February 03, 2014 11:55am PT by Scott Feinberg
Oscar Breakdown: The Best Original Screenplay Race
Prior to the 86th Oscars on March 2, THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg will present an eight-part series of posts breaking down the key facts and figures pertaining to each of the "big eight" Oscar categories. (For his predictions, see the weekly "Feinberg Forecast" post.) This post focuses on the best original screenplay Oscar race.
Some stories go from the page to the screen in a year; others take 20 years. Some scripts adhere closely to the real events that inspired them; others merely use those events as a creative jumping-off point. Some stories look at the complications of life in the present day; others imagine what they might be in the not-too-distant future. And some feel as though they are set in a world to which we cannot relate; others feel eminently relatable and timeless. These are the five nominees for this year's best original screenplay Oscar.
American Hustle was originally American Bullshit, a script by Eric Warren Singer that chronicled the ABSCAM scandal and earned a spot in the top 10 on the 2010 Black List as one of the year's best unproduced screenplays. In 2012, shortly after wrapping his work on Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell signed on to direct the project -- and rewrite it. He replaced the real people with caricatured versions of them, bringing his trademark humor and heart to the project in the process. The resulting script provided meaty enough parts for his actors that, on Oscar nominations morning, one was represented in each of the four acting categories, something that had happened on only 14 other occasions in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards. It was honored as the year's best screenplay by the New York Film Critics Circle, nominated for the same honor at the Critics' Choice, WGA and Screenwriters Choice awards and for best screenplay at the Golden Globe Awards and still has a still-pending BAFTA nom.
Meanwhile, Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's annual original script-turned-film. Part biting drama and part hilarious comedy, and clearly inspired by Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, it features a plum part that was literally written for Cate Blanchett -- just the latest in a long line of great roles for women in Allen's films -- and captures the tumultuous changes that many wealthy Americans experienced in the wake of our nation's recent economic troubles, generally, and the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, in particular. The film has garnered Allen not only a record-extending 16th screenwriting nomination (all in this category), but also Critics' Choice, Screenwriters' Choice and WGA nominations, with BAFTA and Independent Spirit noms still pending.
Dallas Buyers Club is a true underdog story: in 1992, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, a young writer named Craig Borten interviewed Ron Woodruff, a man dying of the disease who had used and circulated alternative drugs that were not FDA-approved but more effective than those that were, and turned their conversations into a script. 21 years and several false starts later, he -- and Melisa Wallack, a friend who became his partner on the effort in 2001 -- could finally go to a movie theater and see the product of their hard work on the big screen. While Woodruff's story itself is remarkable, so, too, is the relationship that they wrote for him with a transgender character named Rayon, who is actually a composite of a number of people Woodruff actually knew. For their efforts, the duo have received not only an Oscar nom but also a WGA Award nom.
Spike Jonze, in contrast, is someone who could work more often but chooses not to -- but when he does work he makes it count: directing Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and both writing and directing Where the Wild Things Are and now Her, a film that presents a fully-imagined future in which our concepts of relationships and the capabilities of technology have evolved so greatly that computers might not only help to facilitate human romances but become partners in them, as well. Jonze penned his first draft in just five months, crediting the inspiration of his early collaborator Charlie Kaufman with teaching him to throw everything he was thinking about into his writing -- including, for instance, a hilarious interactive videogame featuring a smartass character voiced by none other than Jonze himself. Having scored wins at the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and WGA awards, not to mention a prize from the New York Film Critics Online group and a Screenwriters' Choice nom, this futuristic love story appears to stand as good a chance as any of these five nominees of taking home the gold.
Finally, there's Bob Nelson's father-son road movie Nebraska, which Alexander Payne, no slouch of a writer himself, made into a touching black-and-white film. Nelson has worked as a sketch comedy writer and has very few formal writing credits other than Nebraska, but you can can get some sense of how impressive his script was by considering the fact that Nebraska is the first film that Payne has ever directed that he didn't also write. Its details and directions are every bit as important as its dialogue -- after all, the film is about mid-westerners who don't always have much to say in the way of words. The script has been nominated for the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe, WGA and Screenwriters' Choice awards and has a still-pending BAFTA nomination, as well.