Friday, April 11, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1968

The Contenders:
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Battle of Algiers
Hot Millions
The Producers (winner)

What’s Missing

The five nominated films are about as diverse as possible, ranging from far-reaching science fiction to crime farce. There were a few other notables that might be worth mentioning, though, although the Academy did a decent job of nominations this year. Once Upon a Time in the West seems like a miss, although I’m not entirely certain it would have been eligible for this award. If…. would have been another interesting choice, and The Thomas Crowne Affair deserved a look as well. Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed two films in 1968: Skammen and Hour of the Wolf, and I think a strong case could be argued for either. Head was always going to be a long shot, and Night of the Living Dead had no chance, but it’s fun to dream.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I enjoyed Hot Millions when I watched it, but it seems far too lightweight to really be much in consideration. It’s a smart film, which always helps, but it suffers from an ending that feels too pat and cobbled together to give us the conclusion that we want but that we and the characters on the screen haven’t deserved. It’s a good screenplay and a fun script, but hardly a great one, and nominating this instead of one of Bergman’s films seems very much like a slight. This is by far the weakest of the nominations.

4: When a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, it’s important to remember that the screenplay isn’t exactly the same thing as the script, at least in my head. There’s not a great deal of dialogue in huge parts of the film. I have a mild suspicion that 2001 was nominated here because the Academy realized that not nominating it for Best Picture was a terrible oversight. I respect what the film does, but I have a hard time thinking it’s a worthy nomination when a large part of the film makes me drowsy. Kubrick geeks, feel free to put your objections in the comments below.

My Choices

3: The hardest decision I had for this entry in this series was if I should put Faces as a weed-out or as one of my choices. I ultimately decided to put it below the fold because of how well-written it is. The dialogue throughout the film feels very real. The camera work and film quality looks amateurish, but this only forces the viewer to focus more on the characters and the dialogue, and both of these are impeccable. This is the sort of dialogue that can only be written by someone who is a very close student of human behavior. It might be the bottom of my three choices, but had this won, I’d have thought it a solid choice.

2: The Battle of Algiers is a difficult film to enjoy and even more difficult not to respect. What could have easily been a polemic against Algerian terrorism or a strident screed against French use of torture is instead a nuanced depiction of a terrible situation. It’s a damn smart film because it doesn’t specifically choose a side, but presents both sides in the French/Algerian conflict as being guilty in their methods and—at least in their own minds—justified in using them. You know you’re in the right when you piss off both sides of the conflict. Even better is when your film doesn’t answer questions but asks harder and harder ones.

1: So what’s left? The film that actually won. The musical remake of The Producers may have cost the original a bit of its luster, which is a terrible shame. The Producers is one of the genuinely funniest films ever written. It helps that both Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel are on the top of their respective forms here, and a great deal of the quality of the screenplay is made evident by their performances. The Producers is exactly the kind of risk that a great screenplay takes. It’s daring and edgy, and it wouldn’t be a shock to find that something that contains a set piece of dancing Nazis to have fallen flat. But it doesn’t. It’s tuned perfectly and is screamingly funny from start to finish. It deserved to win.

Final Analysis


  1. I actually didn't much care for The Producers... except for bits with Gene Wilder freaking out.

    1. Hey, to each his own. I think it's funny as hell.

  2. I always felt ambigous about the space odessey. It is a fantastic tableau and one I enjoy to watch, but it is a terrible film. Seriously nothing happens here and therefore I agree with you. Best original screenplay seems an odd category for this film to be nominated in.

  3. I haven't seen Hot Millions (unless it was on TV in the 70s as a kid). I've seen the others and the only one I would have thought of as "Oscar material" was The Battle of Algiers. Comedies don't usually get nominated, so I'm surprised The Producers not only got the nomination, but the win. (For the record, I like the movie.) Algiers would have been similarly hampered by the fact that it was a foreign language film.

    And I think that the nomination for 2001, as well as some of the subsequent praise for the film down through the years, is due to the fact that there is a subset of people who feel that if they didn't understand a film then it must be a very very smart one which deserves praise. While I think the film is groundbreaking I remember the very first thought I had when I got done watching it was "there's no way that someone who hasn't read the book first (like I had) will ever really understand what is going on in this movie."

    1. @TSor--I appreciate 2001 for what it is, but it's not a film I choose to watch. People tend to forget that, for instance, the famous docking sequence isn't just a cool shot for a few seconds, but that it goes on for like seven minutes. Just minutes and minutes of a ship moving through space. I often find it hard to stay awake.

      @Chip--I'm surprised at the nomination and win, too, but I'm really pleased that it happened. Genuinely funny, and funny this far removed is hard to do. That The Producers is still funny as hell is a testament to how well it was written.

  4. I'm glad to find myself among so many 2001 naysayers! It's visually magnificent but so cold and slooooow.

    I love The Producers and agree with its win. However, I'm such a Cassavetes fan that I wish he had won even more.

    Skamen (Shame) made an indelible impression on me as did The Battle of Algiers. Both would have been fine winners. I haven't seen Hot Millions but can't believe that would have changed my opinion.

    1. If you want my real opinion of 2001, click the link and read the title of that review.

      I'd have loved to have seen Face win this, or would have at least been very comfortable with it. I didn't always get Cassavetes, but when I did, I liked him a hell of a lot.

  5. Shame and The Battle of Algiers are both on my films you must see list. I haven't seen Faces yet. And I certainly love The Producers. That being said, I think Arthur C. Clarke's screenplay for 2001 should have been a slam dunk win. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea and I didn't even like it the first time I saw it, but 2001 is certainly now on my short list of favorite films. Mel Brooks said that Arthur C. Clarke liked to remind everyone that the wrong person won the award. So I wouldn't give Arthur the Miss Congeniality Award, but I would give him the Oscar.

    1. When it comes to 2001, I see what's so impressive about the film and I get why people love it. I just don't get what's so astonishing about the screenplay itself.

  6. Not too sure about Oliver! as Best Picture of 1968.