Best Original Screenplay: The case for ‘WALL-E’

Posted by · 10:36 am · February 4th, 2009

I think it was some smart person on Nat Rogers’ most recent podcast who remarked that if you really want to get a picture of what was going on cinematically in any given year, you’d be better off bypassing Oscar’s Best Picture category and heading straight for the Best Original Screenplay nominees – a category that has a far higher tolerance for eccentricity, controversy and the occasional foreign tongue than any other.

Case in point: 2002. When the top categories were splintered between the respectable but less-than-relevant likes of “Chicago” and “The Pianist,” Original Screenplay afforded voters the luxury of choosing between Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes and Alfonso Cuaron. Two years later, the category gave recognition to the otherwise shamefully sidelined “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” just as, a decade earlier, “Pulp Fiction” fans sought refuge there from a merciless shower of Gump. As I’ve said before, from “Citizen Kane” to “The Crying Game,” Best Original Screenplay tends to be the connoisseur’s favourite Oscar category.

And so it is this year, when the writers’ branch really demonstrated admirable ingenuity and adventurousness in their selections, in the face of some otherwise uninspired voting. For me, it’s by far the most exciting of this year’s major Oscar categories, both for the calibre its competition and the unpredictability of its outcome. It’s one category where the Guild award is of little to no use to prognosticators, as only one title (“Milk”) features on both the Oscar and WGA lists.

Like Kris, I’m placing my money on Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and “WALL-E” emerging triumphant here, and thus becoming the first animated film in Oscar history to win a major category. This morning, meanwhile, I was interested to see that the majority of the Gurus of Gold are thinking the same way. It’s a healthy vote of confidence for a prediction that, let’s face it, would represent a significant leap for Academy voters. Just last year, the Reel Geezers (AMPAS members both) immediately discounted “Ratatouille” from consideration in the category because it was a “cartoon.” How do we know that most of the notoriously conservative Academy voters won’t feel the same way?

The seemingly safer bet would be Dustin Lance Black for “Milk.” It’s a serious-minded, “important” work that clearly has a significant following in the Academy, while Black himself has a young, hip cache that could easily work in his favour. (Just this morning, Tom O’Neil pointed out a faintly queasy Vogue Homme photo spread juxtaposing a shirtless Black with Harvey Milk himself.) Why bet against it?

Many are expecting Black to win simply because “Milk” is the lone Best Picture nominee in contention. That’s somewhat faulty reasoning. It’s true that two decades ago, the Academy regularly applied such lazy logic to the category, with scripts as unremarkable as “Places in the Heart” or as frankly feeble as “Ghost” (arguably the category’s low point) winning seemingly because of the lack of Best Picture-nominated competition.

But at some point in the 90’s, voters wised up and began digging a little deeper, separating the achievement of the screenplay from that of the film. It began with non-BP nominee “Thelma and Louise” beating off the multi-nominated “Bugsy.” Five years later, “The Usual Suspects” got the better of the ultimate Best Picture winner, “Braveheart.” Since then, we’ve seen “Almost Famous,” “Talk to Her” and “Eternal Sunshine” all prove that a Best Picture nod is no prerequisite for victory in this category, but that a distinct writerly sensibility is.

And it’s the latter factor that I’m not convinced “Milk” has. I know I’m not the only one to think that the film’s prosaic, slightly stodgy screenplay is the weakest element of an otherwise solid film, but even those who are more forgiving would be hard pressed to admit that Black’s work is as rich or inspired as Gus Van Sant’s direction, or the superb ensemble playing. What links many recent winners in the screenplay category, from Almodovar to Charlie Kaufman to Diablo Cody, is a singular writerly voice or imagination that pervades and characterises the entire work — and as faithfully as Black recreates the times, moods and speeches of Harvey Milk, the relatively green scribe doesn’t stamp much of a creative identity on the piece.

Black’s competition, however, teems with writerly invention and idiosyncrasy. I suspect “Frozen River” writer/director Courtney Hunt may have been nominated more as an overall acknowledgment of the challenges involved in bringing her tiny movie to fruition than the specifics of her writing, but it’s a notably lean, full-bodied piece of storytelling nonetheless. Meanwhile, acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” is very much a writer’s piece, bristling with literary ironies and killer dialogue.

My own favourite in the category, Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” is a linguistic tour-de-force, its creator’s ear immaculately attuned to the nuances and tensions of human conversation and argument. (Those who say Leigh shouldn’t contend in this category because his films lack a formally written screenplay have an over-simplified understanding of his creative process: as Sally Hawkins remarked in our interview, “every beat, breath and gesture is accounted for.”)

As much as I wish it weren’t the case, those three nominees are probably too boutique in their appeal to win over the general Academy membership (though I’d give the long-overdue Leigh the best chance of scoring a stunning upset). “WALL-E,” however, represents a tempting compromise for the Academy: a chance to reward an unashamedly populist title that nonetheless has immense critical cache and, in the shape of Andrew Stanton, something of an auteur identity.

Wordless as its first half may be, one can’t fail to notice how intricate and disciplined the visual storytelling is, nor can one deny the film’s major achievement in building a credible and empathetic relationship between two characters as limited in vocal and gestural capacity as WALL-E and EVE. As a feat of writing, I would say it’s a far more challenging and ambitious achievement than the “Milk,” and, given the film’s impressive nomination haul across the board, I suspect many Academy members may well respect that.

The anti-animation bias of certain Academy is still a concern, but I can’t help feeling that the barrier has to be broken at some point. We’ll never know just how close “WALL-E” got to a Best Picture nomination, but I suspect it was Pixar’s nearest miss to date. Meanwhile, this represents the fifth showing in this category for a Pixar production – could a win here for “WALL-E” count as a cumulative recognition of the company’s astonishing creative rise in the past thirteen years? Finally, in a year that will likely see “Waltz With Bashir” become a history-making winner in Foreign Language category, the Academy may just see the significance in making 2008 a banner year for a long-ghettoised artform.

Moreover, in a year when the Academy has taken a great deal of flak for once more sidelining populist filmmaking, this represents an opportunity for them to claw back some public favour, not to mention a certain degree of “coolness,” while simultaneously throwing a major award to the year’s most critically-adored film. It’s potentially a rare win-win decision, one which would meet with precious little disapproval from any faction, and I think they’d be unwise to pass it up.

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45 responses so far

  • 1 2-04-2009 at 11:05 am

    Ephemeral said...

    That is phenomenal writing! I wish I had a feeling, but I think the Academy is unchanged and will still reward Milk.

  • 2 2-04-2009 at 11:07 am

    Bill said...

    Original Screenplay may be my favourite category too.

    Perhaps its the silence in Wall-E (which, as you mention, can’t be considered “dialougue”) that makes the script such an acheivement. So much is conveyed through carefully planned movement and action. The notion that Stanton filled about 60 pages of the story without a single spoken line is an astounding one.

    It’s a shame the cast isn’t also credited with writing Happy Go-Lucky.

    It would be very nice for In Bruges to win.

  • 3 2-04-2009 at 11:17 am

    Chris said...

    I think “Milk” will win. “Wall-E” has nearly no dialogue, which is probably breaking its neck.

    Anyway, I have never been so disappointed by the category, since there’s no film I’m really passionate about among the nominees. I respect them all, but nothing stands out to me.

  • 4 2-04-2009 at 11:36 am

    Alfredo said...

    I would LOVE for WALL-E to win Original Screenplay but I have a feeling the Academy will go with Milk…or worse Happy-Go-Lucky.

    Also I have a feeling that Waltz with Bashir is heading for a major snub come Oscar night.

  • 5 2-04-2009 at 11:54 am

    N8 said...

    You hit the nail right on the head your first three paragraphs. Year-in-and-year-out I find that this is the best category the Academy has going for it. This year is particularly fresh and original, and unlike the other categories, I would be thrilled to see any of these nominees win.

    However, while you make some very compelling arguments, I’m still not convinced the Academy can overcome the animation bias. We have to wait another 10 years or so for voters like the Reel Geezers to die off before we can count on animated films getting a fair shake.

    And I think there is something to be said for Milk’s best picture status. Four of the last five years have seen BP nominees win this category, and none of this year’s other screenplay nominees are going to draw votes from the members who like their movies safe and predictable. Milk will be their only choice (tragic).

    I wish I could be as optimistic as you. Lord knows Stanton’s deserved this for a long time, but it’s just not going to happen.

  • 6 2-04-2009 at 12:04 pm

    BILLY said...

    Sorry, but I’m sticking with Milk. WALL-E was the best Pixar movie yet, but I just can’t get serious over an animated film because, damn it, I had to go and grow up!

  • 7 2-04-2009 at 12:06 pm

    KB said...

    I also think that “Milk” will win . Stanton will already win an Oscar that night for Best Animated Feature.

  • 8 2-04-2009 at 12:10 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Alfredo: I agree that Waltz With Bashir’s win isn’t quite in the bag (nothing in that category ever is). I certainly wouldn’t complain if it lost to “The Class” — that wouldn’t be so much a “snub” as a really great decision. But I doubt it’ll happen.

    Billy: I’m sorry, but I really don’t get your point. Are you saying it’s immature to take an animated film seriously?

  • 9 2-04-2009 at 12:54 pm

    Jason said...

    Hey Guy… Your article is a great overview of the original screenplay category over the past 20 years. I’m hoping “WALL-E” but I think “Milk” is going to take it regardless of the Academy’s few deviations (Eternal Sunshine, Usual Suspects) just because it’s a more conventional choice, i.e. Goodwill Hunting, Gosford Park, Dead Poet’s Society, Rain Man, Witness – all of which were nom’d for best pic as well.

  • 10 2-04-2009 at 1:30 pm

    Mr. F said...

    Billy, I suppose you’ve never seen Persepolis, Waking Life, Waltz with Bashir, or A Scanner Darkly, otherwise you’d have a different opinion about animated movies.

    As for WALL-E winning, I’d love it if it happened, however you never know with the Academy.

  • 11 2-04-2009 at 1:37 pm

    michael mckay said...

    Maybe Milk and Wall-E will split votes, and a film like “Happy-Go-Lucky” will take the prize.

    I think this category depends on just how much love the Academy has for Milk. If it has strong support, it will certainly win this category, and probably Best Actor as well. If it doesn’t have strong support, it might get shut out on Oscar night (with Rourke getting Best Actor, and Wall-E winning Best Original Screenplay).

  • 12 2-04-2009 at 1:54 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    Just looking back to 1990, I’m not finding many winners that didn’t come from the Best Picture ballot. The only ones I find are:

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    Hable Con Ella
    Almost Famous
    The Usual Suspects
    Thelma and Louise

    That’s five times out of 18 years–not even a third of the time. Given, they could obviously still go with WALL*E. However, your argument of wide support for WALL*E due to the number of nominations can also be made for Milk–a film that scored 8 nominations, including a tech category that I’m willing to guess no one was seriously predicting (Costume Design). And on top of that, 5 of its nominations are in major categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay). If any film in this list has proven widespread support, it’s Milk, which is why I predict it for the win, even if I wouldn’t personally choose it as the best of the year (or this list of nominees).

    Here’s a better question: how many times has the Original Screenplay winner won without any other nominations? That’s why I would consider Happy-Go-Lucky and In Bruges out of the race (even though I love them both and wish they had even a slight chance at winning).

    I have to say, this is a list of nominees that I quite like. Different from my own ballot, but 5 films that I loved and would have made a fine ballot.

  • 13 2-04-2009 at 2:06 pm

    Jason said...

    “bugsy” had 10 nominations including all the major ones and won best pic at l.a. crix and best drama at the golden globes. “thelma & louise” still beat it. i don’t think the number of nominations matters, since individual branches vote. so yes, while “milk” got several big nominations, i’m not sure that entirely matters… even though i personally think it’s still gonna win (and even though i don’t want it to).

  • 14 2-04-2009 at 2:22 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    I agree with Adam Smith’s theory. Milk has 8 Nominations and most of them important nominations.

    How many other Oscar Nominations received those Screenplays :
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Only Best Actress Nomination)
    Hable Con Ella (Best Directing)
    Almost Famous (Only two Best Supporting Actress and Editing)
    The Usual Suspects (only Supporting Actor)
    Thelma and Louise (Two Best Actress, Cinematography, Editing and Directing)

    I believe Waltz With Bashir or Wall-E will win one of the most important categories (Foreign Film/Original Screenplay) but not both.

    If I rememeber the last screenplay with no dialogues in msot of the film which won the Oscar was Lost in Traslation.

  • 15 2-04-2009 at 2:26 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    Oh, and I know I’m not alone here, but I’m calling it now:

    The Class beats Waltz With Bashir for Foreign Language film.

  • 16 2-04-2009 at 2:26 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Milk for the win. I’d love for Elfman to finally win an Oscar (the score is very minimalist) but so what.

  • 17 2-04-2009 at 2:31 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Milk–a film that scored 8 nominations, including a tech category that I’m willing to guess no one was seriously predicting (Costume Design).”

    Ha, allow me to refer you to my predictions. (Sorry, I’m just proud of that one!)

    Anyway, you bring up valid points — and of course, I’m not suggesting that a Best Picture nomination isn’t often an advantage in the category. I’m just saying that when a BP nominee loses to a non-BP nominee, it’s often because the former film isn’t really a screenwriter’s piece (Gladiator, Braveheart, The Aviator). I don’t think Milk is as much a screenwriter’s film as it is a director’s one.

    It’s just a theory. Milk could easily win. And with no really useful precursor to guide us this time, we really won’t know until the envelope is opened. Pretty exciting.

  • 18 2-04-2009 at 2:32 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    Oh God, what a weird coincidence that would be if this year’s gay movie wins Best Score and Screenplay, but loses Picture and Actor. Though, given, the winner for Actor went to a gay character in 2005.

    Also, slightly off-topic, I was wondering, why do you think Josh Brolin ultimately was the nominated supporting actor for Milk? I mean, obviously, because he was the one getting the awards citations, but why single him out in the first place? Is it possible they felt they had to award at least one person in Milk for playing someone straight, while a superior performance of a gay character (I’m looking at you, Emile Hirsch) gets shafted? Am I reading too much into that?

  • 19 2-04-2009 at 2:39 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    /3rtfu11: Um, we’re talking about Original Screenplay, not Original Score. It helps to read the post and/or comments.

    Adam: I think you’re reading way too much into that. I think Brolin was brilliant in “Milk” — easily the standout of the supporting cast. I guess other people agree with me. It’s all subjective, remember. (Aside from that, it helped Brolin that he’s coming off a hot career streak.)

    I really hope you’re right about The Class, by the way, but I sense it’s not the general Academy voters’ cup of tea.

  • 20 2-04-2009 at 2:52 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Guy: I know. I was adding on about my feelings on Milk winnning for score also.

  • 21 2-04-2009 at 2:54 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Adam: Borlin is getting attention for Milk because they don’t want highlight his work in W.

    He had a good year.

  • 22 2-04-2009 at 3:07 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    Guy and /3rtfu11: Good points in both cases. It was just a thought that occurred to me, but I guess part of that is just me being a bit disappointed (even if I was totally not surprised) that Hirsch didn’t get recognized for outstanding work.

    However, on calling Milk more of a director’s film than a writer’s, you could say the same for WALL*E, in which the bulk of the storytelling is visual. In fact, if there’s a real writer’s film in the bunch, it’s In Bruges, which won’t win for reasons stated earlier.

    I’m merely playing devil’s advocate here–I would love a WALL*E win, but I’m not going to get my hopes up. This way it’s a win-win situation, because while I’d rather see my favorite win than be right, being right certainly doesn’t hurt.

  • 23 2-04-2009 at 3:23 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m afraid I didn’t really see anything special about Hirsch’s work — either way, he was never really in contention for a nod. James Franco must have come fairly close though.

  • 24 2-04-2009 at 3:24 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    * ‘Fairly close’ meaning I guess he was in the top 10 or something! I’m such a bullshitter sometimes.

  • 25 2-04-2009 at 3:43 pm

    Troy said...

    I thought Hirsch was the standout of the supporting actors, and I preferred Franco to Brolin, but Brolin still did a fine job, and I am happy he got some recognition.

  • 26 2-04-2009 at 4:22 pm

    Neel Mehta said...

    I agree that the Original Screenplay category (and past winners) seem to indicate a more laid-back attitude and a willingness to take chances.

    I don’t know if WALL-E will be the film to do it, but an animated film is bound to win for writing at some point, if only because the basic elements of a screenplay work pretty much the same whether a film is live action or not.

    I hope MILK doesn’t win — like many, I thought the film’s strengths were not in its writing. I think an IN BRUGES or FROZEN RIVER win could be a bit of a pipe dream, but then, this year is sort of the inverse of the Oscar ceremony ten years ago.

    Original Screenplay: 4 Best Picture nominees
    Adapted Screenplay: 1 Best Picture nominee

    That was THE THIN RED LINE, and it lost to GODS AND MONSTERS.

    As for Brolin vs. Hirsch (vs. Franco): This is easy. Brolin is the only supporting actor to get his own character arc, where Penn essentially supports him.

  • 27 2-04-2009 at 4:24 pm

    Neel Mehta said...

    Slight correction: I thought ELIZABETH was nominated for Original Screenplay in 1998, but it wasn’t.

  • 28 2-04-2009 at 4:56 pm

    John Travolta said...

    if In Bruges somehow wins best original screenplay, for me it would be like it winning best picture.

    Milk is my favorite film of the year followed by In Bruges and then WALL-E…so this is an interesting category with my top three favorites.

    I want In Bruges to win the most, but between Milk and WALL-E i’d prefer milk.

  • 29 2-04-2009 at 5:21 pm

    Matt said...

    “between Milk and WALL-E i’d prefer milk.”

    Milk had a good message but WALL-E was the better-written film period here. Milk actually failed a bit as a movie despite its strong message. That should be enough to keep it out of this category which it doesn’t belong in in the first place, since it’s based on someone’s life.

  • 30 2-04-2009 at 5:24 pm

    BILLY said...

    I’ve seen A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life and I saw Fantasia on acid about a dozen times in the 70’s but they were still – just cartoons!

  • 31 2-04-2009 at 5:32 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Billy: You’re still not making your case here. Can you give us something more persuasive than “they’re just cartoons”? How does that make animated films invalid as art or storytelling?

  • 32 2-04-2009 at 5:45 pm

    red_wine said...

    Yep, the Original Screenplay category was one of the few(only?) saving graces of this years Oscar nominations.

    The Best Screenplay on paper is Happy-Go-Lucky, but I’m not quite sure how they arrived at it. But still, I’ll be biased and hope that Wall-E wins this category. Wall-E’s screenplay is much more imaginative and ambitious than Milk, which while a solid screenplay, the anchor to a solid film, shouldn’t probably win.

    But I’m afraid it will, but still I do hope they acknowledge Pixar sometime, the best studio of the decade that they have repeatedly shafted. It really must be a thankless job to turn out the year’s most critically acclaimed film year after year after year.

  • 33 2-04-2009 at 6:15 pm

    Zan said...

    Great write-up, Guy. Here’s hoping that anything but “Milk” wins simply for the sake of some parity.

    A board I post on also recognizes Hirsch as the standout of “Milk,” which I would agree with as well.

  • 34 2-04-2009 at 7:41 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Hirsch’s character had me crying in Milk. I loved every scene he was in the movie. He brought something I didn’t know he had as an actor. I like Franco’s performance as well.

  • 35 2-04-2009 at 7:45 pm

    par3182 said...

    Original Screenplay has long been my favorite category but “Ghost” wasn’t the lowpoint; let’s not forget the collection of cliches and platitudes that was “Crash” (that’s not writing, that’s typing).

    My hopes were dashed when ‘Wall-E’ didn’t make the Best Pic list, so I refuse to set myself up for more disappointment (but damn, it would be great if it wins).

  • 36 2-04-2009 at 8:39 pm

    BILLY said...

    Are the characters in animated films “acting”?, does the cinematographer set the lights before shooting a scene?, does the production designer build the sets?, that’s why they are still just cartoons. that’s all folks!

  • 37 2-04-2009 at 9:28 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’m going to be predicting “Wall-E” as one of those “Eternal Sunshine” like moments where the film’s supporters rally behind it once they realised it didn’t make it into Best Picture. The category may not go to non-best picture nominees that often, but when it does it goes to movies that have DEVOTION behind them when all the fans got behind it for a major category.

    Although, to be perfectly honest, I think I’d just DIE if my favourite film of the year pulled a win out of thin air – “Frozen River”. I’d just die.

  • 38 2-04-2009 at 9:35 pm

    Glenn said...

    Billy, that is a quite pathetic dumbing down of the art of animation. Did the art director of “Changeling” spend months creating a perfect sunset that makes the audience look on in awe? I don’t think so. Or did the costume designer of “The Duchess” thread each and every individual stitch? No, they did not.

    (and the production designer doesn’t actually BUILD the sets, ya know – Unless the likes of Dante Ferretti are secret carpenters at their age and I’m just unaware.)

  • 39 2-04-2009 at 9:45 pm

    PJ said...

    Discussing the merits of “WALL-E’s screenplay makes its exclusion from Best Picture seem all the more criminal. That first wordless half was simply stunning. But you’re absolutely right, Guy; a win for “WALL-E” here would significantly help in making sure such unanimously acclaimed films aren’t rejected in future simply because they’re “animated”. And Billy, I’d argue that the painstaking process of animating characters to emote human feelings, and environments and settings to place them in, to the level of nuance and believability as displayed by “WALL-E” or “Ratatouille” or “Finding Nemo”, is comfortably equivalent to what is achieved with cinematography, production design, and physical “acting” as seen in “real” films.

  • 40 2-04-2009 at 11:56 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    In a way, the animators have to wear a variety of different hats. They are carpenter, props master, DP, actor, director, etc., all at the same time. More importantly, they have to create something from literally nothing. Nothing is taken for granted in an animated film. You can’t rely on natural light or ambient noise, because none of that exists–it all must be created. On a regular film set, you get all elements of a performance at once–vocal, physical, emotional. For an animated film, you get the vocal performance and have to create the rest from thin air. However, this means there is a sense of supreme control, because so many choices must be made to the most minute detail and can be created exactly to specifications. In some ways, this could make it less playful or spontaneous as live-action film. But this fact alone isn’t enough to consider it a lesser art form.

  • 41 2-05-2009 at 3:06 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Billy, by that token, are documentaries not “real” films either?

  • 42 2-05-2009 at 7:41 am

    Kokushi said...

    I want them o win this order: Havent seen Milk.

    WALLВ·E > In Bruges > Happy-Go-Lucky > Frozen

  • 43 2-07-2009 at 6:51 am

    Chris said...

    That would be ridiculous if Wall-E beat Milk in original screenplay.