Oscars Deep Dive: Original Screenplay

Welcome once again, dear reader, to the time of year when I embrace the relentless theorizing and predicting that courses under the Oscars race. In each of these columns, I’ll dive deep into the read I have on a major category at the Oscars. I’ll do this by first giving “The Short of It,” where I keep it real tight and to the point, and then “The Long of It,” where I offer more detail on each of the nominees and where they stand in the race. 

Nominees

Will Berson, Shaka King, Keith Lucas, and Kenny Lucas, Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Lee Isaac Chung, Minari (2021)

Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman (2020)

Derek Cianfrance, Abraham Marder, Darius Marder, Sound of Metal (2020)

Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

The Short of It

Will Win: The odds-makers have been shifting around in this category, but coming off a big win against other frontrunners at the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) awards, my pick is Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman. The film is gaining word-of-mouth recognition at the right time in voting, and the WGA helps lock that in.

Should Win: My love for Minari only grows the more I think about and revisit it, and that includes the belief that Lee Isaac Chung should win this award. His screenplay is far from the flashiest of the bunch, but it is that quiet poetry and elegance that marks his writing for me as the most accomplished of the nominees this year.

The Long of It

Judas and the Black Messiah:

Of the many screenwriting magic acts that the writing team pulls off here, the one that baffles me the most is how King and company sculpted a vital piece of American history into a propulsive thriller. The script has none of the tired trappings one normally expects from historical pseudo-biopics that cram complex lives into cookie-cutter retellings. Instead, it frames the tragedy of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) as a near biblical dive into the darkness of the American government. The result is a script that rewards multiple viewings for the nooks and crannies of character study and poetic grace notes that are slipped in among endlessly electrifying thrills. Nonetheless, the writing team has not collected a single telling award leading up to the Oscars, with most of the film’s awards buzz trained on the performances. It will not win, but I take solace in knowing that unless something truly deranged happens on Oscar night, Judas and the Black Messiah should win at least one other award. 

Sound of Metal:

There is much about this film that makes it memorable and admirable, but I would not count the screenplay among those things. The initial conceit of a heavy metal drummer losing his hearing is a fascinating starting point, but from there the script progresses through a number of well-weathered and somewhat clichéd plot points about a conflicted protagonist coming to terms with a new reality. Let me be clear: I loved Sound of Metal, but it is the acting, directing, and astonishing sound design that make it a standout film. I do see the screenwriting as one of the least accomplished layers of the film. It was a pleasant surprise to see the film rack up six nominations, which could signal some extra love from the Academy that hasn’t manifested in other voting bodies, but nothing indicates to me that even a vast amount of support for Sound of Metal could put it over the edge to win this category. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7:

I have made no moves to cover my distaste for this movie. Aaron Sorkin is indisputably one of the most successful and influential screenwriters of the last 30 years. His work on A Few Good Men (1992), The American President (1995), The West Wing (1999-2006), and The Social Network (2010) rank among my personal favorites and broader critical darlings. However, Sorkin’s tendency towards the idealization of American politics and history is deeply out of step with the sort of storytelling that audiences and most voting bodies seem poised to honor right now. Therefore, as I wrote in a previous Oscars piece, it should come as no surprise that his work is the standard-bearer for the ‘Old School’ faction of the awards circuit this year, the older, white faction that elevates traditional fare to obscene levels. I was worried that would mean the Oscars would deign to give Sorkin his second win here, but after a victory at the Golden Globes, any momentum for his screenplay has dried up. I still think there’s a threat that this will be the category that becomes ‘the-Academy-doing-their-Academy-bullshit,’ but I’m less worried than I was a few months ago.

Promising Young Woman:

The 2020 Awards Circuit has steadily morphed into the dual coronations of Emerald Fennell and Chloé Zhao as filmmakers to watch and emulate. For Fennel in terms of this category, that currently looks like a guaranteed win for her screenplay. The WGA Awards have wonky rules that disqualify some scripts from their consideration, as is the case with Zhao’s work on Nomadland (2020), and therefore sometimes complicate the field. However, there was none of that at play in the Original Screenplay category this year with all the eventual Oscar nominees included in the WGA noms, and Fennell picked up the award. For me, in similar fashion to Sound of Metal, I find Fennell’s script one of the least accomplished parts of an otherwise adept film. Her directorial style is remarkably assured for a first-time feature director, and when you pair that with Cary Mulligan’s bonkers good lead performance, you end up with a great film, in spite of a script that dresses up a well-worn concept with a handful of original trappings. I hope to see Promising Young Woman victorious on Oscar night, but I do not find myself pulling for it in this particular category. If you are, though, rest easy knowing that it will win.


Minari:

Lee Isaac Chung has revealed in interviews that he wrote this script imagining it as the last thing he would write before giving up filmmaking. After years working in the industry without breaking through, even after premiering a previous film at Cannes and regularly receiving rave reviews for his work, he had accepted the fact that his career might be over, and he wanted to get one last personal story out before he hung up the metaphorical spurs. Oh how lucky we are that Minari was made and that Chung will not be retiring because this film is a masterpiece from a director I cannot wait to see more from. His blend of personal inspiration from his childhood as a Chinese-American boy raised in an immigrant family with the universal truths of a family struggling to get by in the United States is stirring, witty, and revolutionary in its commitment to telling the Yi family’s story on its own terms. I love this movie, and I hope beyond hope that somehow Chung breaks through as the ‘Dark Horse’ of the category to score a surprise win for this one on Oscar night. The chances are not high, seeing as Fennell’s momentum currently appears incalculably high, but that won’t stop me from going into the night with fingers crossed that we get at least one majestic upset to celebrate.

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