In contrast with Adapted Screenplay’s tortuous early lineage, Original Screenplay, the youngest of the major categories, has always featured five nominees and reasonably clear criterion: that the screenplay not be based on preexisting written material.
But it wouldn’t be the Academy Awards if that central premise weren’t riddled with loopholes and ambiguities. Authorship, narrative, and originality have always been fraught topics in filmmaking, as this category bears out:
- Fiction and feature-length criteria have been permeable in the past: unique among the Big Eight, Original Screenplay has featured a nomination for a documentary (Helen Slote Levitt, Janice Loeb, and Sidney Meyers’ The Quiet One) and a win for a short film (Albert Lamorrisse’s The Red Balloon).
- Sequels to original screenplays (Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s Road to Utopia, Harry Kumitz’s What Next, Corporal Hargrove?) were initially allowed to stay “original,” even if the writers differed between the films, and were only later shunted over to Adapted.
- A persisting standard allows films based on historical fact (including biopics from Wilson to Milk), even those that credit pre-existing sources (Letters from Iwo Jima, On the Waterfront), if the characters and scenes are not the creative product of a published work.
- Even publication status plays a huge role: as adaptations of unproduced stage plays, the Epstein Twins and Howard Koch’s Casablanca won in Adapted in 1943 and David Seidler’s The King’s Speech won in 2010, but would have flopped categories if they’d been released in each other’s eras.
All these vagaries aside, it’s probably the most diverse and surprising category of the Big eight, and a project I dearly wish to engage, especially given my weakness in the category.
As opposed to the comparatively well-trodden Adapted Screenplay category, I have seen a mere 231 of the 360 nominees, or less than two-thirds. That leaves a whopping 129 films to go, including fifteen winners, from the inaugural recipient, Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty, all the way up to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game in 1992. Original Screenplay also features the only year in which I’m 0-for-5 in a category: 1943, for which I have yet to see any of the heavily World War-themed nominees. Among the other hundred and change, there are many that are burning holes on the list, from landmark works like Alun Owen’s A Hard Day’s Night or Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape to blindspots in the great Woody Allen’s oeuvre (Alice, Bullets over Broadway) and other works by mighty writer-directors like Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) and John Sayles (Lone Star). I’m especially piqued, though, by the raft of war and veteran films that populated the category during and after World War II, from straight combat films like Robert Pirosh’s Battleground and Richard Murphy’s The Desert Rats to more unorthodox addresses of the topic, including Comden & Green’s It’s Always Fair Weather and Powell & Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.
Unlike Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture overlap in Original went from slight in the early 1940s, to practically nonexistent through the early 1970s (only 15 out of 135 nominees from 1945-1972), to moderate (an average of around 2 per year) in the last four decades. Only 105 of the 260 nominees in this category are Best Picture nominees, and since the founding of the category, never have all five nominees overlapped with the Best Picture slate (as Adapted did from 1940-1943, 1964, 2010, and 2012).
Filling the Best Picture rain shadow formed by Adapted Screenplay, the Writing Branch has embraced a range of filmmaking often excluded from the other big categories, most notably in their passionate and prescient endorsement of the postwar international art house: from Cesare Zavattini, et al’s Shoeshine and Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad and Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, most years from 1945 to 1987 featured at least one foreign language nominee, including a stretch in the mid-1960s when half of the nominees (and two winners, Divorce Italian Style and A Man and a Woman) were in another language.
Even in English, though, the category has maintained room for a smorgasbord of alternatives to traditional prestige cinema, from virtuoso postmodern storytelling (Tom Stoppard, Terry Gilliam, and Christopher McKeown’s Brazil or Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s Memento), stridently independent voices (Gregory Nava’s El Norte and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) and unabashed but whip-smart entertainment (Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s Back to the Future, or Ernest Lehman and Ben Hecht’s brace of Hitchcock films: North by Northwest and Notorious).
All in all, this might be my favorite category, a strange and startling minority report against the eternal hegemony of Adapted Screenplay, which has perennially represented the lion’s share of films made in Hollywood (and worldwide), as well as those nominated for Academy Awards. I look forward to tackling this category one day, but I think 129 films is a bit unrealistic for one summer, so I’ll have to dedicate myself to this category at a later date.