By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 28, 2011 at 8:52AM
Writers. As Robert Downey Jr. memorably described them during a recent Academy Awards ceremony: the "sickly little mole people." With the bulk of big movies seemingly coming from board games, comic books and theme park rides, those who actually bother to come up with something off their own back get a little more credit, and it's always seemed as though the Best Original Screenplay Oscar has carried a little more prestige.
We looked at the Adapted Screenplay category last week, and saw that's a competitive field, full of big name writers. As for original screenplay, the category is, unsurprisingly, more open, considering the dearth of originality around these days; only three best picture winners in the last decade have won the award (two in the last two years) , and it's allowed tiny indies and foreign pictures, films like "The Barbarian Invasions," "Talk To Her," "Frozen River" and "The Messenger" to make it to the Kodak.
This year, only one real frontrunner qualifies -- "The Artist," penned by Michael Hazanavicius, the film's director. One might argue that the film's lack of dialogue might make some reluctant to vote for it, but we think the film will probably shine through. Its biggest competition in the category is most likely "Midnight in Paris." Woody Allen has no less than fourteen screenplay nominations over the years (the most recent for "Match Point" in 2006), and his latest film being his most successful ever, he's a lock for the category, and a good contender to win. Although he's not likely to attend -- Allen's only ever been to the Oscars once, to introduce a post-9/11 tribute to New York in 2002, allegedly, and legendarily, spending awards night playing clarinet in a jazz club. And that may count against him when it comes to the win. Nevertheless, Hazanivicius and Allen seem like the nomination locks at this point.
Outside of those, it's almost anyone's game, with so few of the serious Best Picture contenders coming from original material. Two of the would-be heavy hitters (albeit both films we've heard negative buzz on) are "J. Edgar" and "The Iron Lady." Biopics are always a tricky question when it comes to these writing categories, but as far as we can tell, both qualify as originals, not being based on specific biographies, and they have strong writers behind them, in previous Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black ("Milk"), and the much in-demand Abi Morgan ("The Hours"). Both are, however, dependent on the films, and from what we hear, neither have the goods to make this particularly likely, although Lance Black could theoretically sneak in.
Morgan's got two films in the race, having co-written "Shame" with Steve McQueen. As we've discussed before, its dark, uncompromising subject matter make it unlikely to cross over in a big way, but this category is more welcoming to such films than most. However, with the script arguably the film's weakest link (it's seen as Fassbender's film first, then a directorial tour-de-force by McQueen, but few are praising the writing), we'd be surprised if this happened either. Also problematic, for entirely different reasons; "Like Crazy.." The PG-13 picture is much more accessible, and has the indie cred that goes down well with voters here, but it also didn't actually have a script -- as director Drake Doremus told us, he worked with the cast on improvising around a 50 page outline. That could be something that works against it in the writer's branch, but then Mike Leigh, who uses a similar, although slightly different technique, has five Oscar nominations, and the semi-improvised "Borat" and "In The Loop" both got nods in recent years. It doesn't have the kind of snappy dialogue that always does so well in the category, but it's certainly a possibility.
As for bigger names, we're still a little skeptical of any chances "The Tree of Life has at the big prize, but it's entirely possible it'll sneak in here, with less competition, and as a recognition of Malick's work in general, even if giving him the nod for writing over direction would seem a little perverse. John Logan has two past nods and a front-runner for the Best Animated Feature in "Rango," but even if Pixar have set the precedent in the category, we can't see that happening.
Scott Z. Burns is one of the hottest writers around, has never been nominated, and did a damn good, meticulously researched job on "Contagion," the kind of work that might well see him get recognition. More likely, however, is Diablo Cody. Already the holder of one golden man for "Juno," her writing is the kind of zippy, snappy stuff that voters love in the category, and the script is her most mature work to date. Even if the film isn't Oscar material, which we suspect it won't be, she's very likely to pick up a nod, although we suspect it's too soon for her to win again.
And then there's "Bridesmaids." Much of the awards talk for the film so far has focused around Melissa McCarthy, which we feel like is a non-starter, but the writing branch is historically more welcoming to comedy, and it helps that 1) the star, Kristen Wiig co-wrote the script, with Annie Mumulo, 2) the film was a big hit, and 3) it's tighter and, frankly, better scripted than some of the other Apatow pics. It will need Universal to run a smart campaign, however.
And otherwise, there are little indies, whose best chance of nomination comes here. "Beginners" looks like it'll pick up a nod for Christopher Plummer, but screenplay for writer/director Mike Mills are also feasible, if less likely. "50/50" stands a better chance. It's got that tear-jerking tone, and a gift of a narrative for the circuit -- scribe Will Reiser was diagnosed with cancer himself, and based the film closely on his own experiences. It didn't do so well at the box-office, but it's the kind of film that'll kill on screeners over the holidays, if Summit can get people to watch them.
On a more serious note, Oren Moverman's coming off a nomination for "The Messenger," and his follow-up "Rampart" could surprise here as well, even with a smaller distributor behind it -- it was the then untried Oscilloscope who got two nods for Moverman's debut. But the reviews aren't as strong, so it's not necessarily a home run and Millennium Entertainment have never been Oscar players. A long shot at this point, but something that could break out with year-end Top 10 lists and critics awards, is Iranian picture "A Separation," which has the kind of screenplay that should be studied in film schools. On merit alone, it'd be in there, but we suspect more familiar stuff will lap it. The one that we think will get through is Sean Durkin's script for "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the kind of storming debut that deserves to be, and we suspect will be, nominated. So, our five picks, at this stage in the game:
Will Reiser -- "50/50"
Michel Hazanivicius -- "The Artist"
Sean Durkin -- "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Woody Allen -- "Midnight in Paris"
Diablo Cody -- "Young Adult"
The chart's taking a break this week, it's in Cabo with that receptionist you like. It'll be back next week.