Alexander Payne's The Holdovers accused of plagiarism, one day before the Oscars

Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers
Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers
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It just wouldn’t be Oscars season without at least one big accusation or scandal falling on one of its potential winners in the lead-up to the awards—and apparently “The dog from Anatomy Of A Fall is just too dang cute” wasn’t cutting it. Variety reports that Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers has now been accused of plagiarism by Luca writer Simon Stephenson, who claims that its screenplay “has been plagiarised line-by-line” from his own unproduced 2013 script,Frisco.

Although he doesn’t have a ton of credits, screenwriter and novelist Stephenson isn’t an unknown quantity in the industry: He contributed writing to Paul King’s Paddington 2 and Wonka, for instance, was a credited writer on animated feature Luca, and was, at least as of 2020, working with Edgar Wright on a feature adaptation of his own book, Set My Heart To Five. Meanwhile, his 2013 script for Frisco was good enough to land at number 3 on that year’s Black List, the list of great, as-yet-unproduced screenplays, charming readers with its story of a broken-down older professional getting a bit of spark back by connecting with a difficult 15-year-old and yeah, you can totally see where this is going, right?

Bolstering the plagiarism case is the fact that Stephenson seems to have proof that Payne, who reportedly worked on shaping the story of The Holdovers with credited screenwriter David Hemingson, was given Frisco at least twice to read, in 2013 and then again in 2019. (He apparently liked it both times, but passed on directing it.) Less compelling: The fact that Frisco is about an aging pediatrician, not a miserable school teacher—although, taking a read through the script, it’s not hard to imagine Paul Giamatti delivering some of these lines. Stephenson calls the similarities “brazen,” but it’s not as easy, to our eyes, to draw exact 1 to 1s; that, presumably, is what lawyers are for.

Per Variety, Payne and Hemingson have both declined comment. (It’s not really relevant to the accusations, but Hemingson has had a pretty eclectic writing career: It’s not every day a former entertainment lawyer scores an Oscar nomination for his very first produced screenplay.) Voting for the Oscars is now closed, so Stephenson’s accusations can’t impact voting; he apparently brought his “credits-related issue” to the WGA back on January 12.