Thursday, February 20, 2014

One Category at a Time: Original Screenplay

This category seems pretty up in the air if you ask me. With neither of the two strongest Best Picture nominees in contention here, it feels as though this prize could go a few different ways. A similar situation arose last year when Django Unchained, Amour, and Zero Dark Thirty all seemed to have an angle in this race because none of them had a hope of actually winning Best Picture (whose highest contenders were adaptations). I can also envision three of this year's nominees as potential winners, so let's start with the one I am picking (with trepidation) for the win.
American Hustle was once considered a possible threat to win the whole thing back when nominations were announced. It had over-performed by tying Gravity's year-leading haul of 10 nods and had recently won of the SAG Ensemble award, where Bradley Cooper made a point of praising David O. Russell as an "actors' director". It seemed that after three consecutive Oscar hits, he was finally due to win a prize of his own, but the heat has since cooled, and many are speculating that the film could be blanked altogether. Fortunately for Russell and original scribe Eric Warren Singer, the BAFTAs gave American Hustle a boost to the tune of three wins, including Best Original Screenplay. That may suggest the film's continued popularity in these crucial late stages of the game. Or, it could be a mirage, as it wasn't competing with its stiffest competition at the BAFTAs...

That stiffest competition (and arguable frontrunner, in fact) is Spike Jonze's beautiful and unquestionably original screenplay for Her. Having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, and WGA award, Jonze should be the statistician's odds-on favourite for the win, but I'm not 100% convinced. Those wins happened a while ago, and American Hustle's BAFTA boost comes at a key moment in the early voting period. Between Her and American Hustle, the former is probably the one that most Academy members will feel less guilty about shutting out. If there are enough spread-the-wealth type voters who believe American Hustle has a decent enough shot of winning something else (like costumes or Supporting Actress, both highly possible), then I suppose it would be unsurprising to see them stump for Her (which is in no position to win anything else) in this category. Except that the Academy doesn't collectively think that way. Beloved films go home empty-handed almost every year. Her may be one such casualty, although I pray I'm wrong.
The dark horse that I'm almost tempted to predict just for variety's sake is Nebraska, if only because of all five nominees, this is the one that feels the most like a movie that wins an Oscar for its screenplay: Small budget indie movie, dry-witted with a soft spot for sentiment, Best Picture nominee, and from a director whose last two features have won Writing Oscars (although he didn't write this one). But I'm sure Bob Nelson wouldn't mind Oscar voters making the mistake of assuming that Alexander Payne, who they clearly treasure, had written this movie if it meant he might have a better shot at winning. I'm keeping this one in the back of my mind. It may not have the precursors to back it up, but it really just feels like a Best Original Screenplay winner.

Woody Allen has always been a branch favourite. The prolific 78-year-old has more Best Original Screenplay nominations than anyone in Oscar history, Blue Jasmine being his sixteenth. Having just won his fourth Academy Award a couple of years ago for Midnight in Paris, it's hard for me to imagine him winning again so soon. Sadly, I fear that some media outlets will be unable to resist pointing to his ugly public battle with Dylan Farrow as the cause for his loss, when the truth of the matter is that he'd be the least likely to win anyway, since Blue Jasmine is the only one of the five not nominated for Best Picture.
Rounding out the competition is Dallas Buyers Club, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. It's nomination here (along with its citation for Best Film Editing) is a clear indication of how well liked the film is within the industry, and proves that its WGA nomination wasn't just some fluke. However, with this movie poised to potentially win three Oscars already, I can't see it winning here as well. The writing is terrific but unlike its fellow nominees, it lacks a certain "personality". I actually think that serves the story perfectly, and I'm super happy to see such smart, efficient scripting recognized, but nevertheless, a victory is not in the cards.

Will win: American Hustle
Runner-up: Her

Should win: Her
Should've been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis