While the Best Picture Oscar is referred to as The Big One, the Best Original Screenplay is really the one to look out for. Don’t worry so much about who actually wins (it’s a crapshoot like all the other categories); just think of it as a shortlist for films you have to see this year.
The screenplay Oscar is the purest of all the awards. A writer started out with a blank sheet of paper (or these days an Apple Mac) and created something from scratch. He didn’t adapt someone else’s book, churn out a sequel, rip off a comic book or rehash an older film for a modern audience; he came up with something original. And in Hollywood, that is cause for celebration – not so much because the alternatives are bad (they often aren’t) but because something new and worthwhile, somehow, made it through.
Around 100,000 new scripts are written every year in America. A tiny percentage of these are considered for production and an even smaller number are actually made (around 600); most of which aren’t original. And even if you do make it to the screen there’s no guarantee of any great distribution – maybe a few weeks in some arty cinema then off to the DVD market you go. But a fraction of screenplays do succeed, and they’re good, original films as well.
Of course the writer won’t get much credit. The actors net the big money and fame while the director gets the critical acclaim. So the Oscars represent a rare chance for the person who gave us a new story to take a bow, up there on stage with his off-screen looks and mumbled delivery, knowing that his talent has beaten near insurmountable odds.
And here’s the best bit. It’s often the superior film that wins Best Original Screenplay. Pulp Fiction is better than Forest Gump (1994), there’s no competition between The Usual Suspects and Braveheart (1995), Fargo trounces The English Patient (1996), Good Will Hunting outclasses Titanic (1997), Almost Famous is superior to the vastly-overrated American Beauty (2000) and so on.
If there’s any justice, Inception will pick up the gong this year, with The Social Network getting best adapted screenplay. It would prove, once again, that a blockbuster can be original and intelligent and confirm the Best Original Screen play category as a true celebration of a Hollywood success story.
For Esquire, February 2011