presented by j:
There’s a great joke on 30 Rock about a fictional biopic being made “starring Julia Roberts, directed by Martin Scorcese, and written by the world’s greatest screenwriter, whoever that is.” Even though most films start with a script, writers are often the hermits of Hollywood, Gollums that creep out from their caves every once in a while to deposit rumpled, typed pages in better-manicured hands.
That being said, I think it’s high time to recognize 10 Oscar-winning and nominated original screenplays that have completely changed the course of film history, in chronological order.
1. Citizen Kane by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz (1941) (winner)
Arguably the greatest misstep by the Oscars was denying Kane a Best Picture Oscar. The winner that year, How Green Was My Valley, has not aged well and is far less interesting and effectual.
Kane, on the other hand, rewrote the book on filmmaking and is widely considered the best film ever made. While that is debatable, it’s true that the script is bold, fresh, smart, and still timely. If it were made today, it would still fit in, which shows how forward-thinking it was in its style.
Its multiple narrators is a particularly bold strong point. And it’s fitting for a film about a fictional newspaper magnate that it be told with a journalistic approach to its subject. Many have speculated it was a thinly-veiled portrait of powerful newsman William Randolph Hearst, and it’s telling that Hearst had his many papers write negative reviews for the film in a very Kane-like fashion.
2. Miracle on 34th Street by George Seaton (1947) (winner)
How is this holiday favorite a game changer? For starters, when the film was released, it was done so in the summer, not during the winter when modern studios would place it for max marketing appeal. At the time, holiday-themed movies were unpopular and the studio wanted to maximize profits with the summer theater crowds and intentionally downplayed the plot in its marketing, as you can tell from its original poster above.
Undaunted by these constraints, George Seaton’s script is a bold rebuttal that family and crowd-friendly films have to fit into a certain mold or adhere to certain rules. A drunk Santa early in the film proves that long before Billy Bob Thornton came along.
The sheer creativity and diversity of personalities in his characters elevates this from being simple holiday care to a masterpiece, and Seaton’s efforts were rewarded with an Oscar. One could argue that the strong writing we now have in family-geared films like Zootopia and Inside Out dates back to this film.
3. Some Like It Hot by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (1959)(nominee)
The writing duo of Wilder and Diamond is the stuff of legends and they were unmatched until the appearance of the Coen bros.
Hot was groundbreaking in the fact that it proves you don’t have to have likeable characters to tell a great story. Neither Tong Curtis’ or Jack Lemmon’s characters could be described as heroes or upstanding citizens, and yet the script makes us root for them anyway.
It’s got some of the best one-liners in movie history, including its more-than-memorable final quip, “Nobody’s perfect,” and has inspired a host of drag comedies after it, including another film on this list.
Note: I personally consider The Apartment the better screenplay by this duo, but this one was more groundbreaking and came out first.
4. Annie Hall by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman (1977)(winner)
Morality aside, no one can deny Woody Allen’s writing prowess or work ethic. Annie Hall remains his greatest romantic comedy, though Midnight in Paris displays a similar brilliance and originality.
Pseudo-biographical, Allen and Brickman’s script makes its own rules: breaking the fourth wall, subtitling characters’ thoughts, sneezing into a pile of cocaine. There are too many great scenes and lines to count.
While rival nominee Star Wars has had a greater impact on modern culture, Annie Hall created its own form of escapism, one just grounded enough in the real world to help us connect with the characters. There will probably never anything like it.
5. Star Wars by George Lucas (1977)(nominee)
Speaking of… Let’s face it: George Lucas is an ideas, big-picture guy, not a details guy. But despite some clunky dialogue, the original Star Wars screenplay also changed filmmaking forever. How?
Because it singlehandedly imagines a fully-realized and densely populated and layered universe that we get invited and swept into. We don’t see it’s inception or conclusion, just another episode of its history and yet it feels complete and altogether satisfying.
Lucas himself admits he was writing a fairytale full of stock characters: the orphan, the princess, the pirate, the wizard, and so on. Using these archetypes as anchors, we don’t have to be educated on the history or politics of the Galaxy Far, Far Away – we just go along.
It’s hard to have an objective perspective of that original film what with so many sequels in so many forms: movies, tv shows, books, video games… But Lucas forever changed the course of filmmaking and popular culture when he penned “A long time ago…”
6. Tootsie by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (1982)(nominee)
While the concept was conceived by other minds, Tootsie shows how great writers can take one person’s idea and give it a life of its own. In particular, Gelbart’s Mark is made here.
Tootsie is full of zingers and one-liners so fast and furious it can be hard to keep up and is worth multiple multiple viewings. While the premise may seem far-fetched and just going for easy gags, the screenplay turns it into a human story full of heart and some of the wittiest humor ever put to screen, while also tackling important social issues like women’s rights in the workplace and sexual harassment.
It proved you can be funny and smart and serious at the same time without tonal contradiction, a concept that has turned modern entertainment on its head to this day, and it remains a go-to example for film students.
7. Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino (1994)(winner)
No writing list is complete without 1994’s breakout “indie” hit. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars, only winning for its screenplay by its director.
Modern indie filmmaking owes a lot to Pulp Fiction as it broke rules regarding chronology, content, and characters. It made us care about seedy criminals, made us laugh at near-overdoses, and made us contemplate miracles. The brilliance of its structure is not just that it’s out of order, but that it’s a better-told story when out of order. Putting it in chronological order would reduce its ultimate impact and energy.
Much credit goes to its smart dialogue, introducing banter that regularly pops up in pop culture to this day. It’s an epic of words. So sit back, take a sip of your Sprite and enjoy your Royale with Cheese.
8. Fargo by Joel and Ethan Coen (1996)(winner)
Who cares if a story isn’t true, just say it is anyway! That’s exactly what the Coen brothers did in this groundbreaking 1996 masterpiece about a botched kidnapping in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Besides making woodchippers the seasonal must-have item for every American home, Fargo expertly blends high-stakes drama and violence with humor in such a way that is at one off-putting and magnetic. In many ways, it is the ultimate example of what a dark comedy strives to be.
The cast of multifaceted characters and sharp dialogue is further groundbreaking because there’s nothing particularly exciting about a car salesman or a pregnant police chief, and yet they are the two most memorable characters.
The Coens’ ability to take such mundane character types and setting and turn it into one of the greatest stories ever told is unparalleled.
9. American Beauty by Alan Ball (1999)(winner)
Alan Ball was a fairly unknown TV comedy writer when this pseudo-dark comedy was made. American Beauty can, I think, be attributed with saving voiceover narration, a device often derided by other writers. But here? It’s perfect.
I’ve actually read the whole screenplay before and it’s brilliant and impossible to put down. Even the action descriptions add character and dimension to what is already a well-rounded plot.
Before 1999, one could wonder if film writing was becoming too rote, too much of a group effort to yield any real creativity. Maybe creativity was shifting more onscreen with advances in CGI and cinematography rather than the written word. American Beauty proves you can do both, be equally creative onscreen as on the page. Plus. It proves that the great writing sin of voice-over can be done right.
10. Boyhood by Richard Linklater (2014)(nominee)
The screenplay is a game-changer because it had to be written over the course of the 12-year filming period to adapt it to star Ellar Coltrane’s personality. While key moments and plotting had been decided upon at the beginning, it was all negotiable, allowing the project to be a living, evolving thing.
The fact that it feels so real, especially for those of us who grew up in Texas, further cements Richard Linklater’s incredible talent for capturing humanity and presenting life-like scenarios that sweep us up into this everyday epic. This opens up new opportunities for filmmakers to innovate with how the page translates to the screen.
Note: The Academy will rue the day it denied Boyhood Best Picture and Director.
I’ll be doing a post for Adapted Screenplays soon. Mark my words.
What would you add to the list, if anything?