5 Favorites Redux #72: Oscars: Screenplays

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

I move along this week in the post-nominations landscape with a continuation of my favorite nominees and winners in several Oscar categories.

Original Screenplay

The writing awards at the Oscars have been given out since the beginning and were changed, adjusted, and rearranged numerous times in the early years. The current arrangement of two categories, Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay, has been in existence, under many names for each category, since the 30th Oscars in 1957. As such, the delineation between categories hasn’t always been easy to figure out. That said, I have chosen to break down the original screenplays and adapted screenplays along generally consistent lines. Only categories that refer to the adaptation from other sources will be considered under the Adapted section while everything else will be covered under original. This means that there are a bountiful number of selections to go through and perhaps an uneven balance between the two categories, but that has to be expected. That said, there were some nondescript categories in the early days where adapted and original screenplays could compete. In those situations, I did my best to put my favorite selections into the area they would be considered for today.

Here are my selections for the best winners and losers the Academy has nominated in each category along with my top five selections as well. Among winners in Original Screenplay, my favorites include: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Sunset Blvd. (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Chinatown (1974), Network (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Thelma & Louise (1991), The Crying Game (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Lost in Translation (2003), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Juno (2007), Her (2013), and Parasite (2019).

As to the nominees that are on my shortlist, they are: Gaslight (1944), Lifeboat (1944), Rear Window (1952), Day for Night (1974), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Bullets over Broadway (1994), Boogie Nights (1997), Far From Heaven (2002), Ratatouille (2007), Inception (2010), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Inside Out (2015), and The Favourite (2018).

Now, let’s take a look at my five favorite originals:

Citizen Kane (1941)

Mank posits that Herman J. Mankiewicz deserves sole credit for the Citizen Kane screenplay, contrary to the actual credit on the film, which includes director Orson Welles. To a large extent, the film succeeds thanks to the cinematic language of the film, which was entirely Welles’ creation. This plays well into the auteur theory and his screenplay credit supports that notion. Regardless of who gets credit for the screenplay, Citizen Kane is one of the best written films in history, not just at the Oscars.

William Randolph Hearst, upon whose life the film is based, was so angry at its creation that he conspired to diminish and discredit the film as best as possible. Names most certainly were changed to protect him, but there’s little question that its central protagonist, played by Orson Welles, was a thinly veiled characterization. Mankiewicz did a tremendous job with the screenplay and while Welles might not have written large swaths of the script, what ends up on the screen is every part Mank’s creation as it is Welles’ and part of that came from the solid foundation of the screenplay itself.

Casablanca (1943)

Many consider Casablanca the best romantic drama ever written and that’s entirely understandable as the film taps into the heart of its audience as it positions two disparate people, whose past affairs become a flashpoint for the development of their present relationship, are brought together again with the backdrop of Nazi Germany’s expansion into North Africa during World War II.

What keeps the film fresh is its punchy dialogue from scribe brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein with an interim assist by Howard Koch. Although the film was loosely based on an unpublished play, the film’s sparkling script doesn’t feel like your prototypical stagy production. The Epsteins do a terrific job creating tone and place for the events happening on the big screen. Director Michael Curtiz ably takes their sharp script and turns it into a resounding, intertwining success.

All About Eve (1950)

For anyone who enjoys snarky rejoinders, no film better captures that witty style of writing than All About Eve. The film is a backstage expose of the theater industry with ingénue Eve (Anne Baxter) as she emerges from under the wings of legendary theatrical artist Margo (Bette Davis) to become a massive star on her own, going from stage to screen with rapid success.

The film circles Davis and Baxter with a group of stellar supporting performances including George Sanders, Celeste Holm, and, perhaps the snarkiest character actor in history, Thelma Ritter. Written and directed by Citizen Kane scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz’s brother Joseph L., the film proved that theirs was a family of smart, sophisticated, and talented writers. The comedic undertones of Joseph’s film set the brothers apart and Joseph managed to have the bigger and more profound Hollywood career simply because he refused to burn his bridges. Some of cinema history’s greatest achievements are done by writer-directors and Joseph L. Mankiewicz might well be one of the most shining examples of this, though Billy Wilder certainly gives him a run for his money.

The Truman Show (1998)

Moving forward in time by almost 50 years, we arrive at Andrew Niccol’s sharp screenplay for The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s exploration of media exploitation and a foreshadowing of the reality show industry that had already begun to emerge around it and which has since become ubiquitous, a cheap alternative for television networks that are losing many of their best scripted efforts to the broad array of cable channels and now streaming services against which they compete.

The Truman Show stars Jim Carrey in his single best performance as Truman Burbank, a young boy raised on a massive television stage in which he carries on with his life not realizing that everyone around him, including his parents, girlfriend, and myriad others are paid actors attempting to guide him towards a life of entrapment and isolation. Niccol’s talent as a screenwriter was never so sharp as it was here with Weir’s journeyman efforts as a director to accentuate his work in amazing ways. While there were still great screenplays written between this film and the prior one on my list, The Truman Show remains a stellar example of the creative energy that still thrives in Hollywood today. It’s the only Oscar loser among my list of best original screenplays, but the Academy is well known for getting it wrong on numerous occasions and that’s incredibly true on this one.

Get Out (2017)

Advance another nearly twenty years and you have one of the most astute horror films ever written. Get Out was the debut feature of comedian Jordan Peele, who wrote and starred along with fellow actor Keegan-Michael Key on their acclaimed sketch series Key and Peele. What emerged from that fruitful collaboration, no one would have imagined as Get Out remains a fresh and refreshing take on horror tropes, exploiting many of the best and worst elements of the genre to fashion a brilliant and hard-hitting exploration of the Black experience in the United States.

Starring Daniel Kaluuya, likely to be an Oscar winner by the end of next month, the film takes him into the benevolently racist home of his White girlfriend’s parents where his heritage becomes a useful tool for her strange mother and father played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford. As often as I Have discussed Peele’s influential use of cinematic language, the foundation the film is built on is its superb screenplay for which Peele won his only Oscar to date.

Adapted Screenplay

With the category history already tackled, we move onto the next section. Some consider adapting other sources into feature films to be the more difficult task as it requires maintaining the tone and purpose of the original source while adding enough cinematic elements to make the film visually engaging. Sometimes, the best screenplays are the ones that remain the most faithful, but more often, the screenplays that open up the material can be even better.

Among Oscar’s winners, these are among my favorites: Terms of Endearment (1983), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Schindler’s List (1993), Gods and Monsters (1998), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Call Me by Your Name (2017).

On the losers side, these are my selections: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931/32), 12 Angry Men (1957), North by Northwest (1959), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Z (1969), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), Victor/Victoria (1982), Back to the Future (1985), The English Patient (1996), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Children of Men (2006), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), District 9 (2009), Logan (2017), and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

And finally, my five favorites:

It Happened One Night (1934)

Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night became the first film in Oscar history to score Oscars in both lead acting categories, directing, writing, and Best Picture. Only two films succeeded it with that achievement: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. Oscar trivia aside, it was quite obvious why this film won a screenplay Oscar. Based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, the film features Colbert as a spoiled heiress who goes on the run to meet her newlywed husband against her father’s wishes. Along the way, she meets a journalist (Gable) who gives her the opportunity to tell her story and still unite with her new husband.

Robert Riskin’s clever screenplay plays with elements of the screwball comedy with grace and elegance, allowing this pre-code romance to feel positively radiant. Aided immeasurably by a charming performance by Colbert and a notably subdued performance from Gable, the film is further supported by the inimitable director Frank Capra in the first of his three Oscar-winning narrative features. It Happened One Night is not only hilarious, it’s a grand time where warm characters endear themselves to the audience and no one leaves without feeling fulfilled.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Thirty years after Riskin’s superlative adaptation, Terry Southern, Peter George, and Stanley Kubrick turned George’s popular novel Red Alert into one of the greatest comedies of all-time. Kubrick hadn’t delved into satire in a measurable way, his prior comedy, Lolita, being a bit more serious in its exploration of its subject matter. Reuniting with that film’s star, Peter Sellers, Kubrick explores a ludicrous potential future where the Soviet Union and the United States are in a tense nuclear stand off where saying the wrong thing could lead to utter annihilation.

Sellers plays three characters, each more ludicrous than the next. One is a military officer trapped in a general’s office (Sterling Hayden) who believes that fluoridation in the water is a Soviet plot to pollute their precious bodily fluids. One is the comically inept President of the United States who must constantly stay in contact with the Soviets and their ambassador (Peter Bull) or risk Soviet attack. The final is the wheel chair-bound ex-Nazi nuclear scientist who isn’t entirely in control of his body. Sellers easily gives one of the best performances in history, losing the Oscar to Rex Harrison’s uninspired performance in My Fair Lady. With numerous hilarious elements to the film, played to perfect comic timing by Sellers, Hayden, George C. Scott, and others, their success is entirely a result of a killer script with few rivals.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

We move forward almost 40 years to the next title on my list, an adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name. Legendary western writer Larry McMutry alongside fellow scribe Diana Ossana adapt this now-timeless classic of a story about two men who take a summer job herding sheep in the mountains, falling in love in the process. Although the film came out more than a decade after Neil Jordan’s seminal gay drama The Crying Game, Brokeback Mountain opened doors to gay protagonists that had been barely ajar in the intervening years. Wildly successful at the box office, the film won director Ang Lee an Oscar, but lost out in Best Picture to the mediocre race drama Crash, becoming one of the most notorious Oscar snubs in history.

Part of the film’s success was normalizing the relationship between two men in an environment and social context where rugged men were seen as paragons of masculine virtue. Much of the success of the film in creating such a believable and organic bond between these two men with stellar performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Ledger would be better only once more in his posthumous Oscar-winning role in The Dark Knight, but it was a credit to his skills that this character feels so humanely genuine, not succumbing to the limp-wristed portrayals that have too often come to symbolize gay characters in film (see 2020’s The Prom for an example of how that type of stereotypical portrayal is well past its sell-by date). Yet, a bigger credit to the film’s success is the tenderness and humanity given to the characters and their situations by McMurtry and Ossana. Few films can cement all of their various parts into such a harmonious whole and this film certainly achieved that.

Carol (2015)

Ten years later, another Oscar nominee focused on two Lesbians in the 1950s who fall in love against the backdrop of a turbulent social climate not dissimilar from that of Brokeback Mountain. Employing the visual style of many a Sirkian melodrama, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara deliver wonderful performances as the titular Carol (Blanchett) and her doe-eyed potential paramour Therese (Mara). Although The film is titled Carol, it is unquestionably Therese’s film as she grows and matures through the course of the film while Carol remains the confident target of her affection.

The film was easily the best of 2015 and was unfairly excluded from the Best Picture race because to some it felt a bit distant and cold. Director Todd Haynes’ film is anything but, focusing on a mature relationship that teetered on the edge of disaster as clueless individuals in the characters’ orbits slowly came to understand what might be going on. That delicate balance of risk and reward is a feature of Phyllis Nagy’s tremendous adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt. Not surprisingly, the film lost the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay. How could you expect Oscar voters who couldn’t recognize the brilliance of the film itself to honor it for one of the elements that made it so successful?

Little Women (2019)

The final title on my list is another recent film. Released in 2019, Little Women marked the greatest achievement actor-turned-director Greta Gerwig has yet helmed. The film is based on the oft-adapted Louisa May Alcott novel of the same name exploring the lives of the March sisters in their quiet New England town where love and challenge are an everyday part of their existences. Set far from the front lines of the Civil War, the feminine independence that resulted from that event is captured in terrific detail by Alcott who based the novel on her own childhood.

Many period novels have been adapted in various forms over the years, each trying to capture some unique element of the novel itself to make the adaptations stand out from one another. Gerwig’s screenplay is no different, approaching the story from a new perspective, this one positioning Saoirse Ronan’s Jo Marsh as more than just the protagonist of the story, but casting her in the role of storyteller and pioneer. Gerwig’s film sets the film into flashbacks with Jo’s career as a writer as the present-day focal point, doing more than a bit of paralleling of Alcott’s own story, which adds a dose of realism and authenticity that the myriad prior adaptations didn’t quite feel. Filling her film with a wonderful cast of young up-and-coming actors, Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan, and Timothé Chalament, as well as veteran talents like Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, and Chris Cooper. It’s no hyperbole to say that the youngsters act circles around their older co-stars, but that’s to be expected from both these young actors and their generous scene-partner veterans.

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