There isn’t anything better than a great director working with a great screenwriter. Despite how many screenwriters there are in Los Angeles (rumor has it, there are more screenwriters here than people), there are precious few of them who can lay it down in any meaningful way. If the director picks a good writer and a solid script there is less distance to bridge between the written word and great cinema. The truth about the Oscars is that the screenplay categories, like most categories, tell us more about the best films of the year than they do the best screenplays. The doubling the number of nominees into dual categories of adapted and original also makes room for winners who couldn’t win in Picture or Director as a way of honoring the film, like Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation. The categories also make room for up and comers to shine even if their films have no prayer of entering any of the other major categories. JC Chandor getting a surprise nomination for Margin Call last year is a fine example of that. The Oscars take a lot of heat for “ruining movies” and being a “popularity contest,” but there is nothing like them for boosting the career of a virtual unknown. An Oscar nomination alone can change the lives of obscure, struggling writers who are lit up for that brief moment of time.
Best Picture heat is almost always the driving force behind winners in either category, original or adapted. Last year, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris were both formidable Best Picture contenders with nominations across the board. Maybe they had no chance to win the top prize, or even director, but they took the screenplay prizes as lasting acknowledgement of the overall work. Rarely is the screenplay win just about the writing.
What can boost a winner is the prestige the writer in the literary or screenwriting world. There was no way Aaron Sorkin or Larry McMurtry were going to lose the Oscar for writing; that would be like Bob Dylan losing the Best Original Song category. It just ain’t gonna happen. In McMurtry’s case, of course, the Best Picture winner, Crash, came from an original screenplay so they weren’t competing against each other. Something tells me if the categories had been combined, McMurtry — due to his own notoriety — would have come up the winner, but one never knows when it comes to that mysterious Crash win.
Many of the writing winners have also been the directors of their films but not always. It is probably roughly 50/50. Recent adapted winners who were also directors include The Descendants, No Country for Old Men, Sideways. Recent winners in original who were also directors include Almost Famous, Talk to Her, Lost in Translation, and Crash. It hardly ever happens that the writers of an original screenplay wins the category, director and picture. I think the last time it happened was Annie Hall.
Working back from the strongest Best Picture contenders, there are the collaborators and the auteurs. Different writers and directors versus the same writer and director. Let’s take a quick look at the strongest so far.