The writer on a movie set is a second-class citizen, a vestigial remnant that might once have served a purpose but who, once filming has begun, can only get in the way. Once a script leaves the hands of its screenwriter, unless said screenwriter is also directing, they’re less useful than an appendix. Nobody wants to know or hear about the “writing” any more.
But that hasn’t stopped the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from creating two Oscars for the writing that even makes the story possible. Sharp acting, studied design and clever writing aside, all movies have to start in the same place - with a story - and so the writing of that story deserves at least a nod. Even though, on Oscar night, writers tend to be shoved all the way in the back of the theater. (They’re the ones most likely to have loosened hair pins and bow ties by the time they’re called; bless them, they’re so grateful.)
With that in mind, my hubris and expertise has surged to the fore again (as it did in August when I prognosticated which TV scripts were most likely to take home Emmys). Here, a brief look at the two important Oscar writing categories and which male scriptwriters (because there are no women nominated) will bring home a new lil’ buddy (and a whole new lease on his career) after Sunday night.
Writing, Adapted Screenplay
For reference: An adapted screenplay may be an original work, but it derived its inspiration (at the very least) from something else (like a memoir) that has already been written.
Based on the late Chris Kyle’s memoir, Sniper has been a source of contention since it was first released. Is it anti- or pro-war? That foot-on-either-side-of-the-minefield approach is likely director Clint Eastwood’s, but clearly Hall’s script wasn’t interested in seeing things in black-or-white at all times. Nominated by the Writers Guild of America.
The Imitation Game
Being nominated by the WGA is one thing; winning it gives your script a huge boost: Moore comes to the Oscars knowing the guild is on his side, and this is likely to tip the balance in his favor on Sunday. That said Imitation is a weird artefact of a script, divided in what story it wants to tell and dropping a major moral quandary three-quarters of the way through telling it. The likely winner, but not the most deserving one.
(Paul Thomas Anderson)
As the heir to the Robert Altman school of intertwined, loopy and often surreal storylines, Anderson wrote and directed his own script and probably deserves a special prize for being able to successfully adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel. Alas, Vice has a very low profile and didn’t even receive a WGA nomination.
The Theory of Everything
Or, the biopic about a Cambridge-educated scientific genius who changes the world that isn’t Imitation Game. Theory is a more coherently-told, if rambling, story about the great Stephen Hawking (based on his ex-wife Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir) that is conventional in nearly every way. Still, McCarten’s take on the love triangle between Jane, Stephen and a family friend was done with a light hand and a firm expertise. Not WGA-nominated.
Here’s your dark horse outsider. A relative newcomer to directing/scriptwriting, Chazelle occupies a unique niche: storyteller/director for dark musical tales. Whiplash is roundly considered to be original and extremely well made, but is probably in the wrong category. It’s only considered “adapted” because Chazelle adapted his own 2013 short film by the same name for this longer take. The WGA recognized this and nominated it as an original; being in the wrong category for the Oscars could sink Chazelle’s chances.
Writing, Original Screenplay
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
(Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo)
Those who haven’t yet seen Birdman may sneer, and sneer rightly: At its twee, weirdly-punctuated title; at the fact that it took four people (including the director) to write it. Yet Birdman soars above those criticisms by being a kinetic bit of magical realism that was like nothing on the screen we’ve seen in years. Not nominated by the WGA, though; this may hurt its chances.
The screenplay that took 12 years to complete should win for something. But it’s hard not to feel that Linklater let his actors form the script every time they met for a week each summer over that long span of time. It’s the Mike Leigh way to tell a story, and while it’s not wrong … it’s not exactly scriptwriting. Linklater is owed, big time. But based on the script - there’s not enough there, there. WGA-nominated.
(E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman)
A big misfire. Slow-moving and dreary, starring Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose. Director Bennett Miller really thought he was on to the next Capote (in which he was also directing an Oscar-nominated script by Futterman) and then found whatever gems his script kept hidden buried under turgid directing and performances (save for Mark Ruffalo). Nominated for reasons unknown by the WGA.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
(screenplay by Wes Anderson; story by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness)
You want your quirk? Wes Anderson delivers your quirk. He may be pushing his limits in terms of just how sweetly off-the-wall he can be, but no question that director/writer Anderson knows how to move things along on charm and style. As the WGA winner this year, Budapest is largely considered to have this in the bag.
There’s a good chance you missed this film, but it’s never too late to seek it out. Darker than the inside of a goth’s closet during a blackout, Nightcrawler was also pointedly satirical about the way the greed for ratings has turned the newsgathering game into a blood sport. Gilroy wrote and directed his own script with a firm, clear hand but this one tended to fly under most peoples’ radar. Worthy, and WGA-nominated, but hasn’t really a solid chance.
Who do you think will win? Let us know here!