Conventional wisdom holds that “The Departed,” by winning four Oscars, including best picture and director, was the big winner Sunday night at the Academy Awards. But for my money, the evening’s truly triumphant were the screenwriters.
Going beyond even the terrific choice of using classic (although uncredited) quotes from screenplays for such Oscar-winning films as “Silence of the Lambs” (Ted Tally), “Jerry Maguire” (Cameron Crowe) and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (William Goldman) on the show’s promotional billboards, the ceremony was arguably the most screenwriter-friendly in modern history and, hopefully, a sign that their part in this great and glorious distraction is beginning to get its due recognition.
Here is my postmortem on a night with some genuinely pleasant surprises (no, not the actual winners):
Big, big kudos to second-time producer Laura Ziskin and her writing staff for building in writer-centric content that was not only justified but also informative. Nancy Meyers’ fun montage of cinematic portrayals of writers, the free-floating dialogue graphics during clips and the new presenting format -- presenters read an excerpt from the nominated screenplay while the script’s title page, draft date and relevant text are displayed with the clip -- were very welcome additions. This last idea is so simple, effective and organic it begs to be made standard.
Those elements’ inclusion crystallized the inescapable truth of filmmaking: that art directors get their start from the scene settings on the page, that directors get inspirations for camera movements from subtleties of focus in the action lines, and that actors -- good as they are -- don’t just ad lib dialogue that happens to deepen our understanding of a character and advance the plot.
During red-carpet coverage I saw no one stopping “Little Children” co-writer Todd Field to ask him whom he was wearing or to quiz any actor on what they thought of the script that gave them something to do for a living. Shame on you, Chris Connelly. Shame.
Supporting actor winner Alan Arkin generically thanked the “entire cast and crew and production team” of “Little Miss Sunshine,” but omitted any specific mention of the screenplay. Leaving aside Arkin’s actual talent, his was the type of role that is recognized at the Oscars precisely because of the distinctive characteristics and dialogue that screenwriter Michael Arndt provided.
If Arndt doesn’t make Grandpa a porn-perusing, heroin-sniffing rest-home exile who delivers scene-chewing speeches about war wounds, inappropriate sexual advice and heartwarming comfort to his granddaughter and adult son, then Arkin’s watching the Oscars from home. He should thank Arndt for giving him a reason to put on a tux.
Supporting actress winner Jennifer Hudson gets half-credit for thanking “our director” Bill Condon, who also wrote the screenplay. But after giving it up to God twice, she neglected to thank any of the songwriters.
‘I’ve written a screenplay’
Nattily dressed host Ellen DeGeneres got into the spirit with a gag about slipping a screenplay to Martin Scorsese (a bit crafted by a writer, I should point out). Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris should follow Scorsese around for the next few weeks as he tries to buy cups of coffee and pick up his dry cleaning to see just how often this happens in real life. Ziskin can lead next year’s awards show with the footage.
Speaking of Morris, his jaunty opening montage devoted more face time to “The Queen” screenwriter Peter Morgan than just about any other nominee. Arndt, Tom Perrotta (“Little Children”) and Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel”) made the cut too.
As if we needed another sign that best actress winner Helen Mirren is all that and quite a bit more, she thanked Morgan as one of “The Queen’s” “filmmakers,” a purposeful designation that points to the creative equality screenwriters are accorded outside of the Hollywood system.
For his part, Forest Whitaker capped his moving best actor speech with shout outs to all of “The Last King of Scotland’s” notable contributors, including co-writers Morgan and Jeremy Brock.
I wonder, did the actors in attendance take note of Morgan’s participation in acting wins from two films? Given the evidence, they should all be pre-ordering his next screenplay.
A special nod goes to the grand dame of editing, Thelma Schoonmaker, who in picking up her third Oscar made a point to thank “Departed” writer William Monahan for a “wonderful script.” Precisely constructed screenplays like “The Departed,” “Children of Men” and “Babel” make an editor’s job that much easier.
“Academy Award-winning screenwriter” (I’m still struggling to get comfortable with that) Ben Affleck introduced Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nancy Meyers’ (“Private Benjamin”) delightful montage of writers from such movies as “Adaptation,” “Barton Fink,” “The Shining” and “In a Lonely Place” (a wonderfully cynical 1950 noir written by Andrew Solt about a struggling screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart). This was a surprising choice to make space for in a telecast inevitably derided as too long, but it was entertaining.
Hearing Mirren and Tom Hanks intone excerpts from adapted screenplay nominees, including “Notes on a Scandal” and “Borat,” added a special flavor to the category. Winner Monahan -- looking every bit the shaggy writer -- managed to remember to thank everyone involved with “The Departed” (producers, studio execs, editor, agents, actors) as well as the original film’s writers.
He also decided to call out Robert Bolt’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Lawrence of Arabia” as his vocational inspiration.
Oh, Martin Scorsese! Hats off to you, sir, not only for finally getting your due as one of our greatest living artists but also for mentioning “that crazy script by Bill Monahan that got me in all this trouble in the first place.” Someone with your deep knowledge of cinematic history knows perfectly well how the old school showed respect to the writer, the artist who initially creates something to which everyone else is inspired to lend his or her talents. Bravo!
Lastly, and sadly, it would appear that Arndt has officially guzzled the Kool-Aid. Presenters Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst dutifully prerecorded their original screenplay excerpts “the way the writers wrote them” before handing the award to Arndt, who went out of his way to “share” his accomplishment with his agents, the film’s producers, cast and directors.
However gracious and generous Arndt may be, saying that “a writer is only as good as the people that he works with” and declaring “Little Miss Sunshine’s” directors “the true authors of this movie, who took words on a page and turned them into a work of art” trivialized his craft and robbed his “original screenplay” award of the “original” part.
His ostensible humility carried a major whiff of disingenuousness given his WGA award speech, in which he spun as gratitude for those who protected his original screenplay’s vision while others tried to corrupt it. A cutaway to Arriaga or Morgan at that moment would likely have said everything about the way other screenwriters -- even huge fans of “Little Miss Sunshine” -- must have felt about Arndt’s sentiment.
Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail email@example.com.