Friday, April 3, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1990

The Contenders:

Dances with Wolves (winner)
The Grifters
Reversal of Fortune

What’s Missing

The nominees for 1990 are, on the whole, pretty solid, but as usual, there’s some room for improvement. The biggest snub in my opinion is Misery, which manages to keep all of the tension and fear of the novel and makes changes only in ways that work better on the screen. I can think of no good reason it wasn’t nominated. With the others, I’m unfamiliar with the original and can only go based on the screenplay and story. I’d toss up Miller’s Crossing as one that deserves another looks, as does the Gerard Depardieu version of Cyrano de Bergerac. The two longshots that I’d consider are Total Recall and the vastly underrated Quick Change.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I’m convinced the Academy had its head up its collective ass regarding Dances with Wolves in general, and it winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay is simply more evidence. This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a bloated one and it was overrated in 1990 and even more overrated 25 years later. Hit that screenplay with a weed whacker and cut an hour or so from it, and you might have an argument that would at least have me reconsider. Until that time, it doesn’t even belong as a nomination.

4: My problem with Reversal of Fortune is entirely the story it tells. It may well be a great adaptation of the source material (I wouldn’t know), but if it is, that source material is really ugly. The entire point of this film is to make sympathetic two people who don’t deserve a great deal of sympathy, namely Claus von Bulow and Alan Dershowitz. The story itself is interesting, but trying to get me to empathize with these two guys is an exercise in futility. No thanks.

3: Awakenings is a film that has the benefit of Robin Williams under the firm control of the director. That’s a good thing, and that’s key in letting the screenplay do its work. And it’s a good screenplay, and the first that I am comfortable with being on the list. It comes in third not because of any specific problem I have with it, but because I happen to like the other two quite a bit more. This is a good story and it’s beautifully told. Point of fact, I’m not sure how it could or should be improved. I just like the others more.

2: I’ve caught some heat in the past for this, but I really like The Grifters. I think it’s a great story and it’s one that is perfectly told in the film. A large part of that is a screenplay that offers just enough information to keep us knowing what is going on without giving away so much that we know what’s coming. In fact, every time we do know what’s coming, the screenplay manages to throw a curve and do something different that still makes sense and works in the larger narrative. That’s good writing, and it shows real trust of the audience’s ability to keep up. I always react well to that.

My Choice

1: But really, this award should have gone to Goodfellas and I think most people know it. In fact, I think most of the voting members of the Academy who voted for Dances with Wolves know that they screwed the pooch on this. I could make a serious argument for Misery to be in this position, and choosing between these two might come down to a coin flip for me. In this case, though, I have to go with the nominated film over the one that wasn’t nominated, and had Goodfellas won, I’d not be the one to say it was a wrong choice.

Final Analysis


  1. I have never seen the Grifters. Of the other four, I would say you're spot on in your assessment. I am with you all the way on this one. I like your order and I agree that Goodfellas should have won. I am not with you on Misery, however. I read the book and I thought the film got a lot of things wrong. Most people seem to love Misery, so I know I am in the minority on that one.

    1. I really like The Grifters. Aside from L.A. Confidential, I think it's the best noir of the last 25 years.

      We'll agree to disagree on Misery.

  2. Entirely agree with you. I HATED Dances With Wolves. For some reason, it really rubbed me the wrong way. It struck me as strictly a Kevin Kostner vanity project. I know I'm in the minority here.

    1. I didn't hate it, I just wish it were better. And shorter.

      That, and I think it's directly responsible for both Waterworld and The Postman as bloated Costner dystopic epics in the following years.

  3. If memory serves, you saw the Director's Cut of Dances With Wolves, which had about an hour added to the Theatrical Cut. I've never seen it. I've only ever watched the Theatrical version and I liked it quite a bit. It was still long, but it didn't feel bloated to me.

    I'm not sure who you'll catch flack from on The Grifters. I've seen it and liked. I think it might be more that it's a forgotten-too-soon kind of film, more than people saw it and didn't like it.

    In regards to Dances With Wolves winning, I understand that. Take a look at the five stories. The only one that was likeable and relatable was that one. All the others are about unlikeable subjects (The Grifters, Goodfellas), sad subjects (Awakenings), or unlikeable people (Reversal of Fortune, Goodfellas). I can see the Academy shying away from those and gravitating towards the film that ultimately gives them something good to hang onto after they are done. Yes, the next year The Silence of the Lambs would win, but that was an historic film - only the third one ever to win in all five major categories.

    1. It's not really a shock that Dances with Wolves won, no. It's a Western version of that classic idea of someone from a more technological culture rediscovering the values that have been lost by his world but retained in a "purer" society. It's one we'll keep seeing over and over, I imagine, and one that has plenty of other versions out there (The Last Samurai and Avatar to name two).

      I've seen both the original and the director's cut of Dances with Wolves and I think both are too fat for the story being told.

  4. One thing that makes me a little biased towards Misery in this category is in knowing some of the choices William Goldman made (through one of his books) in his adaptation to the screen of King's novel. I certainly wouldn't argue putting it close to the top here.

    1. I think it's a great adaptation. I like that it stays fairly close to the novel (from what I remember), and it also manages to keep all of the tension of the novel.