Friday, June 19, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1997

The Contenders:

Donnie Brasco
L.A. Confidential (winner)
The Sweet Hereafter
Wag the Dog
The Wings of the Dove

What’s Missing

It’s an interesting collection of movies nominated for Best Adapated Screenplay for 1997. It’s a rare instance where my ratings for the five movies are five different scores—that never happens. Still, there’s naturally some places I’m going to thing we could make some changes. I’m nothing like a Howard Stern fan, but have to to admit I liked Private Parts. Happy Together would be an interesting addition, but 1997 feels like it might have been too early for this movie to get that kind of acclaim. There’s precedent for animated movies being nominated in other categories, and Perfect Blue would be a great addition here. The Butcher Boy almost certainly flew under everyone’s radar, thus avoiding a nomination. Horror movies don’t get traction in Oscar-ville, so Scream 2 is going to be left out. The big miss, science fiction though it be, is Contact.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. The Wings of the Dove was not in any manner my least favorite of the five nominations, but it is my least favorite screenplay. For a film that is supposed to be at least ostensibly a romance, this is a very sterile and emotionally distant film. I think that’s a problem for a film that should be the opposite of this. I like the other aspects of the film—the performances, the costuming—far more than I do the tone of the film. That might be attributed at least in part to the director, but it has to start from the screenplay, doesn’t it?

4. Donnie Brasco wasn’t my least favorite of these movies, either, but it’s another movie that is plagued with a serious problem when it comes to the screenplay. The problem isn’t that it’s poorly written but that it’s poorly focused. The Donnie Brasco character is where we spend all of our time, but he’s not even close to the most interesting character in the film. If we had a film focused on Lefty Ruggiero instead, it would have been a lot more interesting and probably a lot better overall. It would probably require a name change, but it would be worth it.

3. I can’t say that I enjoyed my time with The Sweet Hereafter, but I understand why it was nominated. It’s unlikely that I will watch the film again because the plot is so difficult and devastating that I don’t know that I can bear it a second time. This is a very personal film because of the subject matter. But the screenplay doesn’t shy away from it and dives into it head first. I didn’t like watching the movie, but I think it’s an important one and worth seeing, and the screenplay, while difficult in many places, is worth seeing.

2. Wag the Dog is a really smart movie, smarter than it has any right to be, and one that continues to be relevant a couple of decades after it was released. The best part of the film, the thing that gets it to one step below the winning spot, is that it’s also a film that is pitched perfectly; you laugh at it because it would be very easy to get angry with it and cry instead. I like where the story goes, and while it does go to some ridiculous places, it never gets there dishonestly. That’s the sign of a very well-written screenplay.

My Choice

1. The winner, though, is L.A. Confidential, a movie that reminded the world of just how good film noir could be when it was done well. This is a really smart plot, a movie that goes in a lot of directions but never loses the thread. This is how to make a movie that is complex without being complicated, deep without being confusing. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the movie doesn’t pull punches and isn’t afraid to have lives destroyed in the wake of the story. It’s a hell of a good movie, and it deserved the Oscar it won.

Final Analysis


  1. We're going to disagree on Contact clearly. The ending does feel unsatisfying in some ways, but it's also the appropriate ending for true skepticism.

    I haven't seen the others. Jackie Brown seems like a huge hole in my viewing history until you understand that, aside from Pulp Fiction, I've only watched Tarantino when he's been on one of the lists I've pursued.

  2. I agree totally on L.A. Confidential. The performances are great but the screenplay is what makes it consistently rewatchable.

    I've never seen The Sweet Hereafter because I'm aware of the story and I don't care how well-acted or produced it is I see no reason to put myself through something so obviously emotionally arduous.

    I'm in the same boat as you with Private Parts. Can't stand Howard Stern but a friend talked me going to see the film if he paid and I ended up liking the film. Once was plenty though.

    1. I think you're okay not seeing The Sweet Hereafter. It's exactly what you think it is, and it's emotionally harrowing. It's not the sort of film you ever "want" to watch.

  3. I love LA Confidential. It is a favorite of mine, and since I have seen all the movies you mentioned, I would swap out Donnie Brasco and put Contact or Jackie Brown in its place. I saw Jackie just a few months ago, and Contact, too, so they are fresh in my memory. I just saw The Sweet Hereafter, but I read the book ages ago and knew the story going in. I had no idea until I read his obit that this was the only movie that Holm really carried, instead of being a supporting actor or stage star. I was very happy (if that is the right word) to see it a few months ago.

    1. L.A. Confidential kills it in the story department. It's complex without being complicated or convoluted. It's smart and assumes the audience is smart, too. And it gives us characters that are human rather than mere archetypes.

      Glad to see I'm not alone in my appreciation of Contact.