Original, Adapted Screenplay Too Packed for Obvious Child and Beyond the Lights?

Two more films by women filmmakers have broken through this year. Their best hope for Oscar nods would be the screenplay categories. It is near impossible to crack any major category with good intentions. The buzz machine starts early and snowballs – or perhaps more appropriately, it’s like the Titanic, gaining speed and momentum as it barrels towards the iceberg and by the time you want to turn it around it is already too late.

Still, with a little push there could be SOME movement in these categories. Let it be known that both Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights and Jenny Slate in Obvious Child delivered strong leading performances this year. With a little help from the crisis, ANY CRITIC, they could have been launched into the race – though even then, Best Actress is already too full, with most slots reserved early by high-profile roles and veteran performers.

Not saying it’s impossible – it’s just unlikely, as these contenders are being pushed hardcore early in year by powerful publicity companies that know how to get nominations. That’s WHY they get the big bucks. I’m not going to address whether they are deserving or not – Mark Harris already plugged them in his column a while back. My own feeling that is actresses get the short shrift in Hollywood after the age of 30. When Julia Roberts came along in the 1980s, that became the model for a successful actress in Hollywood: versatile, breathlessly beautiful, charismatic. We wouldn’t really see another Julia Roberts until Jennifer Lawrence. But aiming at someone that young and fresh-faced resulted in older actresses being sidelined, continually and tragically, resulting in one of the worst years for actresses since I’ve been blogging. Do I think these vets should be sidelined for the youngers? No, I don’t. Does that mean we’re talking about better performances? I’m talking about how hard it is to find good roles if you’re over the age of 35. They just aren’t offered up in mainstream film. Getting awards for them backs the notion that women don’t expire after the age of 35. All of them will get there – all of the young ones will be used up and spit out by the time they get there – wouldn’t they rather empower career success later rather than earlier?

It’s up for debate, I know. I’m not saying definitely one way or the other – I’m just examining the tragic state of how women are treated in Hollywood, black women especially.

The original screenplay category is once again packed with men. If Gillian Flynn represents the sole female in either of the writing categories, original looks to be 5/5 men. Flynn might be joined in Adapted by Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, Karen Maine for Obvious Child. It isn’t as packed as Original and there could be some wiggle room there.

Gina Prince Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights is original and that category is already too crowded. Sure, Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child are filled with woman-y stuff, icky love story stuff, not taken seriously stuff – usually that isn’t sexy enough, or enough at all, to get Oscar attention. As we know from the treatment of Gone Girl by both genders in the media, it’s a tall order to satisfy the requirements of male audiences and critics, female audiences and critics. The list is too long, the requirements too hard to fill. Or to put it another way, not even Mean Girls, arguably one of the best screenplays of the last two decades, couldn’t even manage an Oscar nod and it wasn’t even about romance, as Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child kind of are, with other important elements threaded throughout.

The synopsis for Beyond the Lights is, as follows:

The pressures of fame have superstar singer Noni on the edge, until she meets Kaz, a young cop who works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be.

I have not yet seen the film but I am going to seek it out in the coming days on the recommendation of Dargis and Kris Tapley and others. I’m sure it’s a lot better than that synopsis suggests. But I’m also sure that “relationship movies” can’t build the same kind of steam or gravitas than “important” stories, usually about Great Men. If the gender balance in the guilds ever equalizes, there might be some wiggle room in that area. But mostly “relationship movies” suffer, unless they’re made by men, about men, like Silver Linings Playbook (another Dargis favorite, where the female lead is really just there to enforce the male protagonist). The more critics talk about Beyond the Lights, the better.

In taking another swipe at Gone Girl, the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis made a big thing about Beyond the Lights in her Best of list:

The movie’s writer and director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, is defiantly sincere about its romantic tropes, a rarity in American mainstream cinema. That sincerity may be too alien for audiences or perhaps years of Katherine Heigl flicks have made them skittish about heterosexual romance. That’s too bad, because watching people fall in love is surely as interesting as watching them kill one another. As of early December, though, the only title in the Top 20 grossing movies featuring a straight couple is “Gone Girl,” a nihilistic cartoon in which a woman gets away with murder by crying rape. As edgy metaphors for modern relationships go, I prefer “Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Emily Blunt’s character keeps killing Tom Cruise’s, à la “Groundhog Day,” as he struggles to become the hero he’s meant to be.

I’m not sure why “Beyond the Lights” hasn’t found its audience. I like to think it isn’t racism. In typical fashion, the trailers reduce the movie to its most obvious terms, including a frolic on a beach and images of a male torso so sculptured it would make Michelangelo sigh. Yet that body and beach are crucial to the movie’s method and meaning, and its exploration of a woman’s right to pleasure and self-determination. It doesn’t broadcast those ideas, but folds them into a story that’s also a maternal melodrama about a poor white mother (Minnie Driver) and a black daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who’s as talented as she is haunted by her place in the world. It squeezes tears as cannily as that old Hollywood weepie “Stella Dallas,” except that here Mommy Dearest exploits her daughter.

So, Dargis likes Edge of Tomorrow where Tom Cruise is the lead and Blunt, while great, is yet again sidelined. She also likes Beyond the Lights because it offers traditional romance. But can’t bring herself to support, and feels the need to again criticize, the one movie that lets women out of those traditional cages of “backseat babe” and someone to whom love matters more than anything. I think there is room for all of these kinds of stories, not just the ones that paint women in a positive light. It’s important to allow for us to continue to be dark and dirty, to explore the myths about women, to upend stereotypes.Sadly, because Dargis can’t see past her own inherent bias about what women should be, she’s unable to celebrate Gillian Flynn’s success. The more freedom women have as writers and storytellers the more stories there will be about women, not just ONE KIND of woman. This is not criticize Beyond the Lights in any way – it ought to be championed as hard. I just don’t get why, to do that, Dargis felt the need to harpoon – yet again – Gone Girl.

I’m not thinking Beyond the Lights has a shot at screenplay, not with a 73 over at Metacritic. Then again, Theory of Everything also has that a score just as low and it is “in the conversation.” But that’s because it’s “important” as it’s about Stephen Hawking. Still, why shouldn’t Beyond the Lights be considered a contender? At least for writing. Gina Prince-Bythewood has been an established filmmaker for years now. What she needs, what all women in the field need, are strong advocates.

The brilliant writing by Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, Karen Maine for Obvious Child, if nominated in the less-crowded adapted category, would put two Gillians in the adapted screenplay race, for a total of FOUR women writers. That, along with the addition of history-making Ava DuVernay, potentially in the Best Picture/Best Director race? Now you’re talking about “movement.”

Obvious Child is really funny throughout – with vulgarity woven through likable and admirable young women who face wrenching dilemmas like having an abortion. It is handled very well, and indeed, the lead character Jenny Slate does not find her strength through a male character but rather with women like her mother and her best friend. The women I know out there in the world who aren’t plugged into the 90% male-driven Oscar narrative would find enriching value in both Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child. They would see themselves in their stories. Still, how many men can relate?

When you’re talking Oscar that’s what you’re talking about. The sad evolution of film critics has resulted in a similar dynamic. Movies that get into the race have to have the male stamp of approval. Where women are concerned, if the story is more about men then women they can roll with it. But if it’s about women, written by women, driven by what women care about? Forget it. We see in film a reflection of ourselves. And in this case “ourselves” is majority male, majority straight white male.

I’m going to put both of these on the contender tracker with my fingers crossed. After 16 years of this, though, I know that rave reviews drive these awards. Neither of these films got the kind of raves a contender really needs, despite Dargis’ push. As an Oscar blogger, I know what can and can’t be done. I know that sometimes no amount of advocacy can push a contender in. At best, you can put them in front of the thing to watch it. That doesn’t mean it will get their vote when they’re deciding what is best.

They’re on the radar. They’re definitely on the radar.

23 Comments on this Post

  1. Wellington S.O.

    “Beyond The Lights” is not bad… But is very “Soap Opera”…
    Now, “Obvious Child”… What a screenplay! So smart and so funny! I still hold hopes that it will get into Best Original Screenplay.
    Come on. This is what we call… Justice! :)

  2. FilmFatale

    Beyond the Lights is one of the year’s most overlooked movies, and Mbatha-Raw’s performance is a testament to what happens (or doesn’t) when a Black actress in a great role with loads of talent giving a terrific performance finally arrives — it’s D.O.A., and I do believe (though Dargis doesn’t wish to) that it is, frankly, all about racism (or perhaps just the ticket buying audience’s “preference” not to see what they think are Black-themed films). Just as Noni herself has been hypersexualized, mismarketed and packaged far, far away from her true identity in the picture, the film’s marketing campaign turned around and did just that with their product. Here is a movie about personal empowerment, rejecting the false self and finding your center of gravity and self-actualization. Yet what does it look like in trailers? The ad campaign is a very meta statement on the very subject matter of the film.

  3. UBourgeois

    I hadn’t really given Obvious Child any thought as a screenplay contender, though it definitely should be! I just saw it a few days ago and thought it was really good – consistently funny, relatable, brisk. I dunno if I think it necessarily deserves the win (Gone Girl and Inherent Vice both were better adapted scripts that have some chance at nomination), but I’d love to see it knock out The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything.

  4. Beyond the Lights is a good film, but its the performances that really make it more than the script. Gugu Mbatha-Raw manages to be totally believable as a pop star, the same year as she was totally believable as an 18th-century noblewoman. Nate Parker and Minnie Driver are also very good, but without Mbatha-Raw, the film would be your standard perils-of-fame story. A good one, yes, but if we’re talking about awards-caliber screenplays, I don’t think it’s at that level.

    Have you seen The Babadook? That’s a GREAT female-led/written/directed horror film, which explores the travails of single motherhood, and especially the mothering of a troubled child, through the prism of psychological/supernatural horror. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are both incredible in it, and I’d argue deserve Oscar nominations more than Felicity Jones and….definitely Robert Duvall, but I’d probably also say Ethan Hawke.

    The Theory of Everything’s script doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near a nomination. The first half was solid, since it managed to balance the physics and the love story, but in the second half the marital melodrama takes over (the SECOND you see Jonathan, you know how things are going to turn out), and it becomes rather dull (and, despite the increased focus on Jane Hawking, we never explore her study of poetry, as important to her as physics are to Stephen), until we get that absurd scene where Stephen imagines himself literally pulling a Strangelove and, after saying some inspirational words, receiving a STANDING OVATION. Gag.

  5. As I’ve said before, I don’t think Best Actress is bad. I just think it’s a little dull because everyone pretty much called most of the likely nominees months ago, with the exception of Aniston. If you wanna talk weak this year, take a gander at Best Supporting Actor. Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child won’t register with the Academy. Lights is too much of a soap opera, and if Slate couldn’t even get in with the Globes (which had surprisingly good picks this year), no way her film goes anywhere at this point.

  6. PS, how terrible is Adapted Screenplay this year?

  7. unlikely hood

    First I want to say I *love* Gillian Flynn’s writing – her prose is absolutely magnificent. I would read her write about minimum-wage employees watching 8 hours a day of surveillance videos for years. Her metaphors, her turns of phrase – she could make anything interesting. She’s an amazing novelist, full stop.

    Okay, now this:

    Dargis “can’t bring herself to support, and feels the need to again criticize, the one movie that lets women out of those traditional cages of “backseat babe” and someone to whom love matters more than anything. I think there is room for all of these kinds of stories, not just the ones that paint women in a positive light. It’s important to allow for us to continue to be dark and dirty, to explore the myths about women, to upend stereotypes.Sadly, because Dargis can’t see past her own inherent bias about what women should be, she’s unable to celebrate Gillian Flynn’s success. The more freedom women have as writers and storytellers the more stories there will be about women, not just ONE KIND of woman.”

    I think my biggest issue with what’s become the year of Sasha’s Flynn advocacy is that it seems so unlike anything she’s done for any other feminist football (say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which inspired some online debate about bad female actors), and so unlike anything Sasha has done any other year, and so unlike anything she would do if she didn’t know who wrote the novel/script Gone Girl (if it had been written pseudonymously, like Primary Colors). I mean, you’d think this was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – a woman-penned novel about a kind of woman we need to know about. Is it?

    Where was this advocacy for Audrey Nieffenegger and The Time Traveler’s Wife? Annie Proulx and The Shipping News? Zoe Heller and Notes on a Scandal? Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat Pray Love? Nora Ephron/Julie Powell and Julie and Julia? Does Sasha truly feel that if Gone Girl doesn’t get the same Oscar path as, say, Life of Pi, that movies based on Zadie Smith’s or Barbara Kingsolver’s or Isabel Allende’s novels are less likely than if that doesn’t happen? I disagree.

    The unpleasant truth is that the hoipolloi aren’t jumping on Team Gone Girl for the same reason that Sasha didn’t jump on Team Suzanne Collins/The Hunger Games or Team Twilight/Stephenie Meyer or Team J.K. Rowling/Harry Potter…not really because of sexism, but because of genre. A large number of them consider the post-Hitchcock thriller genre to be “low,” and if they didn’t feel that way in the days of Fatal Attraction and Silence of the Lambs, well, too many Michael Douglas and Demi Moore films have ruined it. It’s not that they don’t like Flynn; I don’t recall John Grisham novel adaptations getting their blessing either, nor Dan Brown, nor Steig Larsson (yes, Mara was nominated, as Pike will be). Michael Connelly or Steve Berry adaptations would have the same problem.

    It’s not like Gillian Flynn wrote The Hours or Million Dollar Baby or Cold Mountain…NON-genrified novels that foreground strong women. If Flynn had written and adapted something like that, and the pundits weren’t shortlisting her, and Dargis was slamming her…yes, I would see Sasha’s point. My issue is that Sasha seems to think Gone Girl is such a story, and I just don’t see where she’s ever made such a case in the past.

  8. Where was this advocacy for Audrey Nieffenegger and The Time Traveler’s Wife? Annie Proulx and The Shipping News? Zoe Heller and Notes on a Scandal? Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat Pray Love? Nora Ephron/Julie Powell and Julie and Julia? Does Sasha truly feel that if Gone Girl doesn’t get the same Oscar path as, say, Life of Pi, that movies based on Zadie Smith’s or Barbara Kingsolver’s or Isabel Allende’s novels are less likely than if that doesn’t happen? I disagree.

    Well, there WAS advocacy for The Shipping News. It is now known as one of those the Oscar bloggers pushed that went nowhere. Eat Pray Love? Gag me with a spoon. How is that interesting in any way? That movie, that book: PUKE. You think I would support them just because they are women? Think again. Why on earth would anyone expect me to back a shitstorm like Eat Pray Love because it’s about a woman’s journey towards empowerment and not Gone Girl which is a vastly more entertaining, wildly rebellious tale that I wish I’d written? Women are PEOPLE TOO! We aren’t just these ciphers for self improvement. Why the need to always fawn all over “you go girl” narratives? MAKES ME WANT TO BREAK PLATES.

    Finally, my advocacy only started recently – before that, I was your average ordinary Oscar blogger. But I started to see how disgusting and unfair Hollywood and especially the Oscars had gotten. I have not been advocating for women and black artists for very long – and believe me, once I made the shift I lost almost all of my readers. So it came at a cost.

  9. Have you seen The Babadook? That’s a GREAT female-led/written/directed horror film, which explores the travails of single motherhood, and especially the mothering of a troubled child, through the prism of psychological/supernatural horror. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are both incredible in it, and I’d argue deserve Oscar nominations more than Felicity Jones and….definitely Robert Duvall, but I’d probably also say Ethan Hawke.

    It’s exceptional in every way but sadly it doesn’t qualify for Oscars this year.

  10. unlikely hood

    Well, I agree with you about Eat Pray Love.

    Every year we have lots of stories about women being “people too.” Maybe they’re not all adapted by women from their own novels – maybe that’s why this advocacy feels unprecedented.

    I agree with you about women and persons of color, and if this were about The Help or a Terry McMillan novel, I’d be onboard with you. But Gone Girl…loved the style, but the plot itself…we’re agreeing to disagree there. If I were you I’d blame the posters for Basic Instinct and Disclosure. That turned “serious” Hollywood and its “serious” critics against thrillers (“against” is strong, but they don’t make the leap to “awards-worthy” just as they don’t for fantasy/sci-fi/superhero), and I believe it’ll take a few more David Fincher-level Gone Girls to change that perception.

  11. Sasha, are you going to make it out to Sundance this year? There are quite a number of films both by and starring women debuting in competition there. While I would hate to see your blog evolve into ONLY being about advocacy, as opposed to including conversations about all films & awards regardless of any agenda, I think it would be great to see you begin the advocacy for films before much of the awards conversation is set, and Sundance 2015 seems like a great thing to take advantage of for next year. If the conversations you bring up here aren’t immediately recognizable as influential to the industry I do think that they eventually will be. You have a lot of conversations both here and on twitter with writers of widely read media sites and I think your advocacy, on some level, influences both them and their readers–I applaud you for that.

    Outside of Sundance, I think there are some great roles for women coming up next year and I encourage, and hope to see, you begin the campaign earlier.

    If the bleak 2014 can mean anything, it’d be nice to see it inspire a turning of the tides in who and what Oscar bloggers cover/promote/acknowledge in the onset of awards and festival discussions.

  12. The best screenwriter for female characters in Hollywood nowadays is Quentin Tarantino, in my opinion. I’d go as far as saying his female characters are much more interesting than his male characters.

    Slightly off topic: I’ve recently read a book with a brilliant female character, it’s called “Hygiene and the Assassin” in English, I guess. I recommend it.

  13. Alan of Montreal

    The Shipping News was blech–it was totally miscast and just took the surface elements of the book and Newfoundland culture to present an over-produced, Hollywood rendering of Proulx’s classic nuanced work. Here are some books by women writers about the lives of female characters or subjects that I would like to see adapted to the big screen (admittedly, a lot of these are Canadian, so a lot of regulars to this site likely wouldn’t have heard of them): The Bone People by Keri Hulme; The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston; Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy; Obasan by Joy Kogawa; Geek Love by Katherine Dunn; Red China Blues by Jan Wong; The Diviners by Margaret Laurence; Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso; Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia

  14. Since I haven’t seen Obvious Child or Beyond the Lights, I can’t comment about whether or not I think they deserve to be nominated or at least considered, but of this year’s films that are adapted, here are my favorites I’ve seen, and the ones I still plan on seeing:

    Seen:
    Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    Gone Girl
    Guardians of the Galaxy
    The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
    The Monuments Men
    Snowpiercer
    X-Men: Days of Future Past

    Unseen:
    American Sniper
    The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
    The Imitation Game
    Inherent Vice
    Into the Woods
    Unbroken
    Wild

  15. Obvious Child was a good movie with a clever screenplay, though it’d be one of the shocks of nomination day if it got a script nomination given all of the heavy hitters in the Original Screenplay category. Birdman, Boyhood, Mr. Turner, Selma, Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, A Most Violent Year….it’s pretty rare in this day and age that most of the top BP candidates are original screenplays.

    Also re: Obvious Child, Jenny Slate was so good! She was on SNL for a season and did nothing of note, aside from one memorable flub when she accidentally dropped an F-bomb on his very first night on the show.

    I haven’t seen Beyond The Lights yet so I can’t really comment, aside from generally wanting ANYTHING to knock Theory Of Everything out of the running in any category. What a mediocre film.

  16. OBVIOUS CHILD is fine, but one of the best screenplays of the year? Hardly.

  17. I’ve been seeing a lot of ragging on The Theory of Everything on this site, so I have to ask: is the movie actually bad/mediocre, or does it merely pale in comparison to the other contenders despite still being a good film?

  18. Just saw The Babadook and it is a great horror film. Why is it not eligible for this year’s Oscars?

  19. Alfredo,

    I’m not sure, but I think it might have to do with the fact that it was released in both theaters and online on the same day. They might, might, have a rule against that. But, I don’t remember reading a rule about that. So…

  20. Here are the rules stated:

    All eligible motion pictures, unless otherwise noted (see Paragraph 9, below), must be:
    a. feature length (defined as over 40 minutes),
    b. publicly exhibited by means of 35mm or 70mm film, or in a 24- or 48-frame progressive scan
    Digital Cinema format with a minimum projector resolution of 2048 by 1080 pixels, source image
    format conforming to ST 428-1:2006 D-Cinema Distribution Master – Image Characteristics; 3
    Top
    image compression (if used) conforming to ISO/IEC 15444-1 (JPEG 2000), and image and sound
    file formats suitable for exhibition in commercial Digital Cinema sites.
    The audio in a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) is typically 5.1 or 7.1 channels of discrete audio,
    and these are the preferred audio configurations. The minimum for a non-mono configuration of
    the audio shall be three channels as Left, Center, Right (a Left/Right configuration is not
    acceptable in a theatrical environment).
    The audio data shall be formatted in conformance with ST 428-2:2006 D-Cinema Distribution
    Master – Audio Characteristics and ST 428-3:2006 D-Cinema Distribution Master – Audio
    Channel Mapping and Channel Labeling.
    c. for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County,
    d. for a qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days,
    e. advertised and exploited during their Los Angeles County qualifying run in a manner customary to
    industry practice, and
    f. within the Awards year deadlines specified in Rule Three.

    Films that, in any version, receive their first public exhibition or distribution in any manner other than
    as a theatrical motion picture release will not be eligible for Academy Awards in any category.
    Nontheatrical public exhibition or distribution includes but is not limited to:
    • Broadcast and cable television
    • PPV/VOD
    • DVD distribution
    • Internet transmission
    Motion pictures released in such nontheatrical media on or after the first day of their Los Angeles
    County qualifying run remain eligible. Also, ten minutes or ten percent of the running time of a film,
    whichever is shorter, may be shown in a nontheatrical medium prior to the film’s qualifying run.

  21. M1,

    In my opinion, it’s not a bad film, but it’s not particularly outstanding outside of the lead performances. There isn’t much to the writing, but then again, this is a year where I find MOST films lacking in that department, including Boyhood, which I liked.

  22. Thanks Al,

    It’s a shame if The Babadook is deemed ineligible since it is a fantastic film with great performances, art direction and editing

  23. Yeah it would have been interesting to see how The Babadook would have done had it been eligible.

Leave a Comment

Warning: Do not abuse your right to comment here. You will be deleted.