It seems to me that there are some categories where voters will have likely seen most of the nominees. How hard is it, for example, to see all five of the Best Director contenders? Likely you’ve seen them: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, American Hustle, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street. If you haven’t seen those five by now you’re probably the wrong person to be voting on the highest achievement of the year in film. But giving you the benefit of the doubt that you really HAVE been that busy and that your television hasn’t otherwise been occupied by True Detective or the Olympics (are you kidding me?) – you will likely have seen all five in the next week before final ballots are due. But there’s less of a chance you’ll have seen the screenplay nominees.
4/5 of the adapted screenplays are from Best Picture contenders, and 4/5 of the original screenplays are from Best Picture contenders. You have to go back to 1998 to find a year when the Adapted Screenplay winner was not a Best Picture contender. And you have to go back to 2004 to find an Original Screenplay winner that wasn’t a Best Picture contender. It is even more difficult to not be represented in Best Picture now that the Academy has expanded to more than five nominees.
This year is full of great works in both the original and the adapted screenplay categories. Some of the writers are first time nominees. Strangely, most of the stories are true stories. Some of the original works are those of the author’s imagination entirely, cut from whole cloth. Others are faithful adaptations of well known, or little known, books.
The two main precursors for the screenplay category are the Writers Guild award and the Scripter. Unfortunately, several key films in the race weren’t eligible for the WGA, like John Ridley’s 12 Years a Slave and Steve Coogan’s Philomena. Not being eligible for the award meant that they did not go up against the WGA winner, Captain Phillips. However, all three screenplays were represented at the USC Scripter Awards, where John Ridley’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir, won. All three were again represented at the BAFTAs, where the screenplay for Philomena triumphed.
That means, right now, Best Adapted Screenplay is anyone’s game.
In the Best Original Screenplay category, Spike Jonze’s Her has triumphed at the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild. It was not nominated for the BAFTA, which enabled David O. Russell to win back to back writing awards – last year in adapted for Silver Linings Playbook, and this year for original with American Hustle. That puts Her directly in competition with American Hustle for the win.
How will you, the majority, decide this category? In case you haven’t yet seen the films or don’t know anything about the writers, their history, or the success of their script, here is your screenplay primer.
12 Years A Slave adapted by John Ridley (true story)
Based on: Solomon Northup’s memoir which helped to change minds in the years leading up to the Civil War. While the film and the memoir have been given the unfair label of being ONLY ABOUT “slavery is bad” (as if that fact alone would not be worthy) many of the more subtle points have been ignored, but is best summed up this way, “It is notable not only for its lucid description of plantation life, with detailed passages on the methods by which cotton and sugarcane were harvested and processed, and how slaves were fed, housed and punished, but also for the author’s evenhanded treatment of his subject: although he denounces slavery as an institution, Northup expresses his gratitude to the masters who treated him with gentleness and generosity, and shows a surprising ability to forgive even the most unimaginable cruelties.”
John Ridley’s impact: this is one of the first times audiences have heard educated slaves speaking in a film that depicts slavery. The dialogue is unusual because slaves depicted in Hollywood films have usually been represented as a “type.” 12 Years a Slave shatters that stereotype.
How the win makes history: John Ridley becomes the second African American in 86 years of Oscar history to win a writing award.
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – USC Scripter
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Critics Choice Awards
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Southeastern Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Austin Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Chicago Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Dallas Fort Worth Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Kansas City Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Online Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Phoenix Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – San Francisco Film Critics
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner – Washington DC Area Film Critics
Philomena adapted by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (true story)
Based on: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a bittersweet love story of sorts about a woman searching for her lost son. The journalist who accompanies her is Martin Sixsmith, who pens the book (and is played by Coogan). It is one of those buried treasures that seems almost unfathomable until the pieces start falling into place. Michaell Hess is the Republican who hid his homosexuality during the Reagan administration -Reagan who couldn’t and wouldn’t address the AIDS crisis. Though he never meets his mother, Hess requests to be buried at the church where he was spirited away from his teenage mother all of those years ago. They are reunited only after his death but her forgiveness of the church is really the most remarkable thing about the story, other than the many remarkable things about it.
Coogan and Pope’s impact — they took a wonderfully written book and made it come to life collaborating by Coogan’s ability to improvise all of the characters. Thus, it is based on the book but it is original, in its own way.
How the win makes history — since 1995, only two winning adapted screenplays have turned on the inner world of a female lead – Sense and Sensibility, Precious and Philomena would be the third.
Best Screenplay Winner – BAFTA
Captain Phillips adapted by Billy Ray (true story)
Based on: A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, the real Captain Richard Phillips’ harrowing account of having been hijacked by Somali pirates, taken prisoner and very nearly killed. Phillips penned the book after his safe rescue.
Billy Ray’s contribution: Ray and director Greengrass are responsible for giving the script its compassion towards the “other side.” That’s key to the success of the film, Captain Phillips, what makes it more than just a retelling of what happened that day. The character of Muse is given more humanity and sympathy – the two captains are given a fair perspective of who they are, where they come from and how they survive.
Best Screenplay Winner – Writers Guild of America
The Wolf of Wall Street by Terence Winter (true story)
Based on the rags to riches then rags again memoir of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort, who stole from the poor and gave to the rich using his talent for selling crap stocks to schmucks, and/or believers in the American dream that everything is okay as long as it makes you rich.
Winter’s contribution – he turned Belfort’s story into a balls-out satire of a nation. Though Belfort has a gift for turning a phrase, Winter takes that to a whole new level, dwelling in Mamet territory. Its dark themes are buried under a loose layer of comedic pretense so that you are laughing as you are horrified. This is a Scorsese trademark – it’s funny, no it’s tragic, no it’s funny! No, it’s sick. Winter has that beat down and thus, becomes one of Scorsese’s best collaborators alongside Paul Schrader and William Monahan.
Best Screenplay Winner – National Board of Review
Best Screenplay Winner – Central Ohio Film Critics
Before Midnight – by Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Based on: the twenty year odyssey of a relationship that really consists of ideas – love, disappointment, success, marriage – the big stuff that tends to define our lives as we go from being young to old. The series began with Before Sunrise, then followed with Before Sunset and now at last, Before Midnight. We have listened and watched Celine and Jesse meet, fall in love, lose each other, find each other again and then catch up with them while they try to make the ever elusive “happily ever after” work. It is a formidable collaboration, one that has earned them a previous Oscar nomination for Before Sunset in 2003. This takes place ten years later. In this way, it isn’t really an “adapted” screenplay so much as it is wholly original, made up from their collective past but with no novel to base it on.
Delpy, Hawke, Linklater’s contributions have been to bring each of their shared experiences into the story. Jesse seems to take on the point of view of the good guy who is trying to make a marriage work to a woman who admits to being neurotic, career-focused, independent and feminist. He is also tempted by younger woman, as most men are. Delpy’s focus is not on sexuality, however, but more on trying to breathe underneath the weight of being the one who holds their family together.
Best Screenplay Winner – Los Angeles Film Critics
Best Screenplay Winner – National Society of Film Critics
This was the year for original screenplays, many of the best ones could not even make the Oscar cut due to that enduring problem of “Best Picture heat.” The films that most members like best tend to be the ones the writers branch selects, and most of the time, with a few exceptions, those are Best Picture contenders. The only film that made the cut that didn’t have a Best Picture nomination was Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. That puts it very likely low on the list of films that are most likely to win this year in this category.
Spike Jonze’s personal love story about a man who falls in love with his tailor-made operating system. That is the overview of what the film is about. What it’s really about is love itself. It is also an ode to human unpredictability and intelligence. As in, you think you have the perfectly controllable relationship with an operating system that exists only to serve your needs. And even under those ideal conditions you can still have your heartbroken when your lover outgrows you. Her also seems to hint at being a response to, or an apology to, Jonze’s ex-wife Sofia Coppola who made the film’s companion piece, Lost in Translation about a young wife being taken for granted by her new husband. Scarlett Johansson plays the muse in both films. Her isn’t, in the end, about the lead character’s relationship with Samantha. It’s really about him learning to open his heart to love, to finally come to terms with how much he loved his ex-wife, whom he did seem to take for granted because relationships are. just. too. hard.
What you need to know before voting: Spike Jonze doesn’t often write his own material. He is known for collaborating with Charlie Kaufman, first and foremost. He adapted Where the Wild Things Are but Her is really his first feature length original screenplay.
Best Screenplay Winner: Golden Globes
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Writers Guild of America
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Southeastern Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Critics Choice
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Austin Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Central Ohio Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Chicago Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Florida Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Kansas City Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Las Vegas Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Online Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: San Diego Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Toronto Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Vancouver Film Critics
Best Original Screenplay Winner: Washington DC Area Film Critics
David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer. Really, this is an adaptation by Russell of Singer’s original screenplay which was tweaked and torn apart, then put back together by Russell who really wanted to make it all his own. He writes for actors, thus much of the energy was redirected in order to enhance those performances. He also allows for improvisation, which can sometimes change the writing entirely. Hustle has nothing to do with ABSCAM – only so very loosely, the way Springtime for Hitler had to do with the Holocaust. It is a lot of crazy fun, as is Russell’s gift as a writer/director.
What you need to know before voting: This is David O. Russell’s second consecutive Oscar nomination for writing, alongside his third consecutive nomination for Directing. That’s fairly astonishing, and earns him “overdue” status when it comes to collecting hardware.
Best Original Screenplay Winner – BAFTA
Best Original Screenplay Winner – New York Film Critics
Bob Nelson’s Nebraska was a film Alexander Payne wanted to make for many years before he finally took a stab at it, completely his “man coming of age” driving movie theme, which began with Sideways, then About Schmidt, and finally, Nebraska. It is based on his own quirky family, which probably isn’t unlike much of the world Alexander Payne grew up in. You can take the boy out of Nebraska but you can’t take Nebraska out of the boy. It is the first original screenplay Payne has made. Usually he co-adapts the films he directs. But this time, he found a like-minded voice. It is every bit as melancholy as Payne’s other films but has a starkness to it that seems to have removed much of the gentle nature of Payne’s inclinations. This one is a little more like Last Picture Show than it is like The Descendants. The film’s major themes have to do with chasing a false dream, which many of us do in America. We are raised to believe that one day we will get the big pay-off – so much so that we can lose sight of what our lives are really made up of.
What you need to know before voting: Payne himself has won twice for adapted screenplay, Sideways and The Descendants.
Original Screenplay Winner – Phoenix Film Critics
Dallas Buyers Club
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack took twenty years to bring Dallas Buyers Club to the big screen. It was a labor of love that really only got made because the team involved simply refused to give up. It is the story of Ron Woodruff who opened up an illegal pharmacy to help dying AIDS patients. The script is really a story between three people who come to the AIDS crisis from different perspectives – a doctor, a homophobic sex addict, and a trans gender character who helps Woodruff find patients. The humanity in the film is everywhere, so is the humor.
What you need to know before voting: It is one of two screenplays co-written by women, the rest are men. The film got surprise nominations in Best Picture and Screenplay. It was not expected to. It is the final film under the Focus Features run by James Schamus responsible, in large part, for helping to bring films with LGBT themes to the mainstream and the Oscar race.
Woody Allen’s ode to the wreckage of the 1% is a film about a woman who was the wife of a Wall Street tycoon, a Bernie Madoff type. She goes to live with her sister, played by Sally Hawkins, to try to live as normal people do – or worse, live amid the kinds of people her husband ripped off, her sister among them. Jasmine tries hard to live in denial, to pretend as though she was never part of these crimes but it begins to eat at her from the inside out. The film is anchored by a magnificent performance by Cate Blanchett, which will likely win the award for Best Actress.
What you need to know before voting: This is the only screenplay in the race that is about a woman. It is one of the few films made this year where a woman is the central figure.