Unlikely everyday heroes, unlikeable main characters, biopics that aren’t really biopics and some animated heavyweights dot the landscape of this year’s diverse group of writing contenders in both the Adapted and Original Screenplay categories.
Standing out in the always-competitive Adapted category are a number of movies centered on women. Leading that charge is past nominee Nick Hornby (An Education), whose luminous adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn is about as perfect as it gets. Hornby made the period piece, set in 1951 Brooklyn—about the choice a young female Irish immigrant must make between two men and two countries—pertinent and engaging. In similar territory, Phyllis Nagy took novelist Patricia Highsmith’s 60-year-old story of a lesbian love affair, The Price of Salt, and turned it into Carol, a movie that, like Brooklyn, is set in New York in the early 50s.
Another film focused on a strong female is Room, which Irish author Emma Donoghue adapted from her own bestselling book, about a young mother trying to make a life for her five-year-old son while being held captive in a 10-by-10-foot room. Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl not only created a great role for Eddie Redmayne as a man transitioning into a woman, but also for Alicia Vikander, as the loving wife dealing with confusion and undying love. And in writing Truth, the adaptation of 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes’ own story of her unraveling at CBS, James Vanderbilt has captured the essence of that dark period in Mapes’ life.
Decidedly not female-oriented is Alejandro G. Inarritu and Mark L. Smith’s adaptation of The Revenant, which is an ultra-violent and bloody 1820s tale of vengeance starring Leonardo DiCaprio in an almost wordless performance that makes this one of the more intriguing possibilities among the screenplay contenders. On the opposite end of that scale is writer’s writer Aaron Sorkin’s 188-page dialogue-driven story of Steve Jobs, which takes liberties in adapting Walter Isaacson’s biography and turns it into a three-act, almost Shakespearean-style play. Sorkin, a previous winner in the category for The Social Network, would seem a sure thing for a nomination since he’s a god among writers, but weak box office might hurt the movie against late-breaking competition. Still, I wouldn’t bet against him, and the words are dazzling. The same can be said for Adam McKay and Charles Randolph’s dense and funny adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2008 story of dirty dealings on Wall Street, The Big Short. The script throws so much financial-speak at the audience that it’s a movie you have to see twice to absorb the extraordinary dialogue. The three above-mentioned films deal with largely unlikeable characters, but none more so than the notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, whose story was skillfully adapted by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk for the Scott Cooper-directed Black Mass.
If literary adaptations rule the roost this year, then look out for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ take on journalist David Lipsky’s book about a five-day interview he conducted with the novelist David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour. Add to that John McNamara’s fine work in bringing the story of blacklisted and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to life in Trumbo. This could be the one script that really hits home with writers this year, as it details the shameful period in Hollywood history in which writers accused of being communists were railroaded out of the industry.
The Martian has gained front-runner status in many categories this year and Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s graphic novel is no exception, if only for the way he made a story in which Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut is alone onscreen for a majority of the pic somehow cinematic. And if sci-fi suddenly is big this year, don’t completely count out the so far unseen Star Wars: The Force Awakens from J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas, who saw his first Star Wars film make the writing cut in 1977. And don’t forget Alex Garland’s twisted Ex Machina, which has drawn several mentions from Academy members with whom I’ve spoken.
Peter Landesman, a former investigative journalist turned filmmaker, could make the cut as well for Concussion, his ripped-from-the-headlines story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian immigrant who discovered the link between the brain trauma known at CTE and football. So, too, could Andrew Haigh for his brilliant adaptation of David Constantine’s short story that inspired the piercing marital drama 45 Years. And though the violent Beasts of No Nation might be tough for some voters to get through on Netflix, Cary Fukunaga could get some recognition for adapting this story of child soldiers in Africa.
Finally, animation could make a comeback to both writing categories, first with past winner Charlie Kaufman’s offbeat stop-animation Anomalisa, which is based on his “sound play” that was performed 10 years ago. And then in the Original Screenplay category, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter and Meg LeFaurve wrote the wonderfully inventive Inside Out, a script so dazzlingly original it just might be the best chance an animated film has ever had to actually win in this category.
To do it, though, Inside Out will have to overcome stiff competition among other original scripts, such as Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script for Best Picture front-runner Spotlight, with its stirring focus on brave investigative journalism. There’s also David O. Russell’s great tale of female empowerment Joy (from Annie Mumolo’s story), and a very strong entry in the 1950s Cold War spy tale, Bridge of Spies—a collaboration between Matt Charman and Oscar Gods Joel and Ethan Coen.
There could be some love for a couple of summer-release music biopics that continue to gain traction: the stirring N.W.A. behind-the-scenes story Straight Outta Compton, from a script by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman (and story by S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus), and the brilliantly-structured spin on Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy, from Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner.
Some riveting work might also be hard to overlook even in the face of daunting competition, so don’t count out Taylor Sheridan’s dynamic drug cartel drama Sicario, Ramin Bahrani’s explosive 99 Homes, or Laszlo Nemes and Clara Royer’s devastating Hungarian Foreign Language Oscar entry, Son of Saul.
Paolo Sorrentino’s lyrical and beautiful story of aging gracefully, Youth, could register here—especially with older voters—as could the spirited feminist-oriented Suffragette from Abi Morgan, although that film might be a bit of a long shot at this point and more likely to gain recognition for its star Carey Mulligan.
Quentin Tarantino has won twice in this category and been nominated three times, so we have to consider his three-hour, dialogue-heavy, but very violent western, The Hateful 8. Despite controversies swirling around Tarantino, he’s still a favorite in the category, no question.
Finally, if all of the heavy contenders seem just too much, why not a good ol’ comedy like Grandma, which writer/director Paul Weisz turned into a terrific vehicle—literally—for Lily Tomlin? Or Trainwreck, which the film’s star Amy Schumer made her own in every way? That has got to be worth something, right?
We’ll see soon enough.