At a Beverly Hills Q&A for Captain Phillips, four days before the Oscar® nominations were announced, screenwriter Billy Ray was moved to explain why the competition means so much to him.
“It’s not that I’m looking for awards or honors,” he said earnestly. “It’s that I look at the roster of people who have won it, and it’s an amazing list. To get onto that list really says that you’ve entered the club.”
Well, step one is out of the way, as Ray has joined the nominees’ club (and in my opinion, most deservedly, too). How’d his film and the other nine pictures get there? And how and why did they edge other screenplays out? Let’s look deeper.
American Hustle, by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
WHY IT GOT IN: Russell’s satirical look at the 70s entrapment scheme known as ABSCAM, and what it tells us about America today, floats on the wings of complex plotting and outrageously quotable dialogue. These are two elements of the craft the Academy Writers Branch tends to honor. Note that Hustle is highly reminiscent of David S. Ward’s The Sting, which won every award.
WHY IT GOT IN: Any Woody Allen movie that gets better than good reviews will automatically find a slot in its year’s favored five. That’s been an iron rule for decades. This wry switcheroo on A Streetcar Named Desire got brilliant notices: Q.E.D.
WHY IT GOT IN: Sometimes a film that the industry pulls to its heart – and Dallas is certainly one of those – grabs a whole lot of unexpected nominations. For some this nod was a surprise (see “Who Got Left Out,” below). But the saga of Ron Woodroof’s triumph over institutional and personal prejudice has a lot going for it.
Fellow writers had to admire Borten & Wallack’s success in managing such a sprawling, detailed true story, and their persistence in keeping the project alive for almost two decades. Moreover, the movie addresses a time period and world crisis that have gone undramatized, except in a few indie documentaries. Dallas, in short, feels like a contribution to the national conversation, and that’s something that has always been catnip to the Academy’s screenwriters.
Her by Spike Jonze
WHY IT GOT IN: Of these five films, the omission of Her would’ve been the most jaw-dropping. High-concept, absurdist seriocomedies in the Charlie Kaufman vein could be our era’s single most reliable genre, as far as Academy recognition is concerned. Her, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and many others, seems like the “Most Written” of the five. Meaning it most seems like a brilliant idea dreamed up by somebody out of the blue.
WHY IT GOT IN: Not quite as high concept as Her. Still, Bob Nelson’s fable about fathers, sons, and the American Dream in the heartland boasts an irresistible narrative and quite a bit of quotable dialogue, both perennial ingredients of nominees in this category.
Who Got Left Out?
Some pundits argue that Dallas Buyers Club took the slot that rightly belonged to either Inside Llewyn Davis or Gravity, thus “snubbing” those films. In every way, that conclusion is bullshit. A “snub” requires that an undeserving effort be deliberately chosen while, at the same time, a more deserving accomplishment is deliberately denied. But all that’s going on here is that there are many fewer slots (only 5) than there are deserving nominees (over a dozen this year). Something had to be left out!
There are plenty of reasons why the Writers Branch went crazy for Dallas (see above) having nothing to do with the merits of either the Coen Bros. take on the 60s folk scene, or the Cuarons’ deep space thriller. Me, I would say that the bigger surprises – not snubs; c’mon – were the omission of Enough Said (in a weaker year Nicole Holofcener’s witty rom-com would have a strong shot at the award) and Saving Mr. Banks (Kelly Marcel really pushed the industry’s happy buttons). In weaker years either film would have a strong shot at the award itself; ditto stimulating, strongly crafted indies like Fruitvale Station; Mud; Prisoners; and The Place Beyond the Pines.
In the end, Llewyn is one of the colder, smugger Coen pix, not one fellow writers would necessarily embrace. And those who carped at Gravity tended to focus on the screenplay (e.g. allegations of flat dialogue; Bullock’s allegedly unnecessary backstory). Is it really such a shocker, in such a strong year, that both were elbowed out?
WHY IT GOT IN: The Branch had already shown love by nominating Beyond Sunset, part two of this remarkable domestic series, in the same category nine years ago. Part 3 received even more rapturous notices, while going in some new, adventurous directions during the vicious spousal argument in its third act. As a final contribution to its selection, toss in how impressed the Writers Branch tends to be with actors who moonlight as scribes.
Captain Phillips by Billy Ray
WHY IT GOT IN: The script manages to wrestle a complicated, real-life event into cinematic shape, respecting the true story while heightening it for maximum dramatic impact. All of the above could also be said for the blueprint for Argo last year – and lest we forget, Chris Terrio walked off with that Oscar.
WHY IT GOT IN: The mystery elements (what happened to Philomena Lee’s baby, ripped from her shortly after birth?) keep the narrative humming, while the road movie-buddy comedy elements give it resonance and heft.
WHY IT GOT IN: Two factors made this nomination inevitable. As you watch the movie, its overpowering emotional impact seems very much a product of the story and structure. Even more importantly, it looks as if it was a bitch to adapt. Even if you don’t know the memoir on which it was based, you sense there probably wasn’t a lot of dialogue to draw upon, and 12 years’ worth of incidents must have been hard to bring under control. The script is fluent and verbally persuasive – one could probably even read it with pleasure – and hence was destined to nab a slot in the final five no matter what.
WHY IT GOT IN: The first feature in six years (and only the third overall) from an executive producer/scribe on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire was almost certainly going to excite voters’ interest. But that didn’t make a nomination a sure thing (cf. last year, when Sopranos guru David Chase came up short with Not Fade Away). That Wolf turned out wolfishly clever in the hands of Martin Scorsese, and was derived from an extremely complicated true story, combined to push the screenplay into solid contention.
Who Got Left Out?
I never felt that the two most talked-about missing screenplays were destined to be nominated. August: Osage County probably suffered at the hands of some who mourned the loss of 1/3 of the stageplay, and others who felt that turning the play into a movie just didn’t require very much craft. And Blue Is the Warmest Color seems more improvised than written.
Frankly, I’d bet that as many votes went to Lone Survivor or Short Term 12 or The Spectacular Now as to August or Blue. Be that as it may, this was a weakish year for adaptations overall. The only wild card was, would Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street turn out to be hot stuff (a la GoodFellas) or cold leftovers (a la Casino)? When the former proved to be the case, the final selection of five nominees could have been seen coming a mile away.
At this juncture, the awards themselves are too close to call. Certainly more buzz has to be calibrated before deciding who will walk off with Original. As for Adapted, 12 Years a Slave has been the front runner all along, but that could easily change: In 2009, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air was the prohibitive favorite right up to the moment Geoffrey Fletcher’s name was called for Precious. I’ll keep my ear to the ground and get back to you closer to March 2…
Don’t miss Part 2 of Script’s Special Oscar Issue on February 21st where Bob Verini will offer his predictions for the winners with reasons behind his selections.