WGA vs USC

15 Jan

If you haven't yet caught up with Todd McCarthy's Win Win, you owe it to yourself to add it to your list of "Must See" flicks sooner rather than later. Though released to generally laudatory reviews early last year, the film has mostly been on the back burner for much of the current awards season. This comedy-drama about a lawyer turned part-time high school wrestling coach, who schemes to mentor a teenage runaway, features typically strong performances by the likes of Paul Giamatti (r), Amy Ryan, and Bobby Cannavale as well as the stunning debut of 17 year-old Alex Shaffer (l). Btw: McCarthy's previous films include The Station Agent and The Visitor, which helped propel veteran actor Richard Jenkins to an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. McCarthy is a previous Academy nominee for co-writing the screenplay to 2009's animated hit Up.

This blog entry is all about competition among screenplays, especially as that concerns two races for adaptations. First, here are the nominees for the Writers Guild of America’s Best Original Screenplay award:

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY  (alphabetized by title)

  1.  50/50 by Will Reiser
  2. Bridesmaids by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
  3. Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen
  4. Win Win by Tom McCarthy w/Joe Tiboni
  5. Young Adult by Diablo Cody

Here’s a little something to keep in mind. Professional screenwriters nominate the works of their peers in both the WGA as well as the first round voting for the Oscars. Of course, the Academy’s membership is smaller, more exclusive, so securing a WGA nod does not necessarily guarantee a slot on Oscar’s final ballot. Here is something else to consider: in order for a film to be considered for the WGA prize, it must be filmed in accordance with the guild/union’s regulations. I guess what that really means is union vs. non-union projects. Every year there are a number of high profile films that do not make the cut with the WGA but find favor with the Academy anyway, so the same films are not necessarily in competition for both awards, which means there’s plenty of margin for a surprise. For example, last year, the WGA honored Christopher Nolan’s highly imaginative screenplay for Inception while the Academy favored David Seidler’s fact based The King’s Speech, which was the presumed Best Picture frontrunner. To clarify, Seidler’s script was not WGA eligible, thus the split. Even so, the WGA winner is more often than not a safe bet come Oscar time. Just ask Young Adult’s Diablo Cody. She won both awards 4 years ago for Juno. On the other hand, Woody Allen has been nominated for the WGA prize more times than he has been nominated for an Oscar; likewise, he’s won four WGA awards, plus a Lifetime Achievement thing, vs two screenwriting Oscars. Besides Annie Hall (1977) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), he won guild prizes for Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Crimes & Misdemeanors; the Oscars for those years went to Robert Benton for Places in the Heart and Thomas Schulman for Dead Poets Society, respectively.  This year, some of the ineligible films include The Artist, Beginners, and The Iron Lady.

Speaking of Allen, this could be another big win for him [1], but I’m not willing to count out either Bridesmaids or Win Win just yet.

WGA ADAPTED SCREENPLAY (alphabetized by title)

  1. The Descendants by Alexander Payne w/Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming)
  2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steven Zaillian (based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, originally published by Norstedts)
  3. The Help by Tate Taylor (based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett)
  4. Hugo by John Logan (based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick)
  5. Moneyball by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin w/Stan Chervin (based on the book by Michael Lewis)

Now, here is where things get interesting for me. The USC Scripter Award, given by the Friends of the University of Southern California Library almost every awards season since the late 1980s, specifically honors screenplays adapted from books and short stories–and not, to clarify, adaptations of plays, such as 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, which won both the Oscar and the WGA. I like the idea of the Scripter, but it’s not slam dunk as far as forecasting the Oscar. Granted, last year Aaron Sorkin won just about every prize imaginable for The Social Network; however, two years ago, both the Scripter and the WGA prize went to Up in the Air by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (from the novel by Walter Kim) while the Oscar went to Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious (from the novel, Push, by Sapphire). During the 2002/03 awards season, almost nothing seemed more certain than a win for David Hare’s adaptation of The Hours, which, again, won both the WGA and the Scripter, yet on Oscar night it was Ronald Harwood’s screen transfer of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography, The Pianist, that won the Academy’s golden statuette. Other Best Adapted Screenplay winners, such as Traffic (2000) and The Departed (2006), are based on hit movies and TV shows from other countries and are, therefore, ineligible for the Scripter.

THE 2012 USC SCRIPTER FINALISTS (alphabetized by title):

  1. A Dangerous Method by Christopher Hampton (adapted from the nonfiction book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr and the 2002 stage play The Talking Cure by Hampton)
  2. The Descendants by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel [itself an expansion of her first published short story, “The Minor Wars”])
  3. Jane Eyre by Moira Buffin (adapted from the 1847 book by Charlotte Brontë)
  4. Moneyball by Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, and Stan Chervin (based on Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game)
  5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan and author John le Carré

Okay, look closely: the only overlap between the WGA and the Scripter are The Descendants and MoneyballThe Descendants‘s Alexander Payne already has an Oscar (for 2004’s Sideways), and he’s well positioned for yet another win as he is also a likely Best Director nominee; meanwhile, Moneyball‘s Steve Zaillian is competing against himself (for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in the race for the WGA. Academy rules prohibit performers competing against themselves, but that rule does not apply in other races, so Zaillian might end up with a pair of Oscar nominations though he could likely cancel out himself during the final stretch.  I am definitely disappointed that The Help is not also on both lists: it’s a huge book with lots of characters and multiple points of view, yet writer-director Tate Taylor does an admirable job of streamlining and getting to the essence of it. On the other hand, I’m quite pleased that Tinker Tailor Solider Spy–ineligible for WGA honors–is in the mix. John Le Carre’s original spy novel is dense, complex, and a real challenge for readers with its various code names, flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks. Michael and I both read the book in anticipation of the movie, and we were quite pleased with the relatively smooth translation–especially since the film version begins with a sequence that the reader isn’t fully privvy to until about the midpoint in the original.  Well, we were both so pleased with ourselves, but the minutes the credits began rolling, the woman behind us intoned, “Well, I’m confused.” Read the book.

The USC Scripter winner be announced on Saturday, February 18th; the Writers Guild Awards will be presented Sunday, February 19th.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Since I wrote this, Allen has added a Golden Globe for Midnight in Paris to his stash of awards though he’s reportedly not enthralled by the whole brouhaha.

Variety article about WGA eligible/ineligible films:

http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118048150/

Writers Guild Awards:

http://www.wga.org/awards/awards.aspx

USC Scripter Awards:

http://www.usc.edu/libraries/scripter/

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