Oscar Deep Dive: Original Screenplay

NOMINEES: Knives Out, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Parasite

The Short Take

In terms of categories that have seemed decided for quite a while now, Best Original Screenplay is about as close as you can get to a lock. This has long been Quentin Tarantino’s strongest category: he’s won the award twice before, once in 1995 for Pulp Fiction, and then again in 2013 for Django Unchained. The Academy likes to reward his writing, and seeing as he has won a slew of prerequisite awards, including a Golden Globe, it is doubtful that anyone else actually challenges him. It helps that the screenplay itself is some of his best work, definitely his most impressive writing since Inglourious Basterds (2009), showing off his trademark interweaving of many adjacent characters and timelines.

However, if there is a surprise to be had, it will most likely come in the form of Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han’s work on Parasite. Personally, I think that this is the most impressive screenwriting in the category. I love Tarantino’s script, but in the face of the intricacy on display in Parasite’s layering of humor, horror, and social commentary, it simply loses out. Parasite will go into the Oscars with 6 nominations, unheard of for a South Korean movie at the Academy Awards, which signals a lot of love for it. It should walk away with the Oscar, and while it is unlikely that anyone unseats Tarantino, this could be the one to do it.

 

The Long Take

Maxing out a developing trend from the last ten years or so, each of the screenplays nominated for Best Original Screenplay were written or co-written by the people who ended up directing the movie. Why is this interesting, you ask? Well, if you take a step back to think about the entire filmmaking process, the existence of the writer-director means that one mind shepherded an idea from thought to written word and finally to filmed image. In terms of theoretical implication, it is a stirring indication of the power of the auteur figure in film culture. 

For the uninitiated, the word auteur as used here comes from a group of French filmmakers and critics working during the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) at Les Cahiers du Cinéma. The general concept is that an auteur is a filmmaker who returns to defining thematic and stylistic ideas in their films again and again. It has also been applied to the idea of a filmmaker who exercises complete control over their stories. Each of the nominees this year fit into one, if not both, of those concepts of the auteur, and therefore highlight the power of uninhibited storytelling when it arrives fully-formed from the mind of a singular artist. Cinema is an endlessly collaborative process that is never the result of individual achievement, but there is something to be said for the power of the writer-director. So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on what this all means for each of the nominees. 

Knives Out happens to be one of my favorite films of the year. Stemming from Rian Johnson’s gloriously nerdy love of all things murder-mystery, the movie zooms in on the aftermath of patriarch Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) mysterious death, and how private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) uncovers the twisted nature of Thrombey’s dueling heirs as they pursue a slice of the family fortune. Knives Out is an absolute treat, chock full of deliciously drawn characters and an endless supply of plot twists and red herrings. Johnson gives his cast incredible material that allows long-time stars like Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson to show off exactly why we love them so much, as well as provide newer faces like Ana De Armas and Lakeith Stanfield a chance to shine. Knives Out is a masterwork of pacing and incorporates all the lovable tropes of the murder mystery while also updating them for the modern setting. Even with all of these strengths, the movie is no doubt too pulpy for the Academy, and without any other nominations to its name, this nomination seems like more of a courtesy for a strong cinematic voice that hasn’t yet settled into a topic the Academy wants to reward. However, I’ll be happy to settle for the already announced sequel.

Noah Baumbach has made a career of family dysfunction, and Marriage Story is a showcase for the skill he has in blending acidic humor with poignant anger. In telling the story of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), Baumbach drops us in at the end of their marriage, wasting no time in ushering us into the meat of the story. His masterful opening sets up the bluff with both reading what they love about the other person only to smash cut to their therapy session where they never actually share the things they love. The divorce story has been done before,see Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), but what sets Baumbach’s film apart is the way that he splits us down the middle, framing and reframing the axes of sympathy from scene to scene. I found myself hating and loving Charlie and Nicole at different points, and it is that conceit that makes the script work; both are so lovingly written that it isn’t about either ‘winning’ the divorce, it’s about how low good people can get. It’s some of Baumbach’s best work, but it will doubtfully propel him to a win in this stacked category. Marriage Story scored five other nominations, but the conversation is mostly around the acting, so hopefully Baumbach can take solace in his actors’ success.

Admittedly, 1917 is the singular nominee in these categories that I have yet to see (damn boarding school teaching schedule makes movie time hard), so I won’t attempt to spin anything out of the ether to make it sound like I have an opinion. Suffice to say, the presiding opinion seems to be that Sam Mendes’ World War I story will do quite well at the Oscars. The Academy historically loves war movies, and pairing that with the film’s technical mastery should help you understand the 10 nominations that it received. Chances are that even with that much love, the film won’t win out in this category because most conversations have not been about its writing. Nonetheless, if it does happen to win out this category, we will most likely see a 1917 Best Picture victory soon after. 

This, of course, brings us to the likely winner of the category, Quentin Tarantino’s script for Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. This has long been Quentin Tarantino’s strongest category: he’s won the award twice before, once in 1995 for Pulp Fiction, and then again in 2013 for Django Unchained. The Academy likes to reward his writing, and seeing as he has won a slew of prerequisite awards, including a Golden Globe, it is doubtful that anyone else actually challenges him. Hollywood is, above all else, a love letter to Los Angeles, a story looking at the light and dark of the industry that Tarantino has helped to reshape during his nearly 30-year career. It displays both a mastery of dialogue, no surprise from a man who has made everything from the nature of tipping to a $5 shake fascinating points of conversation, and an ability to balance time with a true ensemble cast. It has its issues, namely the side-lining of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, but I’m doubtful that will stop Tarantino from securing his third win. The Academy loves a flashy story about the industry, and when a story like that is housed in such a tender piece of writing, it’s hard to imagine anything stopping this win. 

However, if anyone is going to swoop in and change the Tarantino narrative mid-show, it will be Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han’s work on Parasite. Parasite has quickly become the unlikeliest Oscar darling in recent memory. International movies often have a hard time breaking through to score major nominations outside of Best International Film, but continuing the work done by Roma (2018) last year, Parasite scored six nominations and became the first South Korean movie to ever secure a nomination for Best Picture. There is much to love about Parasite, but there is little arguing that a major part of its success is the bonkers script. The intricacy on display in Parasite’s layering of humor, horror, and social commentary while telling the inverse stories of its two families is captivating. It falls into the same category as Get Out (2017) for me, that movie which taps into as much anxiety as humor without ever feeling like it leaves one behind for the other. Ho and Han skewer the rich in Parasite, but do not make it as simple as equating that with unquestionably loving the poor. The movie is a masterclass in how to build and release tension both in scenes and in an overall arc. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best screenplay of the year, and I have my fingers crossed that it wins out. 

 

The Bottom Line

WILL WIN: Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

SHOULD WIN: Bong Joon Ho & Jin Won Han – Parasite

 


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