The award for Best Screenplay is always the least discussed of the ‘big five’ (which includes best film, actress, actor and director), but a strong script is essential to a film’s success, providing the framework for the cast and crew to build on. As a result, it’s almost unheard of for the Best Picture winners to not be nominated in either of the two categories: original or adapted screenplay.
Both categories are unusually strong this year with adapted screenplay coming out as the slightly weaker of the two, chiefly due to the horrifying possibility that American Sniper might actually take it home.
Both the Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are strong contenders, delving deep into the lives of their historical subjects (Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking) but they lack the spark and acclaim of other nominees. As emotional biopics they do however match the academy’s usual tastes and subsequently stand a reasonably strong chance of success.
Despite Whiplash’s comparatively meagre box office takings, Damien Chazelle’s adaptation of his own screenplay creates a fascinating character for the ages in sadistic music tutor, Terrence Fletcher whose vile yet hilarious profanity (up there with The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker) provides some of this year’s most quotable dialogue.
The final adapted screenplay nominee is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Layered almost to the point of incomprehensibility, Anderson succeeds in combining a farcical detective story, an examination of hippie culture (post Altamont and Manson) and a melancholy love story resulting in a film that continues to reward repeat viewings.
The vile yet hilarious profanity in Whiplash (up there with The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker) provides some of this year’s most quotable dialogue.
The Best Original Screenplay category is exceptionally strong this year, offering both variety and depth. It is a testament to the high quality of Hollywood screenwriting in 2014 that each one could have taken the award on a weaker year.
Foxcatcher is a sad, incisive story about failure, the truth of it making it all the more devastating. By narrowing the focus to three characters (two Olympic wrestlers and their coach), writer/director Bennet Miller lets us get under the skin of these flawed individuals to an almost uncomfortable degree.
More deceptively heartbreaking is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Witty, dark, hilarious and deeply moving in equal measure, even those who have previously dismissed Anderson for focusing on style over substance cannot deny the skill at work here.
Not many nominated screenplays could pull off “this place smells like balls” as the second line of dialogue. The fact that Birdman goes on to be complex, funny, depressing and totally baffling as the audience is brought into the mind of washed-up Hollywood star Riggan Thompson, just makes it more intriguing.
The academy is often drawn towards political filmmaking and Nightcrawler fits the bill here; however the film’s harsh look at the U.S media is superseded by the terrifying lead character/ghoul Lou Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhall). A true 21st century psychopath, he claws his way to the top using only online self-help courses and a total lack of empathy, providing a creepy yet incredibly compelling anti-hero.
Last but not least, Boyhood stands apart from the other nominees; rejecting the extraordinary in favour of focusing on the seemingly insignificant events that define us. Written piece-by-piece over the 12 years span of filming, Richard Linklater’s screenplay develops organically as the characters grow older leaving the audience feeling less like observers and more like family members.
Not many nominated screenplays could pull off “this place smells like balls” as the second line of dialogue
So who will win? The Adapted Screenplay award will depend on whether the sentimentality of The Imitation Game or American Sniper can win the academy over more than Whiplash and Inherent Vice’s cynicism. Looking at previous winners it seems like this is a likely outcome.
As for Original Screenplay, it’s anyone’s guess; Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher both lack best picture nominations – never a good omen – but could still pull it off. However, Birdman took home the Golden Globe, The Grand Budapest Hotel got the Bafta and Boyhood is picking up awards left right and centre, so it looks to be a three horse race between very strong candidates.
Image: Warner Brothers