The French Lieutenant’s Woman
On Golden Pond (winner)
Pennies from Heaven
Prince of the City
1981 was a staggeringly good year in screenplays if you’re talking about original screenplays. Great and good original screenplays--Raiders of the Lost Ark, An American Werewolf in London, Outland, Scanners are all over the place in 1981. For adapted screenplays, the pickings are a lot slimmer. My first go-to would be Das Boot, which was released in 1981, but got all of its nominations in 1982. Ghost Story would have been an interesting choice here, but it’s very much the wrong genre for Oscar. While in modern years, a Mad Max movie can not only be nominated but can win armfuls of Oscars, in 1981, a nomination for The Road Warrior is probably out of bounds. No, for me the real miss is Thief, the Michael Mann film that I seem to like more than everyone else.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I find it difficult to be excited about any of these nominees and desperately wish I was deciding between Thief and The Road Warrior. Instead, I have to decide which of these movies I’m the least excited by. I suppose based on those metrics I’m going to put Prince of the City on the bottom. It’s not a terrible film in many ways, but it also isn’t specifically a great one. It’s far, far too long, for one thing. I was ready for it to be done long before it was, and that’s a significant issue.
4. On Golden Pond won this award, and I actually had to double-check this because it didn’t seem right. The problem with On Golden Pond is that it’s the kind of story that can only be a movie. These are characters and situations that only exist in someone’s idealized world of what this kind of closure should be like. It’s honest in its way and desperately wants to be up front in its message. So, while the message is certainly here, the story that brings us that message rings hollow, and that’s a problem when we’re talking about a screenplay.
3. Pennies from Heaven is perhaps the strangest nomination in this category because it feels like the movie that doesn’t fit one way or another. It is perhaps the most ultimately depressing musical in film history, at least until Dancer in the Dark was made. It’s yet another film where I am happy to have finally seen it, but not so much that I really want to sit through it a second time. It’s a difficult movie to recommend to anyone, but I’m mildly impressed that the Academy even sought to nominate it.
2. There’s a lot that I liked with Ragtime, not the least of which being that it wasn’t at all the movie I expected it to be. The screenplay is impressive in the sense that it keeps a lot of plates spinning at the same time and never gets confusing or resorts to summarizing plot devices or other narrative/exposition cheats…at least not overtly. But it is a rambling story and one that could probably stand to be reined in now and then. I like a lot of it, but it’s got its problems, and not all of them are solved, or even noticed by the screenplay itself.
1. This leaves me with The French Lieutenant’s Woman as my winner based on the nominations, and while I have come to this honestly, I’m not that enthusiastic about it. This isn’t to take away from the quality of the movie. This is a fine movie with good performances and an intricate dual story that is worth digging into. But it’s also not the sort of story that excites me. Those original screenplays I mentioned at the top are all exciting stories (and all of them went unnominated, too). So while this would be fine based on what’s here, my heart isn’t in it.
I’m tempted to give this to Das Boot, but I haven’t looked at this category for 1982 yet, and that could create a situation where I’m awarding the same film twice. I admit that I’ve done that before, but I do try not to do that. No, I’m going to give this to Thief, a film that I think is far better than most people do. Thief tells the story of a man who creates exactly the life he wants, building it up brick by brick only to discover that, once he has it, that he’s trapped by it. The third act of the film is him dismantling that life brick by brick and finding his way out from the men who trapped him there. It’s an old story, but it’s one that has rarely been told better than it was here. At the very least, it deserved to be in the mix, and had it been, I’d have voted for it.