Friday, February 17, 2017

Best Original Screenplay 1981

The Contenders:

Absence of Malice
Atlantic City
Chariots of Fire (winner)

What’s Missing

For a year with some great movies in it, the list of Original Screenplay nominations is surprisingly…boring. There’s a massive hole in the list right off the bat: Raiders of the Lost Ark. You want another massive hole? How about An American Werewolf in London. Want another? Body Heat. All three of those movies belong in this list. There are some others, of course, but most are less likely and less appropriate for an Oscar nomination. Clash of the Titans doesn’t really belong here, even if I love it more than I should. The same is true of Escape from New York, Scanners, Time Bandits, and The Evil Dead. Sadly, as a sequel, The Road Warrior was probably ineligible. Both Outland and Nighthawks probably qualify, and both are sadly unappreciated.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. None of the actual nominees feels like it should be above third place at the highest, and most of them feel like they belong a lot lower. I’m dumping eventual winner Chariots of Fire first. My reasoning is simple: I’ve seen this movie several times, and in each case, after a month or two, all I can remember is the Vangelis soundtrack and white guys running on a beach in slow motion. If it’s that unmemorable, it doesn’t deserve to win, and it probably doesn’t deserve to even be nominated.

4. For almost the same reason, I’m putting Reds in fourth. This is a big, sweeping story that is really about a romance in the middle of it. It’s mildly interesting because it’s about some proto-Leninists who were there for the Russian Revolution, so there’s some interesting history here. But there’s little that I remember specifically about the movie, and again, that’s not a good sign for something that wants to win for its screenplay. In my world, this doesn’t even sniff a nomination.

3. I’d love to say lots of nice things about Absence of Malice, and there are some nice things I will say about it. I like that the ending is really unexpected in a lot of ways. I like that, in a cinematic world where newspaper reporters are always heroes, it portrays a reporter as fallible and imperfect. But it includes a completely unnecessary romance that serves only to get in the way of the story. My wife is a former reporter and for years would make me watch anything involving the news. She doesn’t remember this movie, even though we saw it together. That doesn’t say much for the movie.

2. In many ways, Arthur won simply by being nominated. Only horror and science fiction get less respect at the Oscars than does comedy. In fact, the only real downside of Arthur is that drunk comedy doesn’t play as well now as it did in 1981. Some scenes go on a bit too long, but it’s a fine film. If there’s something that keeps it off the top spot, it’s that the screenplay isn’t close to the best thing here. The best part of Arthur is the performance of John Gielgud, who transcends the screenplay, the film, and the rest of the known universe.

1. Atlantic City is a pretty good movie and the plot reminds me a great deal of a Warren Zevon song, which very much stands in its favor. What stands against it is that much of it focuses on a May/December romance between Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster, who was almost literally twice her age. I like the movie quite a bit, and even like the story. Of the options, it’s the one that I think I might keep if I made my own list. It’s my winner of what’s here, but it’s not my real winner.

My Choice

C’mon. Is there a choice other than Raiders of the Lost Ark? In a perfect world, I’d completely redo this entire list, keeping at most a single movie from the actual nominees. There are so many better choices possible, that I can’t help but wonder what the hell the Academy was thinking. Regardless of the nominations, though, Raiders wins.

Final Analysis


  1. Since this is a screenplay award, the two that I could think of that I would put at the top of the list would be Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre. I like your inclusion of Body Heat as well and am really surprised it wasn't nominated. I'd put Raiders in the nominees, but not in the winner's circle (for this category,anyway).

    1. The movie that I've watched the most recently that reminds me of Raiders in a particular sense is Hell or High Water. It very much feels connected to the past (in this case, the classic serials) and still feels entirely new.

      In terms of the actual nominees, though, I'm with you.

  2. Well these are all okay films except Chariots of Fire, Sweet Jesus I hate that movie!! The Vangelis music and those men running on the beach is the stuff of nightmares! But I'm with you, not a single one really deserves to even be on the list let alone win an Oscar for original screenplay.

    I suppose forced to choose my conclusion would be the same as yours with Atlantic City though I don't love that film.

    I'd suggest a couple others not mentioned as worthy of nods, Blow Out and Gregory's Girl and I adore Outland even if it blatantly apes High Noon but again you're right Raiders of the Lost Ark is the only real choice for winner. How it didn't receive a nomination is one of those frustrating Oscar mysteries.

    1. Gun to head, my list probably runs
      Raiders of the Lost Ark
      Body Heat
      An American Werewolf in London

      and then either Outland or Atlantic City.

      Yes, Outland is nothing more than High Noon in space, but it features a truly great performance from the always-wonderful Frances Sternhagen, and that's always going to be a point in its favor.

    2. A big YES in agreement to the fabulous work of Frances Sternhagen in Outland!! She along with the equally great and ignored that year Karen Allen in Raiders and Helen Mirren in Excalibur should have been in the running for best supporting actress that year in place of some of the rather indifferent performances actually nominated.

    3. It's things like this that made me briefly consider adding the supporting categories to this blog.

  3. Raiders of the Lost Ark has a perfect screenplay. Spielberg wanted to recreate the serials of old and the screenplay captures that feeling perfectly, without being camp or silly. The villains are interesting, the heroes compelling and the action is fantastic. Good call.

    1. That's pretty much the way I feel about it, too. It connects to the history of film, but presents something entirely new and exciting.