Between the Lines: The Screenplay Oscar Nominees

A new year, a new column on Flip Screen! Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting; from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters. What better way to start than talking about the Oscars…

Every year the Oscar nominations invite cinema-goers to debate and argue on whether those nominated are worthy to be honoured. The last few years have seen audiences clamouring for change to the normally very white and very male nomination lists; a change much needed in this industry. Since then, the awarding bodies have started to make some progressive moves towards a more equal celebration of cinematic artists, but it feels this year Hollywood has taken a step back. No female directors. All white actors in the acting categories bar one person of colour. Films made by minority groups being completely shut out from the conversation. Although we should be, rightly so, upset and outraged with the acting and directing categories there is always an area that is rarely talked about in these debates: screenwriting. Sure, there are other categories that don’t see the spotlight either, but today we shall be looking at the nominees for both screenplay categories and what it contributes to the overall debate about the Oscars and Hollywood itself.

Three women in the late 1800's looking out of a window, from the film Little Women.
Little Women (2019)

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • The Irishman
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Joker
  • Little Women
  • The Two Popes

On the surface we have a strong category, but the two that stand out are Jojo Rabbit and Little Women. Taika Waititi’s dark satire is adapted from the very serious and straight-faced novel Caging Skies written by fellow New Zealander Christine Leunens. It takes courage to take a source material like that and turn it into a satire but for the most part, Waititi succeeds in his adaptation and tells it in a way only he could. Little Women has deservedly been nominated in multiple categories (we will never forgive the Best Director snub however) but the screenplay should be equally celebrated alongside its other nominations. Even with numerous adaptations of the original novel out there, writer Greta Gerwig has modernised the period drama and re-formatted the narrative to create something that feels new and relevant. The Irishman and The Two Popes, written by Steven Zaillian and Anthony McCarten respectively, are solid (if safe) choices for this category, but the one that sparked a huge outcry was Todd Phillips and Scott Silver receiving a nomination for Joker. The film that has caused controversy and heated debates since even before the film released, Joker has a guaranteed oscar win with Joaquin Phoenix’s committed performance, but the story and dialogue have been aspects of the DC movie that was its weakest aspect. With 11 nominations across the board however, there is a chance that Joker could cause an upset in this category. Within this category we have a single female writer which unfortunately isn’t surprising; there have only been five female writers who have won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay since 1985. The one film that should have been on the list of nominees was Hustlers which was adapted by Lorene Scafaria. On the surface it was an empowering heist drama, but underneath there was an emotional depth worthy of a nomination, which would of helped diversify the award nominees.

The full cast of the film Knives Out standing and sitting inside the lounge of a large country home.
Knives Out (2019)

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Knives Out
  • Marriage Story
  • 1917
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  • Parasite

A good category this year for original stories being told, although there were many others deserving of a nomination that lost out. Rian Johnson continues to cement himself as arguably the greatest working screenwriter out there with the tightly-paced and entertaining whodunnit Knives Out but Bong Joon-ho and writing partner Han Jin-won have crafted a narrative full of twists unlike anything else with Parasite. We only have one female writer in the list of nominations with Krysty Wilson-Cairns writing 1917 alongside the film’s director Sam Mendes. Much like Knives Out the script is paced perfectly for its urgent story being told but there is an argument to be made whether the one (ahem, two) shot film strengthens or weakens their script. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was guaranteed to take a spot on the list with Quentin Tarantino having already won in this category twice before for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained. The only Netflix production on this list, Marriage Story, gives a nod to Noah Baumbach’s mature story of divorce, but I don’t expect this one to pick up the Academy Award. The nominations are strong, but the silence of other original voices is too loud to ignore. We have another category with mostly male writers even with the stellar year we have had with new powerful stories from women of different backgrounds. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell should of made it on this list, never mind the countless other categories, with a story that is at once new for us western audiences but universal in its themes. Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, made waves at Sundance with praise for its powerful storytelling but failed to get noticed anywhere else; much like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. Winning the Best Screenplay at Cannes wasn’t enough for Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be recognised by the Academy and the team behind it. The sure to become classic, Booksmart, has been snubbed of the recognitions for their hilarious but touching coming-of-age comedy. The nominees deserve the recognition sure, but for a category that celebrates original stories it is a shame that it keeps celebrating stories already told countless times before; especially in a year bursting with new amazing scripts by new powerful voices.

Like always, there are deserving nominees in the screenplay categories, however there needs to be big changes towards diversity and making the industry more inclusive. Mirroring the adapted screenplay category, the original screenplay category has only seen five women win the award since 1985. Shockingly for that category also, only two non-americans have won and only four LGBTQ+ nominees have won in the history of that award. The attention mostly goes towards Acting, Directing and Best Picture categories for the lack of diversity but it’s the other areas of film that desperately need change too. Maybe if more work was done on all categories, we would start to see a wider range of artists getting the recognition they deserve.

Every year we threaten to boycott the Oscars, yet our eyes are glued to the screen on the night of the ceremony because there is an undeniable power that the Academy seems to have over viewers and creators of film. Since cinema is an art form, we cannot objectively deem a film worthy above all others. This means the Academy has a responsibility to shape the look of the film industry by recognising the distinct voices and artists that create these wonderful stories, not to keep Hollywood as a restrictive members-only club, and it all starts with the writers. The script is the blueprint of the film and behind that is an individual or a small group of people with a voice and a story to tell. By empowering and inviting in these voices from a range of backgrounds, it might just make the world of cinema a little brighter.