Friday, August 16, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1974

The Contenders:

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Chinatown (winner)
The Conversation
Day for Night
Harry and Tonto

What’s Missing

I don’t know that I have a lot of complaints regarding Best Original Screenplay for 1974, since the movies that I would love to see here are generally the type that would never receive an Oscar nomination. We’re not going to get one for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Black Christmas, for instance. Blazing Saddles could be here; there’s precedent for Mel Brooks receiving (and winning!) Oscars for screenplays, but this one may have been too far over the edge for the Academy. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul would have been an interesting choice, but the foreign language slot was taken by Day for Night. For me, the biggest miss and the one I really want to see here is A Woman Under the Influence.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Harry and Tonto is a sweet movie and one that certainly was nominated because of its feel-good nature, but based on the rest of the competition and what wasn’t nominated, it really doesn’t belong in this company. This is much more a character study than it is a movie with a plot, and the characters that we are given are little more than a collection of different quirks. It’s a harmless film, and while I realize that Oscar frequently likes the harmless, I prefer to reward films and projects that take some real risks.

4. I want to be clear that I really like the other four movies that were nominated, and at this point, putting one down here isn’t a knock on the film. That’s going to be cold comfort for Day for Night, which is better than fourth place in a lot of cases. It’s an interesting distinction that I need to make here—I like what is happening on the screen here and I find it fascinating, but there’s not a great deal of story that happens in this film. The events are interesting, but ultimately, there isn’t much narrative. That’s a bit of a problem for a screenplay award.

3. I ended up being very pleasantly surprised by Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and on a different day, I might well bump this up a notch. I expected this to be a bit light and fluffy and was instead given something that is surprisingly intense and gripping. This is a strong enough year in this category that I could see this winning in a weaker year. While the story is good, it really is the performance of Ellen Burstyn that makes the film worth watching. She’s so damn good that she overshadows everything else.

2. The Conversation is incredibly intense, and has one of the most paranoia-inducing closing 20 minutes I have experienced in a film. This is a wonderful exercise in mistrust and psychological claustrophobia, and while some of that comes from the performances, a great deal of it comes from the way that the story works its way through the characters. This is a subtle movie, one that bears watching with close attention. It also doesn’t assume that the audience is stupid, and I’m always a fan when my movies treat me like I’m smart.

My Choice

1. But really, this was Chinatown’s Oscar and it was rightfully rewarded. There are so many things that could have easily gone wrong with Chinatown’s screenplay, and absolutely nothing did. This is a complex and deep story that never becomes confusing. Sure, a part of that is the skill with which the story is told, but most of it is the detail and skill with which that story was put together. If there hadn’t been a film noir movement already, this would be the centerpiece story and screenplay. It was the right call.

Final Analysis


  1. I can't make any arguments against Robert Towne's script for Chinatown as it's just perfect though I often feel that The Conversation was the better film but Towne's script was the best. There were so many original scripts that got overlooked such as A Woman Under the Influence and Blazing Saddles. Did Mel Brooks get a Best Director nod for that or Young Frankenstein? If not, what the fuck? If Coppola could pull a double-header, why not Mel Brooks? What about The Night Porter? That was some intense shit as was Swept Away, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Those were films with some serious balls.

    1. I make no bones about Chinatown being my favorite movie from 1974, so it's honeslty no shock that I put it at the top of this very strong group. It would be stronger with a few changes--A Woman Under the Influence not being here is criminal.

      Brooks was nominated for the screenplay for Young Frankenstein, but it was considered adapted and naturally lost to The Godfather Part II. Brooks did win for The Producers. He never got a director nod, which isn't too surprising when you consider Oscar's general dismissal of comedy.

  2. Even if Woman Under the Influence was here I'd still say that Chinatown should have won and I'm glad it actually did.

    Woman Under the Influence is wonderfully written but what makes it so memorable is what Gena Rowlands does with the situations presented.

    I'm a little surprised to see Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore among these nominees since I've seen interviews with both Ellen Burstyn and Scorese saying that his inspiration for the film was the 1949 Doris Day film "My Dream is Yours" so I've always assumed it was adapted. However the only real similarities are that the lead women in both films are widows with a young son (Doris's is quite a bit smaller) and aspiring singers (though of course since the first is Doris Day she makes it big) otherwise their stories are radically different. I guess it was so loose that it stood as original.

    1. It may be more of a case of "inspired by" than anything else.

      I agree with you, incidentally. In my opinion, this is Chinatown's Oscar every single day and twice on Sunday. It is a magnificent screenplay, telling a convoluted story with any number of red herrings that all still fit into the final whole. It always surprises me just how many rabbit trails it goes down while still holding onto its central story.

  3. I can't argue with your top two choices. The thing about A Woman Under the Influence is it's difficult for me to tell in a Cassavetes film what we are seeing from the screenplay and what is made up as it went along. That may be a small point, because I like the film very much. Also, it did get a director Oscar nomination, though no one was going to beat Coppola in that category for this year.

    1. That's a fair point on Cassavetes. I'm reminded of the fact that Aladdin was declared ineligible for Best Adapted Screenplay because of all of Robin Williams's ad libs.

  4. No Doubt, and it wuld have been the best of any year from the 70s.

    1. It would be damn close if not. It's almost certainly top-5 original screenplay from the decade.