There may be no Oscar category more maddening to try to handicap than writing. When it comes to editing or sound, at least we all know that we’re clueless — film editing, after all, is called “the invisible art” by the very people who do it, and if you’re aurally sophisticated enough to judge the difference between sound mixing and sound editing, you’re probably either a sound mixer or a sound editor. Good screenwriting, by contrast, is supposed to be self-evident. But everything that can make a screenplay praiseworthy — dialogue, character development, story structure, gracefulness of adaptation, or originality of concept — can play as shoddy or hackneyed when a filmmaker mishandles it. And if you think the blame is always fairly apportioned, consider how many reviews make the claim, “The talented cast and director do their best with a weak script,” and how few say, “A fine piece of writing has been undermined by haphazard directing and tepid performances.” Critics never go there, because they don’t have access to the material — the script itself — that would support that argument.
The truth is, it’s virtually impossible to separate your judgment of a screenplay from your judgment of a completed movie — even if you’re one of the screenwriters who does the nominating. During campaign season, many studios send voters printed copies or flash drives of screenplays they want considered. But those versions have been retrofitted to match the finished films; they don’t contain any scenes or constructions that you didn’t see on screen. Unless you’re a big fan of stage directions and character descriptions, they’re not exactly essential reading.
So let’s start from the premise that Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay should probably be called Movie That Suggests Most Strongly That It Was Based On A Really Good Piece Of Writing. What do we know about the predilections of the Academy’s writers’ branch?
I ran some numbers (writermetrics!) on the 100 movies nominated for screenplay Oscars over the last decade, hoping to find some inherent biases. First, I wondered if writers were more favorably disposed toward screenplays written by one person, since Writers Guild arbitrations that result in shared credits sometimes indicate patchwork screenplays with no cohesive vision. Not the case: 42 of the 100 nominated movies were credited to more than one writer, and 16 of those were credited to three, four, or even five. (Apparently, it takes a village to write Borat, but since voters only write the name of the movie on their ballots, they don’t have to consider how many residents the village has.) I also wondered if writers evinced any prejudice against directors who do their own writing. If anything, the reverse proved true — an astonishing (to me) 56 of the 100 nominated screenplays were credited or co-credited to their directors. I did find an immense gender tilt — 144 men and just 23 women have been nominated for writing since 2001 — but that's reflective of an imbalance in the industry, not just in the Academy. And for adapted screenplays, there’s a clear preference for movies based on novels (20) or nonfiction books (11) as opposed to short stories, plays, graphic novels, other movies, or TV series, although all of the latter have been nominated more than once in the last decade.
Writers, it turns out, have much the same taste as Academy members overall — only better. The vast majority of best picture nominees also get writing nominations, and the few that don’t tend to be either visual spectacles with tinny dialogue (sorry, Avatar) or stories that trigger writers’ bullshit detectors (turns out I’m not the only one who didn’t like The Blind Side). But since every year brings ten screenplay nominees and (until 2009) only five best picture nominees, there’s plenty of room for writers to honor other movies — and that’s where their preferences really shine. Here’s a partial list of recent writing nominees that weren’t up for best picture: Adaptation, Children of Men, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Far From Heaven, Finding Nemo, Ghost World, A History of Violence, The Incredibles, Memento, The Messenger, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Royal Tenenbaums, Talk to Her, Vera Drake, Wall-E, Y Tu Mamá También. Conclusion: Writers rule. They’re broad-minded enough to nominate animated and foreign films, Mike Leigh, Pedro Almodovar, and Todd Haynes. They get Charlie Kaufman and Guillermo Del Toro. And they got Christopher Nolan right from the start. So if you see a movie and think, "This is great but it’s way too cool for the Academy," a screenplay nomination might be its best hope.
That brings us to this year’s contest, which, so far, has produced very few movies that even qualify as almost-sure things. Among original screenplays, it’s probably wise to reserve a slot for Midnight in Paris, since Woody Allen has been there 14 times before and the writers’ branch likes movies that skillfully incorporate fantasy elements — plus, it’s about a writer hanging out with writers. Way to play to your base, Woody! Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is also getting a strong early push from Sony Pictures Classics, which has already sent out DVDs to voters; writers may especially appreciate the artfulness with which Nichols combines naturalistic dialogue with a larger-than-life depiction of psychological disintegration. (Keep an eye on this film; it may be emerging as a genuine dark horse.)
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life will be a tougher sell to writers than to directors. And I’d love to believe voters will find room for Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s Bridesmaids script; it’s been 28 years since an female team was nominated for best original screenplay, and this one is wholly deserving. But if the notoriously comedy-averse Academy hasn’t even roused itself to nominate Judd Apatow, selecting something this ... Apatovian is a long shot. If they’re going to support a comedy, it could be Win Win — Tom McCarthy’s ability to build a compelling story grounded entirely in the depth and integrity of its ordinary-guy characters makes the film a true writer’s achievement. Or they might go for Beginners, Mike Mills’s whimsical mashup of romance, coming-out story, cancer drama, and (no joke) subtitled talking dog. But realistically, these movies would need a very disappointing year-end field to have a chance, since among the original screenplays vying for attention in the next two months are the topical and resonant Margin Call, The Iron Lady, The Artist (would writers nominate a film with intertitles but no spoken dialogue? Yes, they would), J. Edgar (by recent winner Dustin Lance Black), Young Adult (by recent winner Diablo Cody), the dirty-cop drama Rampart, and the already highly praised best foreign-film contender A Separation.
No matter what the final mix is, best original screenplay is likely to be dominated by indies. That’s not the case for best adapted screenplay, in which, right now, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball has pole position. Both men have won this category before, the movie got terrific reviews, and although it won’t approach The Social Network’s box office, it’s still done well enough to secure a spot in this race. If the year ended right now, newcomer Tate Taylor’s script for The Help would be in; though many writers will notice that it’s inconsistent and far from seamless, a nomination could ride a tide of sentiment for the movie. But The Help (let alone hopefuls The Ides of March, Jane Eyre, Drive, and The Skin I Live In) may have trouble surviving an onslaught of high-profile year-end releases: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, War Horse, The Descendants, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Carnage, We Bought A Zoo, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close all qualify in this category and collectively, their authors have amassed 18 nominations for earlier scripts. This category feels crowded with potential best picture contenders, and as the writing branch narrows the field, the overall appeal of the movie, not just the writing, may make the difference.
I’ll end with news and a rumor. The news, as Oscar watchers know by now, is that the New York Film Critics Circle, which has been handing out prizes since 1935, has decided to go way early this year, making its selections on November 28. This has occasioned spatter patterns of blogospheric rage. But I’m told (I’m trying this out — Nikki Finke always says “I’m told,” and it sounds much more authoritative than, “Uh, somebody told me…” although it means exactly the same thing) that the Circle didn’t make the move until it felt reasonably confident of seeing everything that’s in contention by its deadline. In which case, I’d say, great, let’s get this party started.
The NYFCC’s move is seen as hurting the National Board of Review, whose only two claims to the conversation have long been that it’s the oldest awards-giving body (it’s been around since 1909, and I’m pretty sure some of its members have too) and that it announces its prizes first. But awards are only as valuable as the opinions of the people who give them, and since the NBR is defiantly opaque about both its membership and its process, I’ve always found it impossible to care what they choose; I don’t even know who “they” are. One reason we talk so much about the Oscars is that they’re an illuminating glimpse into how more than five thousand members of the film business want their tastes represented, and the New York Film Critics Circle — however sneery their detractors can get about the irrelevance of reviews — is composed of some very smart thinkers about movies (although their ranks would be even smarter if a misguided New York Times policy didn’t forbid A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis from voting). I’m always intrigued by their collective yearly take on movies, and glad that they’ve chosen to light the fuse of awards season this year.
Now the rumor: As you know, the number of best picture nominees this year— something between five and ten — will be determined by how many movies receive a predetermined percentage of No. 1 (and, for dauntingly complex math reasons, No. 2) votes on the Oscar ballot. We won’t know the number of nominees until they’re announced on Jan. 24. But I’m told (it’s good, right?) that a movement is afoot among some influential members of the directors’ branch to recalibrate the number of directing nominees, starting next year, so that it will always match the number of best picture nominees. This could be the start of a major overhaul in the way nominees in every category are determined — or it could be the irksome complication that moves the Academy to say, screw this, five best picture nominees was fine and we’re going back to it. More as I learn it.
Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and is currently at work on his next book. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkHarrisNYC.
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