The LAMB Devours the Oscars – Best Original Screenplay

by Dylan · February 21, 2009 · LAMB Devours the Oscars · 7 Comments

Editor’s note: Welcome to the twenty-third of a 24-part series dissecting the 81st Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read any other posts regarding this event, please click the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!

By Anil of The Long Take.

It’s a well-known fact that when it comes to the Best Picture category, Academy’s hand is rather shy at making brave choices. Being ‘brave’ here means to be able to choose the movie which holds higher artistic significance and predictably will have a bigger impact to the future of filmmaking, instead of the one that sways popular opinion of that day. It’s favoring low-budget indies over studio mammoths, if they actually are better. It’s awarding ‘excellence’ more than marketing. The examples to the years in the Oscar history where this was not the case are many, and those instances are way overemphasized already by cinephiles of all shapes and sizes (including myself) and in all possible platforms (including my blog). Beginning from internet’s first days of widespread usage, such public outcries have avalanched out of control and today you have the luxury of being able to read why the Academy sucks from hundreds of different blogs, each stating many different reasons. Regardless, let me keep beating the dead dog for the sake of refreshing your memories:
  • 1941: How Green Was My Alley won over Citizen Kane
  • 1944: Going My Way won over Double Indemnity
  • 1951: An American in Paris won over A Streetcar Named Desire
  • 1964: My Fair Lady won over Dr. Strangelove
  • 1971: The French Connection won over A Clockwork Orange
  • 1973: The Sting won over The Exorcist
  • 1976: Rocky won over Taxi Driver
  • 1979: Kramer vs Kramer won over Apocalypse Now
  • 1980: Ordinary People won over Raging Bull
  • 1990: Dances with Wolves won over Goodfellas
  • 1994: Forrest Gump won over Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption
  • 1996: The English Patient won over Fargo
  • 1997: Titanic won over L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting
  • 1998: Shakespeare in Love won over The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan
  • 2001: A Beautiful Mind won over Gosford Park, Moulin Rouge and The Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring
  • 2004: Million Dollar Baby won over Sideways
  • 2005: Crash won over Good Night and Good Luck
You can add to or remove from this list some films according to your own tastes but there’s no question that Academy often misfires. That’s ok, I’m not making a big deal out of it – after all no real or hypothetical awards authority can always get it right; especially if the definition and meaning of the term ‘right’ is as subjective as it is in movie business. Over the years, I have learned well to stop complaining about overlooked films that obviously fall outside the context of the Academy Awards and accept the phenomenon for what it really is. After its 81 years of existence, it should be well established by now that yes, independent films are underrepresented, comedies are almost non-existent, foreign films merely have a single category for themselves and almost everything nominated is epic, expensive dramas equipped with exquisite crowd-pleasing qualities. That does not change the fact that cornerstones in the American film history are exhaustively represented among Oscar winners in several categories, nor the fact that this event is no less significant than any other (A plausible assertion would condemn the whole process of handing out self-congratulatory awards rather than a single one – only then all these complaints would find a reasonable basis)

The reason why I listed a fragment of an all-too-familiar list above is because I want to start looking at the ‘Best Original Screenplay’ Oscar from quite a broad perspective. After all, we are talking about the category which underwent the most whimsical evolutionary period over the years and therefore one that deserves no less. But before moving on to that, here is a very brief summary of that journey, which begins in the fateful year of 1927:

1927-1928 Period

Categories:

  • Writing (Adaptation)
  • Writing (Original Story)
  • Writing (Title Writing)
This is back when the Academy was not a gigantic monster of an institution with load of rules and regulations but merely a group of people who wanted to award excellence in film but didn’t know what the best way to do that was. That’s why the third category makes absolutely no sense. I am as clueless as you are when it comes to what ‘Title Writing’ means exactly; all I know is that it’s an award that is not associated with a specific film title. Imagine the writing version of the honorary award where you could also have nominees.

1928-1930 Period

Categories:

  • Writing
Clean and simple and how it should’ve stayed if you ask me. Is ‘adapting’ as opposed to writing an original one a vastly distinct art form? Why don’t we have the same two categories for directors and producers as well then? Their jobs must be just as much detached.

1930-1935 Period

Categories:

  • Writing (Adaptation)
  • Writing (Original Story)
First roots of the categories that we have today. First signs of the assumption that doing these two require different set of talents.

1935-1940 Period

Categories:

  • Writing (Screenplay)
  • Writing (Original Story)
So screenplays cannot consist of original stories? I guess ‘screenplay’ is another word whose meaning eroded with old age.

1940-1948 Period

Categories:

  • Writing (Screenplay)
  • Writing (Original Screenplay)
  • Writing (Original Motion Picture Story)
This is where the whole thing turns into a David Lynch film. I’ve tried but honestly, I cannot distinguish these three from each other in any way. The only explanation I can come up with for these puzzling 8 years is that Writer’s Guild went on a strike for a third category and the Academy had no chance but to comply.

1948-1949 Period

Categories:

  • Writing (Motion Picture Story)
  • Writing (Screenplay)

A sinister attempt at reducing the number back to 2 but…

1949-1956 Period

Categories:

  • Writing (Motion Picture Story)
  • Writing (Screenplay)
  • Writing (Story and Screenplay)
…the Writer’s Guild is will not be made fool of. Here is another ridiculous and incomprehensible trio. I am looking at these names as an alien from 50 years ahead and the third one definitely looks like to grand writing prize to me. Apparently, the first guy wrote a great story, the second guy did a good job with the screenplay but it was only the third who was able to get both of them right. I guess you wouldn’t be that happy if you won one of the first two; they make you face your failures as well as your triumphs. Very constructive actually.

1956-Present

Categories:

  • Writing (Original Screenplay)
  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Despite changing names fairly frequently during the 50-something years, what the categories meant did not show any significant difference so I have grouped all of them under the same title.

Unlike its long history, the way ‘Best Original Screenplay’ Oscars have been handed out for the last few decades follows a very simple pattern. Looking at it from a broad perspective (as I’ve promised couple of paragraphs above) yields two predominant rules which define this pattern quite accurately:

1) If one of the nominees is a lock or at least a heavy favorite in the ‘Best Picture’ category, it’s highly probable that ‘Best Original Screenplay’ will also go to the same film. Statistics from the last 52 years (so that we don’t go back to a weird period that I don’t know how to handle) show that among the ‘Best Picture’ winners who were also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay’, 67% of them won the writing award as well. In fact this is true for both of the writing categories; the ratio of films who won best picture without any writing awards is only 31%. Nick of Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob recently addressed in his article for LAMB Devours The Oscars the age-old question that had been haunting the ‘Best Director’ category for eternity: “Should the director of the ‘Best Picture’ not be named ‘Best Director’?” In other words, do we really need to have two seperate categories to be able to award the producers? My personal response to this question obviously should be saved for another article, but let me point out that the same question is also valid for the writing categories. The statistics I’ve given above show that most of the time, the Academy finds the question meaningful and supports the notion that ‘Best Picture’ is also the best-written film of the year.

2)
If either the ‘Best Picture’ had an adapted screenplay, or it failed to secure a nomination or a win in ‘Best Original Screenplay’, other parameters come into equation. In this case, the winner is almost always one of two things:

i) A film not as good/important as the ‘Best Picture’ winner but one that definitely deserved and needed recognition and special mention from the Academy. Here are some examples:
  • 2007: Juno (Best Picture: No Country for Old Men)
  • 2003: Lost in Translation (Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King)
  • 2002: Talk To Her (Best Picture: Chicago)
  • 2000: Almost Famous (Best Picture: Gladiator)
  • 1993: The Piano (Best Picture: Schindler’s List)
  • 1991: Thelma & Louise (Best Picture: Silence of the Lambs)
  • 1986: Hannah and Her Sisters (Best Picture: Platoon)
ii) A film that is vastly superior to the ‘Best Picture’ winner and therefore a soothing effect on our feelings of unrest caused by the laughable choices examplified by the list I’ve given at the beginning of this article. If writers and not the whole academy voted for ‘Best Picture’, or if we all of a sudden stopped acting like that ‘Best Picture’ is the most important Oscar and place a greater importance on ‘Best Original Screenplay’, following films would’ve replaced the current winners in the history of the Academy Awards:
  • 2006: Little Miss Sunshine (Replacing: The Departed)
  • 2005: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Replacing: Million Dollar Baby)
  • 2001: Gosford Park (Replacing: A Beautiful Mind)
  • 1997: Good Will Hunting (Replacing: Titanic)
  • 1996: Fargo (Replacing: The English Patient)
  • 1995: The Usual Suspects (Replacing: Braveheart)
  • 1994: Pulp Fiction (Replacing: Forrest Gump)
  • 1989: Dead Poets Society (Replacing: Driving Miss Daisy)
  • 1976: Network (Replacing: Rocky)

Oh it would be such a wonderful world indeed…

One should notice the obvious shift from simple and popular towards complex and artistically pleasing introduced with these ‘new’ choices. It’s also obvious both of the rules imply that ‘Best Original Screenplay’ category functions as an alternative/secondary ‘Best Picture’ award above all else. Now, I am not suggesting that this is a part of the collective minds of the Academy-member writers – I acknowledge that something as temperamental and arbitrary as any collective mind is impossible to formulize. Yet assuming the role of a statistician, the category makes much more sense from this perspective than as one that awards excellence in writing. Deliberate or not, the only consistency ‘Best Original Screenplay’ has had, is nothing more than this.

To me, this also means that this category is the second most important one in this awards show, for obvious reasons.

Going for a typical way to end this article, let me conclude (like many of my other friends in LAMB did) by a brief analysis of this year’s nominees (the parantheses show which of the two rules described above the given film will qualify for if it wins this year):

1. Frozen River (Rule #2i)

This is the little indie that managed to impress Academy members this year and to snatch two nominations from the iron claws of bigger studio productions (and of course from those of the vicious Harvey Weinstein). I have written about this one previously so my dissatisfaction with the film is quite clear. In any case, this is Academy’s way of honoring Courtney Hunt for all her efforts and, of course, for being a woman in this man-infested industry. It is one of those films for which the nomination is a win and it’s clear there is no next step. I would be unpleasantly surprised if this one goes on to win the award among the other four nominees.

2. Happy-Go-Lucky (Rule #2i)

You can’t go wrong with Mike Leigh. With his latest film that puts Amelie to shame in its optimism and would make Tarantino envious with the beautiful flow of the dialogue, Leigh analyzes the eccentric in all of us and its unexpected consequences. In the title role that is easily this year’s most interesting, Sally Hawkins shines and it’s a shame someone else stole her nomination this year. An win in this category might compensate for all that (and purely from the writing perspective, the film would definitely deserve it) but success here still seems like a distant possibility. In a weaker year, it would’ve had a lot more chance.

3. In Bruges (Rule #2ii)

One of the films that left me speechless last year, so much that I couldn’t get myself to write a review for it. With such perfection in both writing and direction, what is left to say on the film anyway? Martin McDonagh’s debut In Bruges is one of those films that would be spoilt by explanation – the sheer impact of the whole experience should best be left undisturbed. Among not only these nominees but all the films came out this year, this one deserves to win ‘Best Original Screenplay’ more than any other – and since it was recognized in no other category (and with the help of the screenplay’s absolute perfection) it becomes an automatic frontrunner.

4. Milk (Rule #1)

If In Bruges loses this sunday, it will lose to this one. If fire rains from the heavens and the world turns upside down and Slumdog doesn’t score a ‘Best Picture’ win, it will be Milk which replaces Boyle’s film in that category. While that is almost completely impossible, that kind of buzz gives any screenplay nominee an edge over others (for reasons discussed above). Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay is mostly unimpressive and merely an entertainment piece but award-handers of all types have been begging to differ. Bad news is, they might go so far as to crown Milk with a screenplay award since it’s going to miss out on all the other major ones (excluding ‘Best Actor’ – Penn is the frontrunner in that race).

5. Wall-E (Rule #2ii)

A lot of people, including me, were upset and angry to see that Wall-E was not nominated for ‘Best Picture’, especially in a year where the films replacing it are so weak (same argument is valid for The Dark Knight as well). A pinnacle in animation technologies and a daring example in visual storytelling, Wall-E is a film that has something for all minds of all ages. I can’t see the Academy bending its unwritten rules to hand out a screenplay award to an animation so chances are slim for this writing trio. Nevertheless, it’s both refreshing and exciting to see this one as a nominee in this category – the writers are once again on the right track.

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7 Responses to The LAMB Devours the Oscars – Best Original Screenplay

  1. This is quite an analysis. Though, I don’t consider In Bruges the frontrunner at all. I think it has a chance to win, but I look at this being more between Milk and WALL-E.

    As for title writing that refers to silent films. They lacked dialogue, so they used title cards intercut in between live action scenes to further explain the film’s story.

  2. Nick says:

    I’m with Mikey. I think it’s between Milk and WALL-E… though I’d really like it if In Bruges won. That film had so many layers it could have been an Ogre.

    I was also going to tell you about the title writing thing, but Mikey got there first.

    And it does take quite a different kind of talent to do an adaptation compared to an original work. An original screenplay, you’re coming up with everything yourself. It’s all on you and your own imagination.

    In an adaptation, you’re taking the story, characters, dialogue, and themes from the adapted work. The writer has to try and stay true to the work to appease fans, but also has to adapt it in a way that it works for a film. Some things work for books that don’t work for film (and vice versa). It takes a very editorial and creative mind to know what to take, what to change, or what to cut. And, of course… like I said… you still have to keep the tone and overall feel of whatever it is you’re adapting from. It’s quite difficult.

    Both are difficult in their own rights… and both are very different in what they require from the writers.

    Oh, and thanks for the shout-out!

  3. srikanth says:

    One of the films that left me speechless last year, so much that I couldn’t get myself to write a review for it. With such perfection in both writing and direction, what is left to say on the film anyway? Martin McDonagh’s debut In Bruges is one of those films that would be spoilt by explanation – the sheer impact of the whole experience should best be left undisturbed. Among not only these nominees but all the films came out this year, this one deserves to win ‘Best Original Screenplay’ more than any other – and since it was recognized in no other category (and with the help of the screenplay’s absolute perfection) it becomes an automatic frontrunner.

    You plagiarized that off my mind!!!

    I was drooling literally. My mouth was wide open watching In Bruges. What a film and what a waste at the Oscars. If it does not win at least this one, out goes my last inch of respect for the Oscars.

  4. I’m for IN BRUGES as well. An amazing machine, that screenplay! But, alas, it has no hope (McDonagh already has an Oscar anyway, for his 2006 short SIX-SHOOTER). But I hope against hope that he or, more perfectly, Mike Leigh, takes the award. But I’m afraid it will go to the least of the five, MILK.

  5. First off, thanks for informing me about the ‘Title Writing’ thing – it makes most sense now. As for the frontrunner issue, I know that Milk has the WGA Award buzz going on but I still feel like In Bruges is going to win. Maybe I’m listening to my heart more than I should when predicting; we’ll see 🙂

    Finally, I know there are differences between writing an original story and adapting one, but I don’t think they are significant enough to create two categories for writing, which, by the way, is seen fit for no other branch. That’s why I would’ve preferred a single category for writing as well.

    P.S: Srikanth, it goes without saying that I share your enthusiasm.

  6. Sheela, I don’t know what to say except thank you for your kind words.

    Also, turns out my declaration of In Bruges as an “automatic frontrunner” was too much of an emotional statement. I should start relying on rule #1 more when I’m betting.

    Still, Milk’s win was worthy because it made it possible for us to hear Dustin Lance Black’s wonderful acceptance speech. It’s also reassuring that McDonagh already has an Oscar for live action short.

  7. sheela says:

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