Friday, October 23, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1979

The Contenders:

…And Justice for All
All That Jazz
Breaking Away (winner)
The China Syndrome

What’s Missing

1979 was a great year for original screenplays. I genuinely enjoy four of the five nominees, and there were enough good screenplays in 1979 to come up with a complete list of alternate nominees with a few left over. That said, the movies that I would want to nominate are, in the main, the sort of movies that don’t earn Oscar nominations. For me, the best unnominated screenplay in this category is Quadrophenia, followed rapidly by Alien. The Muppet Movie didn’t have a chance at a nomination, which is kind of a shame because it’s fun and clever. On the comedy front, Real Life is probably the closest to Academy-approved. The Jerk is stupid/funny, which probably puts it out of contention and Life of Brian is probably too controversial. The In-Laws, though, was overlooked and is tragically unknown today. I should probably include Mad Max as well, even if it probably doesn’t belong as a film that really deserves a nomination.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I said above that I like four of the nominees. …And Justice for All is the one I’d happily take off the slate. It’s not that this is a bad film or a bad screenplay; it’s more that I just don’t think it’s that great. It’s overwhelming in what it presents. The things I like about the movie fall in the realm of performances, Al Pacino and Jeffrey Tambor especially. The things I am less enthusiastic about are the soundtrack (it’s wretched) and the story itself, which means it’s not going to get a lot of play from me in this category.

4: Does Woody Allen belong in fourth place? With Manhattan, I think he does. Manhattan is one of his better-known and loved films but I have some issues with it. There’s a weird pederast-y vibe to it for starters. It also feels like Allen took his excellent screenplay from Annie Hall, threw everything up in the air, and just reassembled it into the form it is in here. Allen was and still is a talented writer. The story of Manhattan comes across too much like rehash from someone who shouldn’t be rehashing his old stories for anything.

3: I saw The China Syndrome as a kid and it scared me. Really, really scared me. There’s a lot here that is well done and extremely timely for when the film was released. In 1979, I probably would have ranked this higher than I do here, but in 1979 I was 11. Being scary, while I appreciate it, isn’t really enough to put the film over the top. More, it’s the performances that sell the film, not the story itself. It gets some points for being mildly prescient—it was released less than two weeks before the Three Mile Island incident—but it doesn’t get above third place from me.

2: I really like Breaking Away and so I feel a little guilty that in the one place I could use a picture from that film to celebrate it getting an Oscar I’m going in a different direction. The problem with it is that it’s yet another version of the underdog sports story. We have a group of locals who can’t win competing against rich college kids in an unusual sport (cycling). We know where it’s going. It’s true that Breaking Away is absolutely one of the best versions of this basic story that you’ll ever find. But it is still that story, and it’s a story that you already know.

My Choice

1: It’s all about All That Jazz for me. This is a gutsy film that uses its musical elements not simply to display song and dance but to actually further the plot. It’s inventive and creative, gives us a terrible human being as a main character who is nonetheless fascinating and compelling, and pulls no punches. That it has great performances is an additional bonus, but All That Jazz starts from a firmer foundation than any other film based on an original story in 1979. This is the film that should have won, and this is not the only Oscar it should have won.

Final Analysis


  1. Words cannot describe how much I hate And Justice for All ... At the time I probably would have voted for Manhattan but now it would be Breaking Away. It was a strong year though and a tough choice.

    1. It is a good year, even if a lot of the movies I'd love to see nominated would never get nominated because of the Academy's predilections.

      Breaking Away is one of my mom's favorite movies, so it's probably a good thing that she doesn't read this blog since I've put it second.

  2. I'd agree with all your placements except I'd flip China Syndrome and Breaking Away.

    As you said Breaking Away is that same old underdog story nicely told and I can see how it was beloved but for me China Syndrome tackles more complex situations better. The three lead performances really do punch it across though. It did hit upon a fortuitous coincidence, lucky for the movie if no one else, with the Three Mile Island accident. I recall watching an interview with Jane Fonda about the film, I think she was on Merv Griffin, and a news break interrupted the segment with a report that the incident had happened. It really punched the movie over at the box office.

    I've never understood the adoration of Manhattan-for me it was a slog to get through. It's been many years since I've seen ...And Justice for All and have only a sketchy memory of it and that's of Al Pacino, Christine Lahti and Jack Warden's performances.

    I'm not a fan of All That Jazz. Roy Scheider is great but I didn't enjoy the film, the screenplay however is the most inventively written.

    1. I'll stump for All That Jazz in most situations, which is odd since I typically put musicals at the bottom of the cinematic barrel. I respect the hell out of it since it displays a level of honesty that doesn't show up in films that often.

      I wanted to like Manhattan a lot more than I actually liked it, so it will always be a little disappointing to me. I originally had it third based more on not wanting to put Woody Allen fourth, but decided that was a dumb reason to penalize another film for having a better screenplay.

  3. All That Jazz is such an astonishing film, and a great choice for an Oscar redo here!

    1. It's a film I wish more people knew. I'm always astonished at how good it really is when I watch it.

  4. I haven't seen And Justice for All. Among the four I have I'd put The China Syndrome at the bottom because when it comes right down to it, nothing happens except talk about what MIGHT happen. While All That Jazz had interesting moments in it, I'd place it third. I really liked Manhattan, but as far as specific elements of the story are concerned I don't remember them well - just the overall mood of the film. That leads me to Breaking Away for the win.

    Among your alternative nominees, The Muppet Movie would have been in the Adapted category if it got a nomination since it was using characters already established on TV. Real Life would definitely get a nomination from me, but it probably would have confused people on whether it was supposed to be a documentary or not.

    1. Fair point on The Muppet Movie. I'm not always sure what what fits in Adapted and Original. As usual, I'm just flailing through this as I go.

      I genuinely like Breaking Away and I'm not terribly upset that it ended up winning.

      That said, in a perfect world, Quadrophenia would have been nominated, and it would contend for the top position in my world.

  5. You have the right two films at the top of your list, I just think that the script for "All That Jazz" gets by sometimes on the dazzle of the film making. The honesty of Breaking Away (even with the underdog spine of the story) is incredibly effective. Those four guys were so real and faced such typical problems in a way that most movies don't bother to try and show. Every line from the Dad was gold.

    1. The memory I have of Breaking Away at the time is my mother's indignation that Paul Dooley wasn't nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It really is a good screenplay even if it plays with a lot of the standard tropes.

      But All That Jazz? Magic, start to the amazing finish.