It’s hardly a new complaint that the humble original screenplay is practically an endangered species in the current cinematic landscape. Multiple column inches have been spent bemoaning the dominance of sequels, remakes, reboots, retreads and other means of narrative recycling in our multiplexes: of the top 10 grossers at the US box office this year, a mere two (Seth Macfarlane’s “Ted” and Pixar’s “Brave”) are putatively original creations. Audiences like known quantities, studios like low-risk investments, original screenplays pile up on the back burner. And so on.
But while popular filmmaking routinely takes flak for its lack of initiative, the trend is no less prevalent in prestige cinema. This year alone sees a bevy of high-toned literary adaptations jostling for festival space and/or awards attention come wintertime, many of which have been filmed before. There at least 17 big-screen versions of “Anna Karenina” on record, but Joe Wright is bringing us another; Mike Newell is steering the eighth go-round of “Great Expectations” (not including last year’s high-profile TV miniseries); Tom Hooper, the sixteenth of “Les Miserables” (though, to be fair, the first of the beloved stage musical); Baz Luhrmann, the fourth of “The Great Gatsby”; Peter Jackson, the second of “The Hobbit.” The characters here may not wear Spandex, but they’re as overworked as any Marvel superhero.
Add to that any number of further high-profile adaptations — whether of novels (“Life of Pi,” “On the Road,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), plays (“Beasts of the Southern Wild, “Quartet,” “The Sapphires”), journalism (“Argo,” “The Sessions”), biographies (“Lincoln”), radio scripts (“Hyde Park on Hudson”) or just previously existing characters (“Knocked Up” spinoff “This is 40”) — and it seems this year’s Oscar race could be as light on major original contenders as last year’s, when the Best Picture lineup featured twice as many adapted screenplays (by the Academy’s rulings, at least) as original ones.
Of course, that didn’t stop “The Artist,” based on an original, albeit reference-laden, screenplay, from ruling the roost last year — indeed, the last three Best Picture winners have been original by Academy criteria. Perhaps their relative rarity gives them a leg up with voters; perhaps not. Either way, “The Master” could well be that special snowflake this year: currently the only original contender in Kris’ predicted Best Picture lineup, it’s also the only title I feel reasonably comfortable about betting on for a Best Original Screenplay nod, even sight unseen. In a field this unencumbered with heavily-buzzed competitors, Paul Thomas Anderson’s veiled Scientology study would have to disappoint on a pretty grand scale not to earn Paul Thomas Anderson a fourth Oscar nod from the writers’ branch. (From the year-end releases with original screenplays, only Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” looks an equivalent draw in terms of profile, though it remains to be seen whether it’s too pulpy for the Academy.)
Filling out 28 other slots on our Contenders page for the category, however, has been a trickier task — and a rather interesting one. “Once again, this category is weak,” our colleague Greg Ellwood emailed earlier this week, delivering the tip that Sundance favourite “The Sessions” was, contrary to our earlier impression, an adapted screenplay. That’s a common response, but I don’t think a lack of major prestige contenders equates to weakness: it just forces voters have to show a little more ingenuity when filling out their ballots.
That often makes for a category that is actually the strongest and most diverse on the nominee slate: with Oscar bait leaning more in favor of adaptations, that allows more room for the open-minded writers’ branch to consider foreign-language features, animation, indies and comedies. It’s thanks to the supposed “weakness” of the Best Original Screenplay race that both “A Separation” and “Bridesmaids” made the cut last year, that Mike Leigh has five writing nominations to his name, that such marvellous outsiders as “Y tu Mama Tambien,” “In Bruges,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Heavenly Creatures” get to call themselves Oscar nominees at all — and that’s just taking the last quarter-century into account. The industry’s dependence on adaptations has its upsides.
So, what are the left-field original screenplays that could slip onto the ballot while the bloodbath rages over in the adapted category? Michael Haneke, as unimaginable as this might have seemed even five years ago, looks as likely a contender as any. Following its rapturous Cannes reception, Palme d’Or winner “Amour” is bound to be one of the year’s most critically venerated titles: its medicine might be too strong for voters in the top races, but its painstaking, character-centered construction is just the sort of achievement the writers like to recognize, whether it’s submitted in the foreign-language Oscar derby or not. (If not, the resulting furore should all but guarantee recognition elsewhere.)
Another Cannes title, Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” is considerably lighter, but just as serious a possibility: reviews have been generally glowing, box office has been stronger than expected and even if it’s not one of Anderson’s most verbally intricate films (like, say, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which earned Anderson his only previous writing nod), there’s no Academy branch friendlier to mellowly quirky Amerindie fare than the writers.
Ordinarily, a spring release like “Moonrise” would risk falling foul of voters’ short memories: in a less cluttered field like this, however, that’s not quite such a disadvantage. Indeed, several outstanding first-half releases will be hoping to benefit from this: there’s no breakout grown-up comedy to fill the shoes of “Bridesmaids” (sorry “Ted” — not happening), but a smartly written summer sleeper like “Magic Mike” could fit the bill instead. Even less popular early birds stand a chance. Two former nominees, Whit Stillman and Sarah Polley, haven’t gain much traction for “Damsels in Distress” and “Take This Waltz,” respectively, but if anyone’s likely to be remember their wonderful work at the end of the year, it’s the writers, who routinely have have to dig a little deeper through the release calendar than other voting branches.
In a less adventurous outcome, that could also come to the aid of “Brave”: it’s no one’s favorite Pixar feature, and it hasn’t matched the critical or commercial performance of the studio’s best work, but in a category which has found room for six previous Pixar features, the chirpy family flick could be an easy default choice.
What else? The fall festival circuit will unveil the hopefully literate Kristen Wiig-Annette Bening comedy “Imogene,” and presumably Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths,” which appears to hit the same black-comic vein that earned him a nod for “In Bruges” four years ago. “Imogene,” incidentally, boasts a solo woman writer in Michelle Morgan; other female-written comedies that could feasibly charm the writers are “Ruby Sparks” (Zoe Kazan) and “Your Sister’s Sister” (Lynn Shelton) — though I’d prefer Shelton to get out of her habit of bursting delightful character studies with cop-out third acts before the Academy cottons on to her.
I could go on simply running through our Contenders page, which also spans such offbeat options as Ira Sachs’s peach-delicate gay relationship drama “Keep the Lights On,” Drew Goddard and Joss Whedom’s zippy genre fondue “Cabin in the Woods” and whatever Terrence Malick has drawn up this time to accompany his exquisite imagery. Bottom line: more than ever this year, Best Original Screenplay is a category at once thin on contenders and rife with possibilities. What have you got your eye on?
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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