Monday, April 30, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1981

The Contenders:

The French Lieutenant’s Woman
On Golden Pond (winner)
Pennies from Heaven
Prince of the City

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. Looking at it now it is a rather underwhelming lot. On Golden Pond had the proper narrative for the time and much of its awardage was from hopping on the Henry Fonda tribute train which was unstoppable. I found The French Lieutenant's Woman a frustrating and diffuse experience, it had its moments but not enough for me to not feel it was muddled.

    I'd land somewhere between the dark and dreary Pennies From Heaven just for it chutzpah, though I'll admit I'm loath to watch it again, and Ragtime because of that plate spinning that you mentioned. I'd probably land with Ragtime even if it could have been tightened in places it's entertaining overall. But in the overall year I think only Ragtime would be something I'd want to see in the list and if so it would be last.

    I wasn't crazy about Thief although both Caan and Tuesday Weld were exceptional in it. I like the idea of Ghost Story, not sure if it would make my lineup but its better than at least three if not four that are there now.

    Others I'd say that are worthy of consideration: Excalibur, The Chosen and Whose Life is it Anyway?. Also a couple of foreign titles-Diva (though I don't love the film it's superior in both layout and execution to Prince of the City) and Mephisto which won Best Foreign Film.

    1. I don't have a huge issue with putting Ragtime at the top of the nominations. In fact, I had it there at least for a minute or two when going through this award and these nominations. I can also see your point about The French Lieutenant's Woman. I think it handles a double story well, and for me, that's worth at least being on the top of the nominations.

      I genuinely like Thief. That might just be nostalgia talking here, but I think it's a great film, and one of Mann's more underrated outings. It's also a really clear example of the sort of role that Caan is perfectly suited to.

      I hated Diva. It felt so desperate to be "cool" that it failed entirely for me.