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Oscar Watch: Screenplays

A great film always begins with a great script. Actors and producers willingly admit to that. (Directors rarely do, but that’s a whole other matter.)

After winning the Screen Actor’s Guild best television comedy ensemble award, Cynthia Nixon, one of the four stars of HBO’s Sex and the City, summed it up nicely:

“This evening is all about actors and how great they are, and that’s wonderful, but every actor knows that she is only as good as the stuff she gets to say, unless she’s Marcel Marceau or Lassie. And our writers are the reason our show is such a hit. Without them, we would just be standing in front of the camera barking.”

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My thoughts exactly.

This year’s screenplay nominees run the gamut. We have an endearing French story about a girl who likes to daydream, a man’s struggle with having no short-term memory and a birds-eye view of British nobility and the people who serve them. Then there’s also the captivating story of a schizophrenic mathematical genius and a quiet study of a family dealing with grief and a fantastical retelling of a literary classic.

Yep, the Academy has picked a good crop of nominees this year. It will be difficult to choose the winner, but that’s what they pay me for.

Original Screenplay

Amélie, written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant
Gosford Park, written by Julian Fellowes
Memento, written by Christopher Nolan
Monster’s Ball, written by Milo Addica and Will Rokosand
The Royal Tenenbaums, written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson

The original screenplay category is an interesting mix of topics, but there is an underlying similarity–all are independent films. It’s very refreshing, as each nominated script has a unique personality that goes very much against the norm.

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The screenplay nod for the sweet French film Amélie may have surprised a few, but not those who saw the film. The lilting and whimsical script by Jeunet and Laurant about a young woman who distances herself from life while daydreaming about how great it could be is a gem. It probably won’t win the Oscar but it’s nice to see it there.

Fellowes’ script for Gosford Park came from an idea dreamt up by director Robert Altman and star/producer Bob Balaban. The murder mystery examines how the upstairs life of a 1930s wealthy British family is juxtaposed by the life of the their servants who feverishly work to make everything perfect downstairs. The dialogue blends easily among the large cast. Although the film picked up the Writers Guild Award this year, it’s really not my first choice on this list; it’s just not original enough.

Monster’s Ball‘s script by Addica and Rokosand is one of those slow, methodical character studies that quietly chips away at the surface to show the underbelly of living in the racist South. The story centers on a bigoted white prison guard who meets a young black woman–the widow of a death row inmate–and finds himself falling in love with her. It deserves a spot on the list, for sure, but it probably won’t make the final cut.

The same goes for the ultra-quirky script of The Royal Tenenbaums; it deserves a nomination but has little chance to win. The saga of a highly dysfunctional family who come together when the family’s patriarch discovers he’s dying, the writing by Anderson and Wilson is top-notch. It’s brilliant, but maybe a tad too weird.

That’s right, I’m putting my money on the highly original Memento as the big winner. The script by Nolan about a man trying to find his wife’s killer while unable to create new memories simply surpasses its competition, hands down. It puts the “original” in original. Even though the WGA couldn’t nominate the script because of eligibility issues (at the time the film was made, Nolan wasn’t a union member), Memento should win the Oscar handily.


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Adapted Screenplay

A Beautiful Mind, screenplay by Akiva Goldsman
Ghost World, screenplay by Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes
In the Bedroom, screenplay by Todd Field and Robert Festinger
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, screenplay by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh
Shrek, screenplay by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman

The adapted screenplay category is also chock-full of excellent choices. It’s not as easy for me to pick a winner in this category, but then again, that’s what they pay me for.

Both Ghost World and Shrek really don’t have a huge chance of winning considering the competition. The delightfully funny Shrek, based on the book of the same name by William Steig, is about an ogre who just wants his privacy–until he meets the girl of his dreams. It will likely win the best animated film Oscar and Academy members will likely feel that that’s enough recognition for the animated tale.

The angst-filled screenplay of Ghost World, based on the quirky comic book about two teenagers emergence into adulthood, just has too much of an “indie” feel for its own good.

This leaves the three main contenders: Lord of the Rings, A Beautiful Mind and In the Bedroom.

The unbelievably difficult task of translating the Tolkein literary classic Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring into a three hour movie must have been daunting for co-writers Jackson, Boyens and Walsh. But they did it anyway–and did it well. The movie, though, isn’t about the dialogue as much as it is about the visuals, so the Academy may not consider it much for this award.

The well crafted A Beautiful Mind, based on the book by Sylvia Nasar, is adapted eloquently by Goldsman. The story about John Nash Jr. and his fight against schizophrenia picked up the WGA award, but the controversy surrounding the inaccuracies of the scripted material–in the book, unlike the movie, Nash is portrayed as bisexual–hurts its chances to win the Oscar.

I’m choosing the tightly wound In the Bedroom as my winner. (The WGA didn’t consider Bedroom‘s screenplay due to the same eligibility reasons Memento faced.) The script by Field and Festinger, based on a story by Andre Dubus, centers on a small-town couple in Maine who must deal with the tragic death of their son, and applies the adage less is more. Many scenes have the actors saying little if anything at all; when they do speak, it’s powerful stuff.

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