine of the nominees. Voting is buzz and perception. When you fall in love with a pretty girl across the room not only do you not see anyone else but you don’t even want to look at anyone else. Such is the conundrum of choosing “best.”

American audiences haven’t quite gotten Hugo, of course. If the fanboys can barely get it (as in, “I didn’t know what movie it was trying to be”) then the pampered, dumbed down American culture ain’t going to get it either. Most of them are being forced into theaters to see The Artist and Hugo, but once they do they are dazzled by them. These are easily two of the best films of the year and yet they are off putting because they don’t fit into the marketing paradigm. Worth noting, most great films don’t. No one knew quite what to do with Dragon Tattoo either – they wanted it to do what the Swedish film did but there was no way David Fincher was going to let that happen. His film is so intricate and layered you can tell how many times someone has seen it by their reaction to it. Steven Zaillian didn’t watch the Swedish film when he did his adaptation so there is really no way it can be called a remake; it is the “American version” if it’s anything. And though the Swedish version is very good, with a wonderful performance by Noomi Rapace, Fincher’s version is leagues beyond it, visually, in its reimagining of Lisbeth Salander, its technical execution and in that unbelievable score, the year’s standout, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. There wasn’t enough time to shake up the Academy and get them to pay attention to it — it came on too late. And with the exclusion of this film, most notably in Picture, Director, Screenplay and Score — their biases are showing. This year proved how very different the Academy really is from the guilds in many ways. They agree on the broad strokes but there are significant differences. The Academy are small enough that their grudges and prejudices, favoritism is evident. The Academy are really more insular, more friend-friendly, less objective. They will enable you when you make something ambitious yet subpar. The Academy has a history of slapping down filmmakers who operate as mavericks — they want you to be good, just not better than they are. So watch for the Academy’s power players to work against Fincher and Co for a while.

When the Academy had ten nominees for Best Picture you saw much more of a representation of guild support overall. So for 2009 and 2010 you had virtually every Best Picture nominee with a corresponding Screenplay nomination. For 2010, it was 9 for 10 nominees; and in 2009 it was 8 for 10. This year, only 5 out of the 9 have corresponding Screenplay nominations. This matches how the Academy had run its Best Picture race for many decades prior, with only five. In those years, only 3 or 4 at the most had Screenplay nominations. So you have to wonder, who’s writing these things and why don’t those scripts get nominated?

Why indeed. Conversely, why didn’t the films that were nominated for Screenplay get into the Best Picture race. It’s best not to go there. But keep in mind that this year, the voting was vulnerable to strategist, friend-friendly voting – and therein lies the problem with this year’s method of choosing Best Picture. The Academy is a secret club — and with 5 or with 10 it was easier to hide the favoritism. But it’s been exposed this year — they’ve really shown themselves to be at once out of touch with movie audiences and absolutely run by alliances, powerful moguls and their buddies. So if you don’t have a lot of friends in Hollywood, or a powerful advocate who has a lot of friends, well, you’re going to have a hard time getting into the secret club. Some of the lesser known, less popular people broke through — like JC Chandor for Margin Call, for instance. That was a long shot but one that paid off.

As far as screenplays go, though, the two biggest surprises were the exclusion of The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. If they are good enough to be nominated for Best Picture they are certainly worth a nomination for writing. You’d think, anyway.

Tate Taylor in particular was screwed over, I think, because he faithfully adapted his childhood friend’s book, adapted it before it was even published and is the main reason for its success. Eric Roth wrote the best screenplay of the year with Loud and Close. Surely Roth has enough friends in the Academy, and most in the Writers branch know what a great writer he is, and yet — it couldn’t get arrested. If it were true, as was suggested on NPR, that voters in the category had actually read Roth’s original screenplay, I feel sure he would have been nominated. And as for Taylor, he just isn’t in the club yet. Moreover, he’s being punished for the film not being PC enough, even though he wrote and directed the highest grossing film in the Best Picture race. Funny, ain’t it?

But let’s dig into Screenplay, shall we?

Best Adapted Screenplay–
Should have been nominated: Steven Zaillian for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Tate Taylor for The Help, Eric Roth for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

1. The Descendants – if the Alexander Payne film isn’t going to win Best Picture, or if George Clooney isn’t going to win Best Actor, The Descendants, like Sideways, seems poised to win Best Adapted Screenplay. And if it did win it would be very deserving. Of all of the adaptations in the category, with the possible exception of Tinker Tailor, The Descendants is the most faithful rendering. It wasn’t just that Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapted the novel but they did what most Hollywood productions don’t — they allowed the writer Kari Hart Hemmings not only to be on set through the whole shoot but they even gave her and her husband parts in the film. There is a moral side to both Alexander Payne and George Clooney that is admirable in a world of slash and burn. You know the old joke about the (insert bigoted minority class here) who comes to Hollywood and sleeps with the writer? That wasn’t how The Descendants was going to go. They honored the seed, the earth around it, and what sprouted up from it.

The Descendants is about honoring our past and preserving our future. It is about forgetting and forgiveness. It is about mistakes made, and the hard work it takes to dig yourself out of them. It is about honesty, truth and all of the things you can’t say. It is about what you think people are thinking, who you think they are and who they actually turn out to be if you stop and actually listen to them. Though it’s a movie about a man’s inner journey, his turns come from the influence and the confrontation of women. His daughters, his wife and the wife of the man his wife had an affair with. It is an American story because it is about land ownership, corporate takeover and what a cultural melting pot this country really is. Two films in the race are about the America we know now. Most people watching The Descendants would find some truth in there, uncomfortable though it may be at times, it is wildly profound at the heart of it.

2. Moneyball – Here is an example of a script changing hands many times — like a piece of glass washed up on the shore, its been molded to perfection by many different eyes. Stan Chervin’s original draft flipped over to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, who then passed it back and forth but, according to them, wrote their own drafts separately. That makes it not wholly a Sorkin script, not like The Social Network, and Zaillian’s presence is felt throughout. Moneyball is probably, of all of the five nominees, the best written film — perhaps not as an adaptation but as a pure work. It is the Descendant’s biggest competition because, like that movie, this and Actor are the two Oscars it can win.

Moneyball is such a great movie, in fact, it’s really one of the bigger debacles of 2011 that Bennett Miller failed to earn a Best Director nomination. Of course, it’s hard to squeeze another one in with these five, but still, it has everything a great movie needs — and it starts with the screenplay. Moneyball is about the different ways we measure success. It is a heartbreaking story about failure being redefined by perspective. The whole movie boils down to that one scene where the player hits a homer but is so used to landing a single he slides to the ground but never looks up to see he’s hit a home run. In Moneyball, Billy Beane (played so tenderly, beautifully by Brad Pitt) lived through heightened expectations, and subsequent disappointment, through those who thought he was a god for five minutes until all that came tumbling down. If Beane measured his own success by his paycheck or by wins he’d have won only a fraction of what life ultimately comes to mean to him. His success is the tiny tendril that reaches from his daughter to him. His success is in faithfully sticking by a team he knows can be about more than just the star players and the World Series. His success is in fixing the problem of players like him, who are plucked from an otherwise rich life and thrust into the limelight way too soon. The rise and fall of baseball players, or celebrities illuminates our own need to watch people become gods just long enough for them to disappoint us. We then take equal amounts of satisfaction tearing them down. He’s such a beautiful loser, Billy Beane. And maybe somewhere in there, we can find our own reflections — our own failures recycled into lasting, shimmering successes, even if they can’t be measured by a shiny, gold prize.

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3. Hugo – if there is one bright star to emerge from 2011 it’s John Logan. Perhaps this is because his Rango is quite simply one of the best scripts of the year. But his adaptation of Hugo is really astonishing when you consider what it really is. To get how good Logan’s script for this film is, you have to get what makes Hugo a great movie, and why its strange, vibrant chaos is the very thing that makes it great. Logan loves working with Scorsese, he says in his interview with David Poland, because the two of them have expansive, freed up notions of what movies can be. They aren’t linear attached, but rather, believe that films can take turns here and there and that the smart audience can keep up. Logan worked so well adapting Hugo because the book does on the page what this movie does on the screen — it celebrates the illustration and the words. Hugo’s illustration is Scorsese, his team of visionaries — Dante Ferretti, Thelma, Howard Shore, Bob Richardson, Sandy Powell. It takes Hugo’s imaginative world and shoots it into the sky, scattering tiny pieces of light into the broad expanse of the book’s black and white world. Scorsese takes those intricate line drawings and he plunges the viewer into them.

Hugo is about not being part of this world. Hugo identifies with well built machines because they have a purpose. In his own desperation with day to day life, Scorsese, the odd, hyper manic that he was he found his purpose in film. This is why to Scorsese there is no limit to what he can do with film, up to and including Hugo. Logan never took it at face value that he had to limit himself by what was available in the book, nor by what kids are used to seeing on screen. When people say to me that Hugo isn’t a kid’s movie and that their kids were bored during it I always say back to them, it was never supposed to be the job of filmmakers to dumb down for children. Children should always be encouraged to smart up for great films. Having worked with kids a lot as I raised my daughter I can tell you that they are always up for a challenge, even if it’s more fun, perhaps, to experience something “fun.” Give them more, I say. Teach them how to reach in to movies. Talk them through it, show them why the automaton looks so strange, and why John Logan focused so hard on the character of Isabelle. Hugo is a celebration of the imagination. And believe me, the imagination simply cannot flourish if it is recycling the same stories, the same happy endings, the same easy heroism time and time again. It needs a surprising gust of fresh air. It needs the new. Funnily enough, Hugo is the new and it is the old all at once. It brings to vivid life the past, while diving headlong into the future with 3-D. True, no one knows quite what to make of Hugo — and that is exactly how John Logan likes it.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – this is considered a hell of an adaptation, one that took a very intricate book and made a script that captured everything without being too literal or too spare. It kept just enough to honor the book. Co-writer Bridget O’Connor died in September 2010, leaving her husband Peter Straughan to stand alone as an Oscar nominee. I won’t pretend to know what the film is about completely — I know it’s about the cold war, spies and not knowing who is who, not knowing whom to trust. It is a very good film, of course, but it will take time to fully absorb.

5. The Ides of March is an odd film to have here in the adaptation race, but the truth of it is that it really was a total redux of the play, Farragut North. Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon absolutely chose to savage the world of politics and how we see them play out every year. The choices they made absolutely point to our own politicians — our idealization of them and the subsequent, ugly truth that when you get down to it, you have to play the game to even get close to standing at the podium. Clooney as an actor took a risk playing such a dark character, though it’s worth noting he chooses not to limit himself in any way. It helps that he’s mostly successful at what he does. It’s a good script, but its inclusion here feels like a tribute to the effort. Some believe it might pull off a surprise win here, especially if Clooney won’t be winning in the Best Actor category.

Although any of the five can win – it feels to me like it’s down to Moneyball vs. The Descendants. But we will have to wait and see. The Writers Guild is coming up and that will clarify things slightly, at least in the Adapted Screenplay race. Next up, Original.