Best Adapted Screenplay
A couple of months ago, when Jason Reitman's 'Up in the Air' was widely regarded as the movie to beat for the major Oscar awards, its screenplay -- adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from Walter Kim's novel -- seemed the surest bet on the board. The script, about a corporate hatchet man (George Clooney) who accumulates air miles while flying about the country firing people, is rich in irony, pathos, humor and humanity, and it begs to be admired for its writing. Oscar analysts can point with some confidence to the probable winners of this Sunday's Academy Awards for acting, directing and maybe even picture. But the winning blueprints for the work that goes into all feature films -- that is, the best original and adapted screenplays -- are still in doubt. In this, the first of our analyzes of the major Oscar categories that will appear here each day leading up to the Big Show, I'll examine those two ballots.
Best Adapted Screenplay
A couple of months ago, when Jason Reitman's 'Up in the Air' was widely regarded as the movie to beat for the major Oscar awards, its screenplay -- adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from Walter Kim's novel -- seemed the surest bet on the board. The script, about a corporate hatchet man (George Clooney) who accumulates air miles while flying about the country firing people, is rich in irony, pathos, humor and humanity, and it begs to be admired for its writing.
But even after the film won the Writers Guild of America award for original screenplay, 'Up in the Air's' hopes are, prophetically, up in the air. The movie lost some of the wind beneath its wings in the late weeks of '09, largely because of the rising critical support for the little-seen early summer release 'The Hurt Locker,' and the must-see hype preceding the pre-Christmas release of James Cameron's 'Avatar.'
All of a sudden, no one was talking about 'Up in the Air' as the frontrunner for Best Picture. And when Jeff Bridges ('Crazy Heart') bumped Clooney off the top perch of the Best Actor ballot and 'The Hurt Locker's' Kathryn Bigelow became the prohibitive favorite to win as Best Director, 'Up in the Air's' hopes for gold settled on its script. But it is far from a sure thing.
Four of the five Adapted Screenplay nominees are for movies that also landed on the Best Picture ballot. The odd script out is for 'In the Loop,' a British political satire that had no other nominations. Like 'Up in the Air,' the other three movies with nominated screenplays received multiple nominations, which suggests broad support among Academy voters. They are Geoffrey Fletcher's 'Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,' 'District 9,' a sci-fi docudrama adapted by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tachell from Blomkamp's short film 'Alive in Joburg,' and 'An Education,' adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby from a magazine article by British journalist Lynn Barber.
There's no written rule about this, but Academy voters often use the screenplay award to honor a movie they admire but think will be otherwise overlooked. They don't have to worry 'Precious'; it's going to win an Oscar for Mo'Nique as Best Supporting Actress.
'District 9' is one of three films on the Visual Effects ballot, and anyone who has seen it knows its stunning effects deserve recognition. But 'Avatar' is also on that ballot, and its visual effects are essentially the reason it has grossed $2.5 billion worldwide. 'District 9's' screenplay is deserving, too, but if it were to win, it would be the first ever for a science-fiction story.
That leaves 'An Education' and 'Up in the Air,' one of which will likely receive its only Oscar for this category. Most of the attention for 'An Education' has been for the performance of Carey Mulligan, as an Oxford-bound virgin drawn into the adult world of 1950s London by a married conman. Mulligan's chances for an Oscar dimmed with the unlikely rise of Sandra Bullock from 'The Blind Side.'
Despite its fall from the Best Picture/Director races, 'Up in the Air' remains the favorite, ever so slightly, to win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Best Original Screenplay
This is the stronger and more intriguing of the script races, due in part to the absence on the ballot of James Cameron's original screenplay for 'Avatar.' Cameron's 'Titanic' was also snubbed for this award in 1998. When you originate the blueprints for two movies that have a combined total of 23 other nominations and and a box-office gross of nearly $4.5 billion worldwide, you'd have it take it personally. Apologies to Sally Field, but you can't deny it, Jim, they don't like you, right now, they don't like you.
Filling the spot where 'Avatar' might be found is the screenplay for 'The Messenger,' a movie whose other nomination is for supporting actor (Woody Harrelson). The other four nominees are for movies on the Best Picture ballot with 'Avatar.' They are: Mark Boal for 'The Hurt Locker,' Quentin Tarantino for 'Inglourious Basterds,' the Coen brothers' for 'A Serious Man' and Pete Docter and Bob Peterson for the animated hit 'Up.'
Of those four, the strongest contenders are Boal and Tarantino. The Coens' 'A Serious Man,' a dark suburban satire about a Jewish white-collar worker whose life is unraveling, is too strange and, some say, "too Jewish," though I don't know if that's actually said in Hollywood. Also, the Coens have two Oscar victories for more accessible movies -- 'Fargo' and 'No Country for Old Men' -- already on their mantels.
Personally, I'd be happy to see 'Up' win this award; its opening 10 minutes, which chronicle the lives of neighbor children whose friendship leads to marriage and a long, happy life together, is an epic of emotional power all by itself. But the Pixar movie will have to settle for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and -- if God has a good ear -- Best Original Score.
That brings us to a face-off between the scripts for 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Inglourious Basterds,' which could be the two strongest choices for Best Picture, as well. And the relative popularity of those two movies, I think, will decide this award more than an actual comparison of the screenplays.
On paper, which is where movies begin, Tarantino has produced the more ambitious work. 'Inglourious Basterds,' a World War II revenge fantasy that is a complex mash of drama, farce and revisionist history, has more characters, settings and ideas floating around in it than your average Norman Mailer novel. Boal's script for 'The Hurt Locker,' on the other hand, is a tightly focused, almost minimalist look at a small American bomb squad's daily derring-do on the streets of Baghdad.
In my mind, 'Inglourious Basterds' reads a lot better than the movie plays. That's because Tarantino's indulgent playfulness -- like the notes scribbled on the screen identifying the characters we're looking at -- takes me out of the story. That is the sort of thing that endears Tarantino to his legion of fans, but which turns off just as many people.
Ultimately, this award -- the toughest of all to call -- will be decided by the sizes of those two camps within the voting membership of the Academy. My feeling is that because Tarantino cannot beat Bigelow for Best Director, his supporters will attempt to assure he wins the Oscar here. With the preferential voting system employed by the Academy, they can accomplish that by putting Tarantino first on their ballots and Boal further down, perhaps last.
I wouldn't bet on this one, but for my office pool, I'd go with Tarantino.