Nate Blake: The Oscars Are A Poor Measure of Excellence, Except…

As I’ve spent the past few weeks complaining online about how Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book do not deserve to be in the Oscar race, I’ve received a lot of feedback that’s dismissive of the importance of Hollywood’s biggest awards. The common retort is that Oscars don’t matter, the Academy gets it wrong more than they get it right, and so on. I’m inclined to agree. If I were to look back on the past quarter century of Best Picture winners, only two winners, Schindler’s List and Spotlight, would’ve been my first choices. But it’s also not just about my personal tastes.

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Tom McCarthy (left) and Josh Singer (right) accept the Oscar for Best Picture for Spotlight. Singer also won for his screenplay. 

The Best Picture winner is usually neither the most critically acclaimed film in he group of nominees, much less of the year. Look up any winner, and you’ll usually find a film with a Rotten Tomatoes score between 85% and 95%, but each year there are usually a handful of films that achieve higher scores than that. Best Picture winners are also frequently films that do not stand the test of time. Forrest Gump, though I’ll admit to enjoying it, has not aged well. Hell, it’s unworthiness of the title Best Picture was apparent when it was released. Ditto for A Beautiful Mind and Crash. But in thinking about the Oscars’ importance in terms of a film’s legacy and long-term cultural relevance, I did realize there is one aspect in which the Academy usually gets things right, or at least very close to it. The winners for screenplay, even if they aren’t always the best of the year, are almost always solid choices. True, screenwriting Oscars were awarded to Crash, A Beautiful Mind and Forrest Gump, but such weak winners are the exception rather than the rule in the writing categories.

Before I proceed with examples, I want to point out that I am not going to retroactively consider a winner a weak or poor choice because a controversy later broke out about someone involved with the film. For example, I think it would be unfair to say giving American Beauty a screenwriting award was a bad choice because two decades later we have evidence that Kevin Spacey is a scumbag in real life, not just in Seven (such a good film). You could certainly have an opinion that the American Beauty script wasn’t worthy twenty years ago, but it’s also hard to ignore the film’s lasting impact on pop culture, influence over subsequent tragicomedies and renewed cynicism (in film) during the following decades about suburbia.

The Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay categories frequently are the only ones in which some of the most memorable and influential films are acknowledged. Sometimes these categories serve as make-good awards in years when a weak film takes the top prize. We need look no further back than 2017 for an example of this, when The Shape of Water won Best Picture, but Get Out and Call Me By Your Name won the writing awards. Though there’s not much evidence to go on yet, I have a feeling it’s the two screenwriting winners that will still be talked about decades from now. There are older examples where something like this has panned out too. Think about 1996. When was the last time you heard someone talk fondly about The English Patient? Now, when was the last time you heard someone say they love Fargo?  The latter took home the award for Best Original Screenplay.

The writing categories are also helpful in those rare years where most or all the nominees are very deserving and the cultural and critical impact of a film that isn’t a Best Picture front-runner still should be acknowledged. Such was the case in 2012 when Django Unchained took home Best Original Screenplay. This was the second time Quentin Tarantino prevailed for writing in a year where the Best Picture winner (Argo) was one of the weaker nominees (though not as bad as Les Miserables). Tarantino also prevailed in the Original Screenplay category in 1994 for Pulp Fiction despite Forrest Gump taking the top prize.

The screenplay categories also seem to be the ones where risk and originality are rewarded the most. There are many examples, not just from the past 25 years, of safe, crowd-pleasing films winning Best Picture while more daring movies won for screenplay. It’s hard to say that Rocky hasn’t earned its place in film history. Its legacy continues, perhaps better than ever, in the ongoing Creed franchise. That said, 1976 provided a rich assortment of nominees that didn’t play it so safe, particularly Network, a writing and acting showcase about the power, and potential evil, of media corporations that is now more relevant than ever.

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Paddy Cheyefsky accepts the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his Network script. 

Other years where the screenwriting winners were more consequential for the art than the Best Picture winners include 2004 and 2011. The former saw Sideways and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind prevail in the writing categories. Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby had to settle for also picking up Director, Actress and Supporting Actor awards. Paul Haggis, who wrote the script, is not that fondly remembered these days, and Million Dollar Baby is no Rocky.  People do still discuss the impact Sideways had on the wine industry, while Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind continues to pop up on lists of the best films of the 21st century or even all time. Meanwhile, 2011 saw The Descendants deservedly win Adapted Screenplay while Midnight in Paris went home with Original Screenplay. It’s unfortunate that the Academy chose to recognize Woody Allen again, despite past accusations of sexual assault (a controversy that would reignite two years later), but Midnight in Paris is a much better script than the one for 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist. That said, even though the Academy still has an unwise habit of looking at only the art and not the artist behind it, I can’t see what was in the Midnight in Paris script that made Oscar voters think it was better than A Separation.

The Academy Awards for Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay do not have a perfect track record, but year after year they have been the most consistent in terms recognizing films the will continue to be influential and relevant for years to come. Even if my favorite script of the year doesn’t win, the winners are usually solid choices, and I can’t say that nearly as often about Best Picture. Now watch, in three weeks the Academy will give Best Original Screenplay to Green Book. It’s the only questionable option among this year’s screenwriting nominees, but I guess the other way to look at is there are nine deserving nominees spread out among the two writing categories. Those are the best odds of the night.

OSCAR WINNERS FOR SCREENWRITING FROM 1993-2017

Best Original Screenplay:

2017: Get Out

2016: Manchester by the Sea

2015: Spotlight

2014: Birdman

2013: Her

2012: Django Unchained

2011: Midnight in Paris

2010: The King’s Speech

2009: The Hurt Locker

2008: Milk

2007: Juno

2006: Little Miss Sunshine

2005: Crash

2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

2003: Lost in Translation

2002: Talk to Her

2001: Gosford Park

2000: Almost Famous

1999: American Beauty

1998: Shakespeare in Love

1997: Good Will Hunting

1996: Fargo

1995: The Usual Suspects

1994: Pulp Fiction

1993: The Piano

Best Adapted Screenplay:

2017: Call Me By Your Name

2016: Moonlight

2015: The Big Short

2014: The Imitation Game

2013: 12 Years A Slave

2012: Argo

2011: The Descendants

2010: The Social Network

2009: Precious

2008: Slumdog Millionaire

2007: No Country For Old Men

2006: The Departed

2005: Brokeback Mountain

2004: Sideways

2003: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

2002: The Pianist

2001: A Beautiful Mind

2000: Traffic

1999: The Cider House Rules

1998: Gods and Monsters

1997: L.A. Confidential

1996: Sling Blade

1995: Sense and Sensibility

1994: Forrest Gump

1993: Schindler’s List

 

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