A brief history of screenwriting and the Oscars
The first awards, the blacklist, record-holders and more.
Seattle Times movie critic
With Whidbey Island resident Bob Nelson on the original-screenplay ballot this year (for his debut screenplay, “Nebraska”), a lot of us are paying more attention than we might to the writing portion of the Academy Awards. Here’s a little journey through the history of screenwriting at the Oscars.
The first awards
At the first Academy Award ceremony in 1929, three writing awards were given: original story (“Underworld”), adaptation (“7th Heaven”), and the short-lived category of title writing (to Joseph Farnham). Silent movies, which used written title cards in lieu of spoken dialogue, were rapidly disappearing by the late ’20s, and the title writing award was never given again.
The writing categories underwent numerous changes in the awards’ first few decades; most notably, an “original story” category endured for some time, but was retired in 1957. The division of original screenplay/adapted screenplay has been consistent since that year.
Haven’t I seen you someplace before?
Among the many dozens of Oscar-nominated screenwriters are some names we might recognize from other realms; most notably theater (playwrights Noel Coward, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Beth Henley, David Hare, Tony Kushner and John Patrick Shanley) and literature (Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, John Irving, Larry McMurtry and Nick Hornby).
A number of Hollywood screenwriters were blacklisted during the 1940s and 1950s, as anti-Communist fever spread the nation — most notably, a group of 10 screenwriters and directors (called the Hollywood Ten) who refused to testify before Congress’ House on Un-American Activities Committee. Many of these writers, and others blacklisted during that time, saw their names deleted from film credits or used pseudonyms on screen. Several posthumous writing Oscar nominations and awards were bestowed decades later to blacklisted writers, most notably Dalton Trumbo for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One,” Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman for “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and Nedrick Young for “The Defiant Ones” — all of whom had been unable to accept Oscars awarded to their pseudonyms.
All in the family
Nora Ephron received her first of three Academy Award nominations for screenwriting in 1983, for “Silkwood” — exactly 20 years after her parents, Phoebe and Henry Ephron, received their own screenwriting nomination for “Captain Newman, M.D.” The Coppola family also has two generations of writing nominees: Francis Ford (“Patton,” “The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now”), daughter Sofia (“Lost in Translation”), and son Roman (“Moonrise Kingdom”).
Woody Allen holds the record as the most-nominated screenwriter, with 16 nods (including one this year, for original screenplay for “Blue Jasmine”). Billy Wilder has 13, and no one else is in double digits. As for most awards won, Allen and Wilder are tied at three each, along with Charles Brackett, Paddy Chayefsky and Francis Ford Coppola.
Who’s that again?
Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) was nominated in 2002 for original screenplay for “Adaptation,” along with his twin brother Donald Kaufman. Was this a sibling writing team to rival, say, the Coens? Nope; Donald Kaufman, who never existed, was the invention of Charlie. He remains the sole Academy Award nomination given to an entirely fictitious person.
Oops, never mind
In a rare case of nominees withdrawing their own names from consideration, Edward Bernds and Elwood Ullman declined their 1956 nomination for the (now defunct) screen story category. Their film, a little-seen Bowery Boys comedy, was called “High Society” — and Bernds and Ullman were certain that voters just confused it with the MGM musical “High Society” starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly.
Consider the source
Slightly more than half of the winning adapted screenplays in Oscar’s history have been based on novels; the remainder are, in descending order, from plays, nonfiction works, short stories and teleplays. This year, however, none of the five nominated adapted screenplays are based on novels: “Captain Phillips,” “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” all derived from nonfiction books, and “Before Midnight” is based on characters created for previous films.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com