26 February 2013

The Academy Awards That Should Have Been, Part V

The Academy Awards That Should Have Been
Part V: Writing

Astute readers (and of course you're one, Dear Reader) noticed that nowhere in the previous four parts of this series spotlighting Oscar snubs did I make mention of the two categories for writing. That's because it didn't really belong in any of the other four parts. I chose to place it at the end here not because writing is an afterthought. On the contrary, I worship at the altar of writing. It's that after the awards are handed out and we close the book on one year of film-making, our eyes turn toward the release calendar in hopes of sussing out which films yet to be released will have us talking in another twelve months. As the cycle begins anew, it's fitting to take a look at the foundation of film-making: the screenplays.

WRITING (Adapted Screenplay)
SNUBBED: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -- James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck

NOMINATED (35th Academy Awards, 1962)
  • David and Lisa -- Eleanor Perry
  • Lawrence of Arabia -- Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
  • [NOTE: The Board of Governors voted on September 26, 1995 to grant then-blacklisted writer Michael Wilson an Academy Award nomination, along with Robert Bolt, for Lawrence of Arabia. This was the result of a Writers Guild of America finding that Wilson and Bolt share the credit for the screenplay.]
  • Lolita -- Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Miracle Worker -- William Gibson
  • To Kill a Mockingbird -- Horton Foote <--winner li="">
First of all, I want to acknowledge that I have only seen Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbird. I've thumbed through T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, though, and I'm certain that Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson deserve a lot more credit for organizing Lawrence's haphazard recollections than Horton Foote deserved for translating Harper Lee's well-structured novel. Foote really just had to get out of the way of Lee and let her story tell itself, and I know that's an awfully reductive (and even insulting) view to take, but there it is.

Whenever we read anything, it seems, discussion almost always turns to imagining how it would be as a movie. We talk of actors to be cast, what people and places might look like, or sometimes even what kind of costumes or music would work. When we finally get the movie versions, we always complain about whatever changes were made from the original material. It seems the more trivial the change, the more fans of the source material are to fixate on it.

What we rarely discuss is how a film can take a story and actually make it work better as a film than it worked in its original medium. We don't like to admit this, of course, because when it comes to adapted works, there are only two camps: purists who will never be satisfied by the adaptation, and the fans who didn't even know about, care about or read the original version until there was a movie. Somewhere between obsession and indifference, though, is a realm in which we can see the power of film-making to not just put on the screen someone else's story, but to reincarnate the soul of the story into a new body.

Why, of all the movies I've seen that were adapted from material originally produced in another medium, do I feel that it's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that was snubbed? It's because I've read Dorothy Parker's original short story. Her characters are brusque and devoid of any charm, all driven by machismo. Her literary Ransom Stoddard is a wuss made into a man by the toughness of the Old West, but it's the cinematic Ransom Stoddard who represents instead a thoughtful man with noble values and idealism that rises above such posturing nonsense. Johnson's story is a reinforcement of schoolyard gender norms, whereas the film tries to show us that we're too old to still act that way. The film is a masterpiece, and it's because the screenwriters saw more depth to the characters and situation than their creator had given them.

WRITING (Original Screenplay)
SNUBBED: Crazy, Stupid, Love. -- Dan Fogelman

NOMINATED (84th Academy Awards, 2011)
  • The Artist -- Written by Michel Hazanavicius
  • Bridesmaids -- Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
  • Margin Call -- Written by J.C. Chandor
  • Midnight in Paris -- Written by Woody Allen <--winner li="">
  • A Separation -- Written by Asghar Farhadi
I've seen The Artist and Bridesmaids. I can appreciate why both were nominated, but neither resonated with me the way that Dan Fogelman's story for Crazy, Stupid, Love. did. When I saw that during its theatrical run, I was captivated in a way I have rarely experienced with any film. So much of it felt as though Fogelman had dramatized my own adolescence for Robbie's arc and made projections based on my life for Cal's arc. (Eerily enough, my own marriage collapsed in the immediate wake of seeing this film. I'm certain it hit a nerve that night that I failed to really see or understand at the time.)

There was a moment during the film, in one of the scenes with Robbie, where I was the only one in the theater who laughed. It was in that moment that I understood that most of the audience was there just to laugh at Steve Carrell, because that's what they paid to do. They didn't live the kind of life that Robbie, Cal or I had lived, so they didn't see the same things in it that I saw. It was like discovering I was in a room where one person spoke one language, everyone else in the room spoke another similar language, and I was bilingual and fluent in both languages. The rest of the audience might get the gist of what was being said to them, but they didn't appreciate the beauty behind it or its nuances.

Sometimes I want a film that's bigger than life, to remind me of the scale on which we should all try to at least dream, if not live. Sometimes, though, I want something intimate and focused; a film that gives me some one-on-one attention. Crazy, Stupid, Love. is one of those very special films that manages to do both. We see grand gestures, the kinds of which only really work in movies; but we also experience vicariously some of the most agonizing, universal dynamics of romance.

Steve Carrell was a fine choice as Cal and I think it's one of his better screen performances to date, but I feel he attracted the wrong audience for the film. The ad campaign didn't help, of course, trying to sell it as a romcom starring the guy from The 40 Year-Old Virgin and The Office when in fact it's not a romcom at all. Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a drama with a sense of humor. There's a very small group of Films I Wish I'd Written, and Crazy, Stupid, Love. is at the top of that list. It's a blemish on Warner Bros. that they failed to secure a nomination for Dan Fogelman's screenplay.

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