Friday, May 12, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1998

The Contenders:

Life is Beautiful
Shakespeare in Love (winner)
Saving Private Ryan
The Truman Show

What’s Missing

Every now and then you get a year like this. There are so many good original screenplays from 1998 I can almost make two entire, completely new sets of nominees that I would stand by. There’s a lot of room for improvement even though I like a lot of the actual nominees. We don’t need to go very far away from the 1001 Movies list to find more than a handful of movies that legitimately could be nominated. In the non-English category, we have The Celebration which is the best of the Dogme 95 films in my opinion and the wildly entertaining Run Lola Run. The more cynical among us might also put Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in the non-English column as well. Both Happiness and Pi were probably too harsh for the Academy for serious consideration. The Big Lebowski didn’t really find its audience until long after its release, and Wes Anderson was still starting out, which probably got Rushmore ignored. I’m genuinely surprised at the omission of American History X. Personally, the one film I think really should be added in place of several of the nominees is the wonderful Pleasantville.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. There was a lot of blowback on Shakespeare in Love when it won Best Picture, particularly since it beat Saving Private Ryan. Well, it beat it in this category, too, and it didn’t deserve to. I understand precisely why it won. It’s a clever screenplay, and it’s the sort of screenplay that has particular rewards for people who are smart about the topic. If you’re the right sort of person, Shakespeare in Love makes you feel very smart when you get all of the jokes. A lot of the people who get the jokes work in the industry. So when they feel clever, they reward the film that made them feel clever. They shouldn’t have.

4. I found Bulworth surprising and I liked it a great deal more than I thought I would. So why is it fourth? Mainly because the third act, despite everything it does well, depends almost entirely on wild coincidences. Coincidences are fun and interesting, but they shouldn’t carry the plot of a movie. That, to me, is a significant weakness in the story, almost as if the writer couldn’t find another, better way out of the problem. That’s an issue, and one that in my world would keep this off the ballot.

3. Life is Beautiful is a film that shouldn’t work in almost any respect, but it does. A lot of the reason that it works at all comes from the performances, particularly that of Roberto Benigni. That it doesn’t become maudlin is also a bit surprising, but it avoids this problem as well. This is a case where something needs to be third, and I happen to like the other two nominated screenplays more than this one. I could see this winning and I like the nomination; I just don’t think it deserves the win.

2. Saving Private Ryan might be the best movie of 1998 (this or The Thin Red Line would at least be in contention) and some of that at least comes from the screenplay. This is a smart movie, but it ultimately suffers from what a lot of Spielberg movies do—it goes for the emotional jugular. I think it goes on too long. More specifically, I think that the framing story is present only for the emotional beats it provides and that it isn’t really necessary for the impact of the main story. Cut it, and we might have a different story here.

My Choice

1. I’m giving this to The Truman Show specifically because of all of the movies in this list, it’s the one that I will always look forward to seeing. Much of this comes from the performances and from seeing Jim Carrey really act and not just mug for the camera. More of this comes from the fact that this is a truly wonderful existential experience. The Truman Show is a beautiful story wonderfully told. So many moments in it are memorable, and many of those moments start from a strong screenplay. Put Pleasantville in the mix and it would be a tighter race, but the tie always goes to the Academy here, which means they just got this one wrong.

Final Analysis


  1. I do like all of these films and would be inclined to go with your placement down the line except for your winner where I would flip-flop Pvt. Ryan and Truman even though I also agree about that framing story. It is terribly moving, particularly the last gut punch, but the movie didn't need it to make its point. Despite that I'd still give it the award.

    Like you however I'd be mightily tempted to hand it to the inventive and wonderful Pleasantville were it one of the nominees.

    1. I considered that. It really does come down to the framing story for me. That downgrades Saving Private Ryan just enough that The Truman Show moves into first for me. That said, I can't fault the difference of opinion.

      Pleasantville, had it been nominated, would definitely contend for me.

  2. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think it's possible that a lot of people (inside and outside of the Academy) like Shakespeare in Love (and prefer it to some of the competition) more because it's a great movie, and less because it makes them feel smart, whatever that means.

    It deserved all its Oscars, despite tough competition from a lot of great movies, especially The Thin Red Line and Life Is Beautiful in the Best Picture category.

    1. We'll disagree on that. I think it's more a clever movie than a great one. I didn't dislike it, but it's not what I'd pick for Best Picture.

    2. And we'll disagree on whether or not film fans who know something about Shakespeare and 16th-century England watch "Shakespeare in Love" and judge it by how smart it makes them feel.

    3. I don't think that's the only reason people like it, but I do think it's a part of it. It's like getting an inside joke--you feel like you're one up on everyone else.

      A good example, is the goofy horror movie Slither. It's a fun, entertaining movie on its own, but for the horror fan, there are a lot of Easter eggs. It's that extra wink and nod to the audience that works for a lot of people.

  3. I didn't even have to read this to know what you were going to pick for the top spot, and know I was going to 100% agree with you.