Written By Jack Bottomley
The 2017 Academy Awards, which will be presented by US TV host Jimmy Kimmel, will be taking place on the 26th February 2017 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles and looking at the films nominated it is sure to be an awards season finale showered with the usual odds on favourites but potentially a few surprises too. The year’s biggest critical awards hit seems to be Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) ode to the golden age of Hollywood musicals in La La Land, which has matched All About Eve and Titanic’s record 14 nomination tally – it may have even beaten it actually, had the film a wider list of characters (instead of being centred on Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s leads). However, La La Land is going to have to be note perfect on the night? After all, no film has ever attained 14 wins, the record being 11 wins, held by three rather epic pictures (Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return Of The King). To make history, it is going to need quite the sweep but this year is far from a one horse race, as the list of nominees conjure up some interesting, strange and glorious pieces of work. As we are all about the mastery of the written word here at Shore Scripts, let’s take a particularly focused look at the talented crop of writers up for awards this year and ask, just what do the academy go for when it comes to screenwriting?
What is a Golden Screenplay?
The Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay is one of the most revered awards at the Oscars, debuting back in 1929 at the very first Academy Awards Ceremony, where it was won by Benjamin Glazer for the 1927 silent romantic drama Seventh Heaven, adapted from the 1922-24 play of the same name by Austin Strong. Whereas the long standing and nearly equally as prestigious Best Original Screenplay award, debuted a decade later at the 13th Academy Awards ceremony in 1941, where it was won by Preston Sturges for his 1940 satirical comedy The Great McGinty in 1940, and has run every year since then – excluding 1949 where there was just a Best Screenplay award instead of separate screenplay categories. Since these humble beginnings, each award has gone on to become an accolade indicative of developments later on in the night in Director/Best Picture and lead acting categories, as the screenplay award is considered one of great achievement.
So often when watching a movie we are drawn in by the audio-visual showcase offered or by our favourite actors doing what they do best but the screenplay is what underpins the magic of the big screen. Many great names including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, The Coen Brothers, John Huston, Oliver Stone and Aaron Sorkin have won either the original or adapted (or both for the Coens) screenplay awards, while many other legends have been nominated numerous times or not even at all in their illustrious careers. So, with that in mind, what does it really take to win an Academy Award for Best Original or Best Adapted Screenplay? You can argue the difficulty for attaining victory in either category, as being original is truly a difficult task in an age where cinema is over 100 years old and lots has already been accomplished (but nowhere near all!), contrariwise in adapting the work of another writer (be it a playwright, author or scriptwriter) it is a difficult task, as you not only have to be respectful of the existing work but bring passion and your own stamp to the project. Each is a hard earned win, so how can it be done?
Well, going by the nine decade history of the Academy Awards, there is certainly a suggestion that the answer can be found in the work of Woody Allen, who holds the record for both nominations and wins in the Original Screenplay category, having won it 3 times and been nominated a grand 16 times in total! Meanwhile in the Adapted Screenplay category, Francis Ford Coppola is the king having won 2 of his 3 screenwriting career awards (5 nominations overall) in the Adapted category, while the most nominated man for an Adapted Screenplay is Billy Wilder, with 7 of his 12 career nominations coming from this category. Some of the victors and their work tells us what was and still is popular with the academy, when they are deciding on who takes the stage and makes the acceptance speech. Drama is the most successful genre by far, and is the dominant force yearly at the Academy Awards, but tinging said drama with witty comedy can be a good bet (ala Allen) or even better, imbuing your narrative with a nostalgic outlook can result in great success too, especially nowadays (heck, see La La Land). Hollywood loves movies about its own system, its own history and it loves drama about the human trials and tribulations or featuring social occasions ripe for comedic zing. Another winning hand has increasingly become to write a story adapted from truth, with the more turbulent stories (be they war set or of tragic origin, especially those featuring acts of courage, defiance or justice).
While traditional, some might say clichéd, values of the academy and their tastes persist with every passing year, you might say that change is slowly working its way in. The age and social range of those who make up the academy is inevitably changing, while genres that were considered lesser (at least to those in high positions) in the past are coming to have a stronger presence (Sci-Fi and Fantasy continue to have punch over the last few years), while a more diverse outlook is also starting to (finally) become a part of the yearly awards and this is likely to increase with time. This writer personally looks forward to the day that the Academy embraces Horror as a respected genre once again!
This Year’s Screenwriting Line-Up
So, with that in mind, let’s look at this year’s nominees, one by one, and ask just who could be going home with their very own golden statuette.
Best Adapted Screenplay
This year’s nominees are indicative of the change in which we have just discussed with some crucial, diverse and compelling stories making the cut. The nominees are:
- Arrival – Eric Heisserer adapted Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” to sublime effect that is for sure but his first career nomination is likely to stay as a nomination and not a win, though the nom alone at least makes up for Heisserer penning the dreadful 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street remake…just.
- Fences – The chances that August Wilson wins this award for this film adaptation of his own play seems uncertain/unlikely but if he does, he will be only the 17th person to win an Academy Award posthumously and just the 2nd for a screenplay award (the only screenwriter to ever get a posthumous win thus far was Sidney Howard in 1940 for his screenplay to the classic Gone with The Wind).
- Lion – Luke Davies’ writing for Lion, adapted from Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose’s biographical “A Long Way Home”, has certainly got an acclaimed buzz behind it but seems to be more of a dark horse than an odds on favourite.
- Hidden Figures – This writer actually sees a good chance for Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi and their adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book “Hidden Figures”, as the story is one that feels especially crucial to our currently chaotic and prejudicial times.
- Moonlight – Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay, based on “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by McCraney himself is the likeliest winner of all those nominated and Moonlight itself is fast becoming the movie that more and more think could upset La La Land in some categories. However in this category, the film’s biggest competition is Hidden Figures.
Best Original Screenplay
Another category that offers a good mixture is the Original Screenplay category, as it features frontrunners, an indie hit and films that have won many fans upon release. Here are the nominees:
- Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay for this throwback, very ‘70s, caper is a pleasure to see nominated but is unlikely to win this category over some of the other critical darling nominees.
- 20th Century Women – Mike Mills’ screenplay for his Comedy/Drama about women exploring their freedom in the 1970s is another worthwhile nominee but again seems like a long shot for winner.
- The Lobster – To see Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou nominated for their work on this splendidly bizarre Black Comedy is joyous, as this is really the kind of film this category should be all about but once again The Lobster is an unlikely winner but its inclusion suggests that more films like it (in terms of absurdist content anyway) may have a chance in the future of such earned recognition.
- La La Land – Damien Chazelle’s screenplay to his tribute to the Hollywood musical has to be considered the favourite but it is not a clear cut victory by any means…
- Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan could well throw off La La Land’s groove here, as Lonergan’s superb, affecting and incredible Drama has a lot of weight and power and it could be enough to sway the academy over La La Land’s glamour and colour…could.
City of Stars
So, after our whirlwind tour of this year’s awards and contemplation of just what might tick those academy member’s boxes, we come to the conclusion of our look at the 2017 Academy Awards. In 89 years there have been outrages, justifiable winners, stars born, veterans rewarded, legends ignored, weepy speeches made, statements asserted and even a Paranormal Activity homage featuring Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Come the 26th of February, we shall see just how right or wrong we were and will no doubt see controversy, celebration and craziness marry together for a night of genuine emotion and/or back slapping self adoration. Either way, we await to see who gets the gold because, if we are honest, these awards, while prestigious, are merely an accompaniment to the talent displayed by this glorious industry. Let’s all continue watching movies and (in the case of many of our wonderful readers) writing them, because the most exciting thing about cinema is how open to change and new, fresh, powerful voices it is. Although, y’know, a gold statue is a nice centrepiece for the home of any writer. Just saying (#Incentive)!
Jack Bottemley is a long time film reviewer and contributor to the brilliant UK Film Review, which is a London based review website promoting films, movie trailers and kickstarter indie films from around the world as well as reviewing movies and short films.