This is a story about the screenwriting Oscars and who’ll most likely lose them. But to be able to inform it, let’s return to the 1983 Oscars, when the 5 authentic screenplay nominees had been “Diner,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Gandhi,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Tootsie.” Even with no “Personal Best,” “Smash Palace” or “Shoot the Moon”: a good yr! Although, I’d haven’t any downside boiling the 5 all the way down to “E.T.” and “Tootsie,” and I’m not going to decide on between them, as a result of I don’t must. (O.Ok. Fine. “Tootsie.”) And but, John Briley gained for “Gandhi.” But how did anyone know that was the greatest screenplay? Who learn it?
This is the central vexation of the authentic and tailored screenplay classes — together with the basic ethical confusion of the Oscars. (How does a individual — a good individual — vote for the script about the factor from outer area as an alternative of the love letter to 1 of John Lennon’s heroes? Didn’t the posters name “Gandhi” “A WORLD EVENT”?)
But it’s additionally a actual evaluative thriller. How have you learnt good writing that, as a moviegoer, you possibly can’t see and, as Academy voters, you’re not obligated to learn? (Consenting members can obtain eligible screenplays and watch as they flip into furnishings.) A scrupulous, even perhaps conscientious, non-voter may monitor down copies of the choices. (Now, the web makes that a cinch.) And then what would you might have? The pages used to shoot the film? Or a last model primarily based on the film all people noticed? Given what all occurs to a movie between a draft and a premiere, the taking pictures script (dialogue, descriptions of motion, areas, garments, pictures) may higher be appreciated as a want checklist — or a memoir. And the printed factor primarily based on the completed, edited, marketed film? That’s actually a transcript.
An Oscar voter in 2020, selecting amongst the films of 2019, must be discerning in another method, most likely in the most predictable method. Basically, we’ve got in the judging course of no actual moral tips. And but possibly you don’t want something stronger than your intestine. To state the apparent: Good writing is in a film’s bones. You don’t at all times have to learn one thing to comprehend it’s there — though, please learn screenplays; even a dangerous one can illustrate how nicely the relaxation of a film works. An incredible one is its personal work of literature. But films win for every kind of causes apart from nice writing: comfort, sheer verbiage, momentum. (That “Gandhi” win was half of an Eight-for-11 sweep.)
So: How nicely written does the film really feel? In that sense, “Parasite” feels perfect. It’s a con-artist film — poor family connives its way into jobs serving a younger, wealthy quartet — and the con rides an elevator from comically to tragically desperate. This is writing that has to work mechanically enough to earn the “trap” in “contraption.” The family also needs to seem trapped not only as impostors but, more crucially, as indigents. Acting can get this done.
But the writing — by the director Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han — knows that being a great contraption isn’t enough. The minute the kids figure out how to get their dad on the payroll, you know the writing wants to do the impossible. I kept laughing at the nerve in this script. “Parasite” is so obvious, so literal, and yet, to quote more than one of its characters, “so metaphorical” that nobody else, not even Luis Buñuel, has flung class-divide moviemaking this far past farce and disaster into heartbroken reality check. Some contraption-minded scripts would have been happy to argue that life is a game. This one is sadder than that. It argues for life as life.
Does anyone remember that “The Nightingale” by Jennifer Kent came out this year? Only a few months ago! It’s as well directed as any movie currently drowning in prizes — more brutal than “The Irishman,” angrier than “Parasite,” filthier than the doings at the Spahn Ranch in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” But Kent’s sense of cinema here springs from the literary rage of her screenwriting. A godawful rape and murder put a young Irish convict on a revenge odyssey through the Australian wilderness. What could have been a revisionist slog opens into a more ambitiously ambivalent buddy movie. The film’s protagonist all but kidnaps a young, dark-skinned, indigenous man to guide her and becomes too dependent on his skill for her racism to deter their trip. The story keeps these two mad people on a parallel track with her maniac attacker, a British soldier, until they all wind up, armed, in the same town — a sour, revisionist western.
I don’t need to feel as though I’m reading while watching a movie. But Kent is a writer whose movies feel sprung from grim page-turners. “The Babadook” is hers, too. This is a bigger, less metaphorical achievement. The monsters are real. So is the history. But it doesn’t flatter anybody, so it’s more convenient, I suppose, to ignore. Hers is the kind of blunt historical realism that scares an Oscar voter into more “Gandhi,” and more “Green Book.”
Folks love original screenplays in which the characters do a lot of good talking. And good talking is how you can tell somebody wrote something. “Marriage Story” doesn’t have the plot wrinkles and hard left turns of some of Noah Baumbach’s last few movies. But it’s also got some of the best cross-talking anybody’s done, movie-wise, in years — between the divorcing couple, sure, but especially among their attorneys, who understand in their competing way that ugly is the only way to win. Anytime the wife’s lawyer (Laura Dern) speaks, in humblebrags and an electric feminist rant, I think she should actually thank the Academy on Baumbach’s behalf.
Quentin Tarantino actually has thanked it. Twice. People love the paragraphs of dialogue he puts in characters’ mouths. The writing in “Once Upon a Time” has paragraphs of all sorts — digression, voice-over, description. But they’re shorter, purposeful. The script recreates a particular style of so-so entertainment that enters the memory raw and, over time, scabs into nostalgia. I love his fidelity to the fairy tale of the title. It lets him situate the outrageousness of the finale somewhere between four-alarm and false alarm. The high point, of course, is the dialogue between a child actor (Julia Butters) and her man-child co-star (Leonardo DiCaprio) that’s about writing, reading and recitation, about the intoxicants of pulp storytelling. In other words, about the pungent pleasure of the Tarantino experience.
Good original scripts are piled pretty high this year. With “Us,” Jordan Peele boldly didn’t go for the same social satire of “Get Out”; this movie is stranger and more oblique, and its gothic-horror ambiguities probably read less like “The Twilight Zone” and more like Edgar Allan Poe. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” — speaking of gothic, here’s a sneaky piece of writing, about a film student and her seemingly posh older boyfriend, that’s elliptical, almost diaristic. A single question, tossed off at a dinner, shatters the romantic mystery into tragic bits. Trey Edward Shults’s “Waves” is another tragedy where the writing feels remembered; it’s full of regular teenagers whose speech is neither too truculent nor exalted but vividly common; people speak less in the second half and Shults’s powers of descriptive observation take over. The script for “Booksmart” is credited to four people — Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman — and bravo to whoever decided to stage the big fight between its two bestie protagonists at a public event where the surrounding party people only gradually realize the fight’s for real.
“Ford v Ferrari” is the sort of screenwriting I love: original script, based on a true story, where everything is stock, stock, stock — except, amazingly, the cars — but where the writers have fun with the clichés. The movie is about two Formula 1 drivers in the 1960s and the megacompany that hires them to win, and it’s a blast seeing speed repeatedly, shrewdly used to develop character. Even the film’s Wife Role expresses fury in miles per hour. I don’t know whether Mollie Miles really drove the family station wagon all over the road while telling off her husband, but I don’t care. The thrill of the scene is how it’s wittier than you were expecting it be. Every scene is written that way.
The great thing about “Tootsie” — O.K., one great thing about “Tootsie” — is that every scene is a tributary to the central stress: How mad will Julie and Julie’s dad and America be when they find out Dorothy is just Michael? A friend told me recently that not only do professors teach the script, by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (with uncredited assistance by Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and Elaine May), they diagram it. That’s certainly one metric of excellence that would qualify “Parasite” as both an ornate textbook example and a work of modern art. And something entertaining like Rian Johnson’s whodunit, “Knives Out,” is a series of knots you’d need a Boy Scout to undo. I saw it a week before I started typing this and already don’t remember who dun exactly what.
Lena Waithe’s “Queen & Slim” is a screenplay about a political moment. Two strangers on a doomed internet date go on the lam after one of them shoots a white cop. They get helped by a pimp, his flock and two white people, then fall in post-traumatic love. There’s a diagram for that, and it looks like Morse code. Around the time the movie opened, I had dinner next to two very smart, successful writers who were “Queen & Slim” lovers. They made a case for the writing as a political fable. I couldn’t get past the dinner on the date. But I do love the fable approach to screenwriting. There can be a linearity to it, a long, doored hallway.
“1917” epitomizes that sort of writing. Two British World War I soldiers are sent across enemy lines to warn a different platoon that it’s walked into a German trap. A door might open onto a live tripwire, another might introduce some item of melodrama — a photograph, say. The movie is a series of long, masterful, seemingly unedited takes (after a while you’re in too much suspense to notice those) where the smoothness of the camerawork matches the elegance of the writing, by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The device with the camera can’t haunt you as much if the writing itself doesn’t feel like a dream.
Can we go back to the 1983 Academy Awards and the other writing category for a minute? The adapted screenplay Oscar went to “Missing,” a based-on-true-events script by Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart about an American couple trying to find their son who disappeared during the United States-backed overthrow of the Chilean government in 1973. It’s not a political thriller so much as a tense drama about how American foreign policy wrecked a family — and helped wreck Chile. This is a shrewd screenplay — it uses tragedy to retroactively indict political systems. It knows what it wanted from the book it’s based on — a book most people hadn’t read.
In other words, an adapted screenplay is even tougher to judge because you’re not just “reading,” you’re reading comparatively, in theory anyway, holding a movie against its source material and subtracting what seems similar from what’s different. It’s the standardized test of category evaluation — you’re doing verbal and math. But come on: Few of us are doing any such thing. It’s a lot easier and maybe wiser just to watch “The Two Popes” this year and wonder why, in the middle of a simmering theological confrontation between the two popes, do we get a big, interminable flashback to 1976 and Pope Francis being caught in the quagmire of Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War”? It’s historically pivotal but dramatically lethal. The writer, Anthony McCarten — working from his book “The Pope” — couldn’t have known that these scenes would rob us of the microclimates of Anthony Hopkins’s acting as Pope Benedict. But they do, and it’s maddening.
Unlike McCarten here, Taika Waititi understands momentum. He can keep you laughing. But the comedy in “Jojo Rabbit” feels diversionary. The movie doesn’t want you to overthink what it’s up to. The story follows a 10-year-old Nazi cadet named Jojo; his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler; and the teenage Jew hidden in the kid’s house, and it’s based on Christine Leunens’s novel “Caging Skies.” I haven’t read it. But the movie’s gags and irreverence feel like Waititi specials (he did “Thor: Ragnarok”). The writing moves. Everything Jojo says is funny. But when the movie takes its turn past glib into grim, a residue of glibness remains. The writing can’t get far enough out in front of the Holocaust not to drown in a self-contented sense of romance. I’m not saying artists should give up using wit to reinterpret the Holocaust’s atrocity. It’s just that you’ll risk the atrocity exposing your shallowness, every time.
I also don’t need another script about a gangster. But the writing for “The Irishman” is more than that. I love the melting sweep of time in this movie. There are three or four magnificent showpieces arranged around dialogue, of course, but also intimacy, namely that long hotel room scene between Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank Sheeran, his bodyguard (played by Robert De Niro), in which Hoffa spills out words and Sheeran just absorbs them all like sheets of Brawny. The primary knock against the movie — that Anna Paquin as Peggy, one of Sheeran’s daughters, is seen far more than heard — would seem to arise from the pages of the script Steven Zaillian took from Charles Brandt’s better-named book. (“I Heard You Paint Houses”? That’s a title!) I love Paquin, but I also love that she’s a strong enough presence to be the silent-but-deadly force the script needs her to be. And anyway, Peggy’s linelessness exposes how absent Frank was in her life. These are his memories, and I’ll bet he can’t recall the sound of her voice, only the sting of her indicting gaze.
How easy would it have been to construct that movie as told to a reporter instead of to geriatric Frank’s actual scene partner, who’s too good and meaningful to spoil here? “Hustlers” relies on the framing presence of the journalist who wrote the magazine story Lorene Scafaria’s script is based on. Why do movies do this? Some of my best friends are reporters, but stop putting them in movies when you can’t think of how else to handle exposition!
In truth, a good adapted script is practically original. Officially, Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is the sixth movie of Louisa May Alcott’s novel and the best written. Gerwig has conflated the book’s two halves in a way that honors the permeable boundary between adolescence and adulthood as a series of impressionistic joys and crises. The Civil War’s climes are more explicitly ambient here than in other versions where they’re all but nonexistent. And there are images that you can see wafting up from Gerwig’s pages, like that breathtaking opening shot of Jo standing in a publisher’s door, preparing herself to make a convincing first impression. (Gerwig knows how to kick off a movie. She doesn’t raise the curtain so much as tear it open.) What Alcott’s novel needed, as a movie, is a filmmaker with her own sensibility (Gerwig is fond of throwaway profundities, wildness, physicality and human strangeness), somebody who hasn’t adapted a beloved book just because it’s beloved but because she’s found in it something to say.
That, of course, is the thing about “Gandhi.” It wants to be taken seriously. It wants to be lauded. In “Little Women,” the whole point is how little the movie needs from us, that it’s passionate and bracingly empathetic (to Amy, no less!) but also exhilaratingly independent. That said: It’s a perfect, perfectly idiosyncratic screenplay, and the Academy should say so.
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