Monday, July 31, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1987

The Contenders:

The Dead
Fatal Attraction
Full Metal Jacket
The Last Emperor (winner)
My Life as a Dog

What’s Missing

Were the 1980s terrible for Oscar in reality or just in my opinion? Is it because I essentially grew up in the ‘80s that I regularly don’t understand the Oscar nominations from this decade in general? I mean, the actual nominees aren’t terrible, but I might keep one of them if I could make my own list. In terms of what was overlooked, we don’t really need to go any further than saying that The Princess Bride was released in 1987. Oh, but there are some others. How about Empire of the Sun, the semi-autobiography of J.G. Ballard, one of the best writers working? How about The Untouchables, a movie that actually disproves the rule that Kevin Costner is only good in Westerns and movies about sports? Roxanne was completely ignored at the Oscars and should not have been, and especially shouldn’t have been here. Angel Heart is admittedly a stretch, but I think the screenplay is what sells the whole movie (well, that and De Niro’s fingernails). But the biggest miss of all is Babette’s Feast, a film that is damn near perfect and avoids becoming maudlin by simply being real and wonderful.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I think I can understand why Fatal Attraction was nominated, but I don’t buy it at all. This isn’t so much a screenplay as it is a scenario. I like the movie pretty well, but for me, it’s all set up and seeing where that set up goes. Yes, that’s the screenplay, but once we have that basic high concept idea, it’s really just a matter of keeping things on the rails. This is a movie that is better than its screenplay, not a movie I think gets its appeal from its screenplay. A fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one.

4. Of the five movies nominated, Full Metal Jacket is probably my favorite, or at least the one I’m the most likely to rewatch. Its problem is that for as much as I think it’s a great movie, it’s also a movie of two halves. People tend to forget that the second half of the film is pretty good, but it’s not the first half in boot camp. Everyone loves the boot camp scenes and forgets the Vietnam sequences. That’s a problem, and it’s a real problem when we’re trying to pick out something to hand an Oscar to.

3. The Dead is a film that is all about set up, too. In fact, it’s little more than 65 minutes of getting all of the pieces moved into place and 15 minutes of flat-out drama. I respect it for what it is, but one of the many things it is is narratively simple. There’s not a great deal of story going on here even if the ultimate revelation and the implications are huge. I like this movie a lot, but its power comes not from the screenplay but from the underlying message, and that was in Joyce’s story the whole time.

2. When you have a big, blustery epic, it’s not surprising when, provided the whole thing stays coherent, it walks away with a bunch of statues. The Last Emperor is a film I find hard to nail down coherently. I like it, or at least respect it, because I like the story a lot, and I genuinely like Pu Yi as a character. I even get why it won. But it’s all about the characters here and the sweep of the years. It’s about the pageantry when, once again, we have a story that is pretty straightforward under all of the pomp.

1. Limited to the nominations, I’m going with My Life as a Dog. This is a story that very much follows the coming-of-age playbook in giving us a young boy growing up and dealing with death all ‘round him, and yet it manages to do this without really feeling like a cliché. It is very sweet and engaging all the way through. More to the point, it’s very difficult to do voiceover narration well, and doubly difficult when your narrator is a child. My Life as a Dog makes it work, and makes that narration important to what we see and understand. Of the five nominees, this is the one I’d keep, but I wouldn’t give it the statue.

My Choice

For sentimental reasons, I’d be tempted to give this to The Princess Bride. There’s so much going on in the story, and still, every time I watch it, I forget that the whole thing is really just a storybook being read to a sick child by his grandfather. It would be a better choice than all of the actual nominees. But I’d give this to Babette’s Feast for doing the near impossible. It so wants to be a melodrama and so wants to be sappy and instead it’s simply heartfelt and honest and real. It’s the real winner here.

Final Analysis


  1. I admire »Babette's feast« a lot, but »My life as a dog« is even stronger in my opinion. Haven't seen it with english narration, trust me when I say that in swedish it is just brilliant!

    Something I've never managed to understand, though, is the amount of praise insightful people heap upon »Princess bride«, a movie I find silly at best and embarrassing at worst.

    1. I don't know that there is an explanation for The Princess Bride except that I think it hits something very difficult to do. It's clearly silly and entertaining for the parents, but a lot of kids won't see that it's actually quite funny and will take it more at face value. It's really quotable, too.

      I really enjoyed My Life as a Dog, and it is the one I would keep if I made my own list of five nominations.

  2. With your fondness for the 1980s, you might want to read Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One" before the movie ruins the book. It is a wonderful glorified, and Tolkienized, rehash pop culture of the late '70s and '80s, but Spielberg is dumbing down the film by removing many of the great things that actual make pop culture from that time period really pop in the book--his own film references. It's a quick and fun read, especially for anyone who grew up during that time and played Atari, Dungeons & Dragons, listened to the music, or watched TV and movies from that time.

    1. I've heard that, and I've been tempted. I'm actually in the process of reading things that I should have read years ago right now. It's rather embarrassing to admit what I'm reading for the first time at the moment, but that one is certainly on the list.

      If you want good insight into the game industry in the early '90s, I strongly recommend Microserfs by Douglas Coupland.

  3. As a Dane, I've seen (and even reviewed) Babette’s Feast, I quite like it, though in this category I prefer Withnail & I (1987) for its witty screenplay.
    We previously talked about Life of A Dog which I find too slow-paced. I saw Fatal Attraction this year, well-acted, but for me the writing is not oscar worthy as it doesn't nuance Glen Close's character and is basically a thriller.
    Withnail won for screenplay at the British Film Awards, so at least it won something.

    1. I found Withnail and I smart but unpleasant. Babette's Feast is one of those movies that turns me into a puddle every time I watch it, so it gets a lot of props for hitting me straight in the emotions.

  4. Tough category in a tough year. I'm honestly not too jazzed about any of the nominations here. I agree Babette’s Feast and The Princess Bride should come in at 1 and 2 (or 2 and 1 - tough call). Stunned they weren't nominated.

    1. My Life as a Dog is probably good enough to win in an open field. It's a very good screenplay and a really good movie.

  5. I would 100% give it to Princess Bride. I've read the book, as well, and Goldman actually *improves* on the book in the screenplay. It's a fantastic adaptation.

    1. It is. I wouldn't have a huge problem with it winning, and it really should have been nominated.