When it comes to predicting who will take home Oscars for adapted and original screenplay, don’t look to the recent Writers Guild Awards for any significant clues. Usually the guild will give some indication of which way the winds are blowing among the scribes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, even though the 372-member writers branch has different criteria and eligibility rules than the more stringent 20,000-plus WGA membership. The WGAs differ from other guild awards in not nominating any movies not made under their basic agreement or within guild guidelines. That isn’t a huge factor this year, as the Academy matched the WGAs’ nominee list in original screenplay and chose three of the same adaptations (Oscar nominees 12 Years A Slave and Philomena were not allowed to compete in the WGAs). Lone Survivor and August: Osage County nabbed the other two nominations, although neither won. In fact, in a highly unusual result, the WGA winners, Her for original and Captain Phillips for adapted, have not been considered slam-dunks to pull off the same trick at the Oscars on March 2.
Phillips is listed as a 100-to-1 shot on betting website Gold Derby, where experts unanimously favor 12 Years A Slave. Her, despite Critics Choice Movie Award and Golden Globe wins, was considered to be a slight underdog to the higher profile American Hustle. Now, thanks to the WGA win, it has a lot of renewed momentum and could pull off an Oscar win for writer-director Spike Jonze, though that jury is still out. Normally, we might look to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards to further tell the tale, but Her missed out on a nomination there. Hustle took BAFTA’s Original Screenplay prize as expected but Philomena upset Slave for the Brit’s Adapted Screenplay honor so the momentum could shift a little – or not – just as Oscar ballots have now gone out. And does a pitched battle between Her and Hustle in original screenplay mean a dark horse like Nebraska could sneak in and take it all? Interesting to note that American Hustle, Her, 12 Years A Slave, Philomena and Captain Phillips all have some sort of bragging rights as each has won a major prize somewhere for its script.
The writing races also add another fascinating dynamic this year in that almost 100% of the time a best picture winner must have at least a screenplay nomination to have a fighting chance. The last movie to win best picture without a writing nom was Titanic in 1997, and before that you had to go back to The Sound of Music in 1965. But this year one of the major contenders, Gravity, also does not have a writing nomination. In fact, Gravity is alone among the nine best picture contenders in this regard. Here’s how the two screenwriting races shake down.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Easily the most unusual of all writing nominees, the film’s two stars and director are making a return to this category after first being nominated for Before Sunset in 2004. Midnight might be the most literate and dialogue-heavy of all the nominees this year, but its WGA loss to Captain Phillips, which was probably the least dialogue-dependent contender, should give one pause about its final chances. But Oscar voters might want to reward the unique trilogy of films about Delpy’s and Hawke’s characters, Celine and Jesse, that has played out over two decades.
Ray’s WGA win was a shocker to some. No one had considered the screenplay—based on Richard Phillips’ book recounting his showdown at sea—to be the key strength of such a director-driven film, but Phillips didn’t have 12 Years or Philomena to contend with, and it does here. Ray also is a popular elected figure within the Writers Guild, and that couldn’t have hurt his chances there. But in the Oscar race, a win for the movie whose star (Tom Hanks) and director (Paul Greengrass) were passed over in the noms would still have shock value, despite that WGA win.
There is no question Philomena is beloved by Academy members. It seems the film—about Philomena Lee’s transatlantic quest to find her adopted son—has hit them right in the heart. This could be the perfect category in which to give it props. Coogan, who first didn’t consider co-writing the film himself, has been working tirelessly on the Q&A circuit for months, and that could have some residual value here as well. Still, it has to contend with the 12 Years juggernaut, and that’s formidable competition, even with that BAFTA win and Harvey Weinstein rallying on Philomena’s behalf. But this is the one to watch here.
12 Years A Slave
Ridley was ineligible to compete at the WGAs because of work issues going back to the last writers strike. That’s not a problem with the Oscars, and he has come roaring into this category as a clear frontrunner. Even if 12 Years is in a dogfight for best picture, it has a clear advantage in this category by nature of being based on Solomon Northup’s long-forgotten true story. The rediscovery of the book—director Steve McQueen credits his wife with introducing the source material to him—and the importance of its themes make this film the one to beat. But Philomena DID beat it at BAFTA so this case isn’t closed yet.
Despite some early controversy and some polarization among Academy members, The Wolf Of Wall Street is on its way to becoming Martin Scorsese’s most successful film at the box office. A large part of that success is thanks to a sprawling screenplay from Winter, who brings a solid reputation from HBO projects such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire into the competition. The fact that it didn’t win at the WGAs, where it didn’t have to worry about chief rival 12 Years, is troubling. It might not have enough Academy-wide support to pull off an upset.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
With 10 nominations total, Hustle is considered a strong contender, perhaps the frontrunner here, but its consistent losses to Her at the Golden Globes, CCMAs and WGAs mean the BAFTA win it got will try to get the all-important momentum rolling again as ballots are in hand. Russell turned Singer’s procedural about the 1970s ABSCAM scandals into a rollicking character-driven dark comedy. The results paid off, making Hustle Russell’s most successful movie yet. It is also a stronger best picture contender than chief rival Her, and that can help in an Academy-wide vote in this category.
Allen—despite only attending the Oscars once, and not because he was nominated—has 16 noms in this category and three wins, for Annie Hall, Hannah And Her Sisters and Midnight In Paris. Jasmine—about a Ruth Madoff-type fall from grace, unforgettably portrayed by Cate Blanchett—is well regarded, though not a frontrunner here. The recent dustup of two-decades-old (unproven) molestation allegations in Allen’s personal life probably won’t help his chances of pulling off an upset. Not all publicity is good publicity when it comes to Oscars.
Dallas Buyers Club
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
The 20-year struggle to bring this compelling story of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof to the screen began with writer Craig Borten, who had just finished film school when he read about Woodroof’s crusade against the medical establishment. Borten drove to Dallas and interviewed Woodroof shortly before his death in 1993. Several directors, stars, and a co-writer later, the microbudgeted indie has been building momentum, but it has a better chance of actually winning the Oscar in the acting and makeup categories than against stiff competition here.
If voters solely used originality as criteria for their vote, then Her would have this in the bag. The slightly futuristic story of a man who falls in love with his operating system has original written all over it, and voters at the Golden Globes, CCMAs and WGAs clearly were impressed. Spike Jonze’s first original screenplay (previously, he adapted Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, which he also directed in 2009) started as an underdog, but has gained steam and seems to be heading into the Dolby Theater with a better than even chance of taking it all.
Nelson waited 10 long years to see director Alexander Payne finally bring his pitch-perfect and very human comedy—about the foibles of a Midwestern family, led by Bruce Dern—to the screen. A concentrated campaign by Paramount to make sure every voter sees the black-and-white Nebraska has paid off in six key nominations, including best picture and director for Payne, who, for the first time, doesn’t share screenwriting credit on a film he’s directed. If there is a dark horse in the category, it is this film, especially if Her and American Hustle split the vote.