Friday, May 6, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1988

The Contenders:

Bull Durham
A Fish Called Wanda
Rain Man (winner)
Running on Empty

What’s Missing

On the surface, 1988 is a really strong year for original screenplays just going by the five nominations. It’s surprising just how deep this year really is, though, because there are a lot of movies that could easily be nominated in a lot of other years as well as some influential films that aren’t the kind that grab nominations. It’s a hell of a good year for movies. Let’s start with films that could or did get nominations in 1988. Working Girl heads that list, although it’s one that I don’t like as much as the nominations, a situation it shares with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Films like Child’s Play and Dead Ringers aren’t typically nominated, but are worth discussing, and there’s some thought that Jeremy Irons won in 1990 in part for his dual role in Dead Ringers. Comedies like Coming to America, Beetlejuice, and Hairspray are Oscar poison, but all excellent in the screenplay department. My Neighbor Totoro is probably too simple, but it’s such a lovely little story. I like Midnight Run as well. For “likely possibilities” that I haven’t seen, The Accused and Bird seem noteworthy.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: Someone has to come in fifth, and in a field this strong, there’s no shame attached to that. I’m putting Running on Empty fifth only because I like the other four screenplays a lot more. This is a very smart film, though, and one that isn’t ashamed to go into some very unusual directions. It suffers a bit because it’s a little predictable. Once we know what is going on with the main characters, the ending almost writes itself and the last half of the film is just figuring out how to get to where we’re going. Still, it’s a damn fine film with a damn fine screenplay.

4. The winning screenplay for Rain Man is great, but the best part of Rain Man isn’t the screenplay. Dustin Hoffman won for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, but he wasn’t the best thing in the film, either. Tom Cruise was robbed of a nomination because it’s his character who is the most interesting in the film and the one who actually changes and makes the audience care. Of course the screenplay is responsible for a part of that, but it’s Cruise’s performance that really brings it home. Any of the choices from this year are good ones, but I think the other three are better.

3: The issues I have with Rain Man are the same I have with Big; it’s the performances more than the screenplay itself that sell the movie. Watching Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia dancing on a giant piano is the sort of thing that has fully entered the American film lexicon, and the screenplay does get some credit. There are a few plot holes here, but they’re worth overlooking because Big is really very sweet and has its heart in the right place. It’s a movie impossible to dislike, but there are two better screenplays out there from 1988.

2. If you asked me in 1988 what I thought should have eon, my vote would have been for A Fish Called Wanda without a moment’s hesitation. This is a film that was one of the funniest things had ever seen, and it’s still funny. That’s not easy to do with a comedy. The situation is clever and the characters are memorable and well-crafted. It’s also a film that works completely without the humor, and that’s worth noting, too. However, as I’ve gotten older, my opinions have changed a little. Had this won, I don’t think I’d be sad about it, but today, my vote goes elsewhere.

My Choice

1: Gun to my head, I could probably argue for all five of these films and a bunch of the also-rans. My heart, though, votes for Bull Durham as not just the best of the nominees, but the best of the original screenplays. I think it’s a film that requires the viewer to have a strong connection to American culture to really understand the depths at which it works, but there isn’t a line out of place or a moment that doesn’t reflect the deep American connection with baseball. Combined with Field of Dreams, there may be no clearer view into the American psyche and attachment to what baseball is and means. That it’s funny, sexy, poignant, and heartfelt all at the same time is just a bonus. It’s the best of a damn good year.

Final Analysis


  1. I have only seen your 2, 3 and 4, which should mean I still have the best waiting for me. I do love all three I have watched, but as you write, probably more due to the actors than the screenplay, though all three are strong on that acount too.
    A Fish Called Wanda was apparently so funny that an elderly doctor in a theater died from a heart attack. Sad but also awesome. Big is a household favorite, but then, we love anything with Tom Hanks, even his poorer movies and this is not one of those.
    Agree on Rain Man. This is about acting and Cruise got robbed. He my be an idiot, but dammit, he can act.

    1. I'll be very curious to see your reaction to Bull Durham because it is such an American movie. You may enjoy it, but I think it would be hard for you to love it as much as someone who grew up in an atmosphere suffused with baseball.

  2. I can get with your choice. I'm a big fan of Bull Durham. For my money, it's clearly the best baseball movie ever made. Glad to see you give some love to Cruise for his work in Rain Man. He was fantastic, there.

    1. I might give the title of best baseball movie ever to Field of Dreams, but Bull Durham would be in the running and probably a very close second. There's not a moment of it I don't love--one of those movies I'm pretty much always in the mood to watch.

      Rain Man is one of Cruise's two best performances.

  3. My Neighbor Totoro has one of the most beautifully moving and embodied stories I've seen in film, ever. It may appear simple on the outset, but it has such rich meaning that it defies that surface look. It is extremely complex.

    1. It's a beautiful film. I introduced my family to it this week. My wife's comment in the middle was, "Oh my God, this is so cute!"

      I think it might be deeper than it would suggest, but even if it's not, it's hard to not find it a pure joy. Of course it would never be nominated for anything beyond Best Animated Feature had the category existed, but Oscar rarely has any real love for animation.

  4. Bull Durham is a very good choice for screenplay. I think that would be my choice as well. Hoffman in Rain Man would still be my Best Actor choice but Kevin Costner in Bull Durham would be a close second.

    1. I still hold to the idea that Tom Cruise should have been nominated for Rain Man as well.