The Most Contested Oscar Races Are the Screenplays, from ‘Belfast’ to ‘CODA’

The movies vying for Oscars this year are all built on firm foundations. With all the major precursor awards behind us, Oscar watchers have some idea of where Academy voters will go on the big night. (Ballots are due March 22.) But this year, the question of whether or not you win your Oscar pool could come down to the two most contentious races: Adapted and Original Screenplay. Anything can happen. Sometimes the Screenplay Oscars match up to Best Picture winners, but in recent years there have been more splits. One thing is consistent: voters tend to reward original auteur visions.

In Adapted Screenplay, a close race among three women directors, WGA and BAFTA-winner Sian Heder (“CODA”), Critics Choice-winner Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”), and USC Scripters and Indie Spirits winner Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”) could make it easier for Denis Villeneuve’s space epic “Dune” or Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” to catch a break and win. Gyllenhaal’s movie isn’t a Best Picture contender, but she’s a popular actress with a serious charm offensive, and has been winning lately, sweeping the Indie Spirits and winning the Best First Director DGA Award against Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Tick Tick Boom”).

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And in Original Screenplay, another charming actor and writer-director Kenneth Branagh, who won the Critics Choice with “Belfast,” could beat Paul Thomas Anderson’s BAFTA-winner “Licorice Pizza” — or surprise WGA winners Adam McKay and David Sirota (who didn’t have to compete with WGA-ineligible “Belfast”) could swoop in for Netflix’s widely seen end-of-the-world satire “Don’t Look Up.”

Here’s a peek into the process of creating some of the best movies of the year, ranked by likelihood to win in their category. (And if you want to be entertained by these screenwriters, who I interviewed at this year’s “It Starts with the Script” panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, it’s all here.)

Sian Heder, Adam McKay, and Denis Villeneuve appear onstage at the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF
Sian Heder, Adam McKay, and Denis Villeneuve appear onstage at the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

Getty Images for SBIFF

Adapted Screenplay


Writer-director: Sian Heder

Awards and prospects: After starting out strong, winning the virtual Sundance 2021 Grand Jury, Director, Ensemble Acting, and Audience Awards, “CODA” went on to win the SAG Ensemble, the PGA, and multiple awards for Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur, as well as Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTAs and WGA (where it was not up against ineligible Oscar rivals “The Power of the Dog” and “The Lost Daughter”). This well-wrought heart-tugger plays well with Academy voters, especially actors and writers.

Distributor: AppleTV+ acquired the French-produced indie for a record-breaking $25 million at Sundance. Heder’s poignant drama about a deaf family launched at a virtual film festival during a pandemic, was seen by more people at home than in theaters, and opened in August, outside of awards prime time. But the AppleTV+ awards team has made sure the film was widely available to voters, filling up screenings after a succession of wins turned it into a must see. The movie could become AppleTV+’s first Best Picture win.


Bottom Line: Writer-director-producer Heder (TV’s “Orange is the New Black,” “Little America”) had many choices for her sophomore feature; she successfully pitched the English-language remake of the French hit “La Famille Bélier,” relocated to a New England fishing village, to veteran producer Patrick Wachsberger. She was attracted to the reaction of a deaf family to the news that their hearing daughter (Emilia Jones) falls in love with singing and wants to leave them to attend music college. She focused on “the story of this young woman and her family,” she said. “Yes, she bears responsibility to her parents, because she’s a hearing person in a deaf family, and she interprets for them, but she also feels the pressure of being in this tight-knit fishing clan, where the expectation is that your kids are going to take over the boat and continue the tradition that you started. That pressure ramped up the conflict for this specific look at a dying, working-class America.”

On the one hand, Heder saw the advantage of taking hearing audiences inside a world that they don’t know. “And it’s culturally specific,” she said. “It’s a culture that has been ignored and isolated and blocked off from access. To make an indie film for people to go see and talk about that was never going to reach the middle of the country? I hope that people are going to be exposed to deaf culture through this film, and exposed to ASL [American Sign Language] who might never have seen a scene before where a deaf family is sitting around a dinner table giving each other shit.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal speaks onstage at the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF
Maggie Gyllenhaal speaks onstage at the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

Getty Images for SBIFF

“The Lost Daughter”

Writer-director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Awards and prospects: Gyllenhaal started out winning Best Screenplay at Venice, followed by four Gothams (including Best Feature and Lead Performance for Olivia Colman) and the New York Film Critics Circle (Best First Film). “The Lost Daughter” has continuously built awards momentum, sweeping the Indie Spirits with three wins including Best Feature Director, and Screenplay, the Scripter for Adapted Screenplay, Best First Director at the DGA. The movie scored three Oscar nominations: Colman for Best Actress, Jessie Buckley for Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay.

Distributor: Netflix premiered the film at festivals and has a strong awards track record with multiple wins for “Roma,” “Marriage Story,” “American Factory,” “Mank,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and “My Octopus Teacher.”

Bottom Line: It took playing a woman who is empowered by becoming a film director in HBO series “The Deuce” for the actress to imagine becoming one herself. As soon as she did, after binging the books of Elena Ferrante, Gyllenhaal was inspired to adapt one of them, eventually settling with Ferrante on her 2006 novel “The Lost Daughter,” about Leda, a British professor (Colman) vacationing in Greece who thinks back on her younger self (Buckley), a young mother juggling academia and two young children. After lengthy email exchanges, the writer said yes. But her contract with Gyllenhaal was void, she informed the actress, if she didn’t direct the feature herself.

Gyllenhaal eventually obtained the author’s blessing on her script — which often departs from the original. Like Ferrante’s first person novel, Gyllenhaal tells the story from Leda’s perspective in two time frames — but without narration. As an actress she always preferred scripts “where there is space in terms of how things are expressed,” said Gyllenhaal. “If you’re working on a script that’s bad, then the only way you can get from here to here inside of the piece is to do a triple backflip and land on both feet. If you’re working on a script that’s excellent, in my experience as an actress, things can be expressed in any way. So I wanted to create a script that had that space in it for my performers, because I know that’s what’s fun for actors to do.”

Clearly, while the professor is trying to enjoy her solo vacation, she is grappling with deep regrets, as she watches a young mother (Dakota Johnson) freak out over her missing daughter. “We meet her at this point where she can either slowly die or become more and more fragile,” said Gyllenhaal. “She can barely walk down the street without thinking she’s gonna pass out. She’s full of anxiety, she’s full of rage. Or she goes into the terror, the pain, the confusion of her past and allows it to open her up to the possibility of being alive. And she happens to have done some very aberrant things, very difficult to live with, but she’s extremely brave and she does the second thing. I do think that the movie ultimately has a happy ending.”

Ari Wegner and Jane Campion on the set of “The Power of the Dog” - Credit: Netflix
Ari Wegner and Jane Campion on the set of “The Power of the Dog” - Credit: Netflix


“The Power of the Dog”

Writer-director: Jane Campion

Oscar love: Campion won Original Screenplay in 1994 for “The Piano,” and was nominated for Best Director as well; these are her second writing and directing nominations. She is the first woman to be nominated for Best Director twice; if she wins she’ll be the third, after Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao.

Awards and prospects: The movie started out with a Silver Lion at Venice for Best Director, and went on to earn Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Supporting Actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from the New York Film Critics Circle; Best Drama, Director, and Supporting Actor from the Golden Globes; Best Director, Supporting Actor and Cinematography (Ari Wegner) from the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle; as well as multiple craft and guild nominations. Campion won the DGA, which gives her the edge in the Oscar race for Best Directing — only eight times in 72 years has that not synced up. And 55 times the DGA winner’s movie also wins Best Picture. But Campion lost Adapted Screenplay to Heder at the BAFTAs, while taking it at Critics Choice, along with Picture, Director, and Best CInematography. At the WGA “The Power of the Dog” was not eligible.

Distributor: Netflix, which mounted an effective campaign to keep “The Power of the Dog” at the head of the pack throughout Oscar season. But it will not win all its 12 nominations.

Bottom Line: As with many of her films, Campion sought ways to reveal the hidden depths of the human psyche, to pinpoint emotions in subtle and nuanced ways. In this case, inspired by Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Campion dug into the toxic toll of keeping a secret, as embodied by Montana rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). “The book is more sly about [Phil’s] gayness,” said Campion. “But because there were all the muscle-man magazines and Bronco Henry, it’s pretty obvious. The decision was when to reveal it. Would we have any images of Bronco Henry? He’s a powerful ghost. One of the rules I made was no flashbacks. We would move chronologically. It gives the audience a sense of security, what they can get to know and what they can’t. Flashbacks too easily explain things. They cause a relationship with reality I just don’t believe in. Things are always more complicated.”

Campion’s screenplay starts at the pivotal moment of change in the relationship between brothers Phil and George Burbank (Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons), when submissive George defies his brother’s control and marries widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Phil reveals his wounds as he reacts to George’s unexpected defection by cruelly undermining Rose (driving her to drink), while enigmatic Peter (Smit-McPhee) turns out to be tougher than his slim effeminacy might suggest. “It is a David and Goliath story,” said Campion. “Both of them are gay, actually.”

When production designer Grant Major asked where the title came from, Campion dug into Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” It’s about Jesus on the cross when he’s dying. “The atmosphere is full of guts and anguish, and blood and suffering,” she said. “And in a way, sexuality is like human suffering. As the title stands, it’s a kind of warning. The power of the dog is all those deep uncontrollable urges that come and destroy us, you know?”

Denis Villeneuve attends the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF
Denis Villeneuve attends the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

Getty Images for SBIFF


Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writers: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Denis Villeneuve

Oscar love: Nominated six times for Adapted Screenplay, Eric Roth has won the Oscar for “Forrest Gump”; Villeneuve earned a 2017 Best Director nomination for “Arrival.”

Awards and prospects: “Dune” was nominated for ten Oscars including Picture but not director; won five craft BAFTAs and three Critic Choice Awards; the movie could win five or six tech awards on Oscar night. But there’s sympathy for Villeneuve not being nominated as director, which could inspire votes for his screenplay.

Distributor: Warner Bros./HBO Max, which opened the film day and date in theaters and online and still scored $400 million and counting at the global box office. Warners has a strong Oscar track record in recent years, from “The Departed,” “Training Day,” and “Argo” to “Joker” and last year’s surprise contender, “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Bottom Line: Somehow Villeneuve was able to wrangle Frank Herbert’s sprawling tome into submission, working with both Oscar-winning veteran Roth and “Dune”-obsessed Jon Spaihts to build a coherent universe with a family under duress at its center. They focused on the Atreides family, especially the mother-son relationship between Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of the powerful female spiritual order Bene Gesserit, and her son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), who she puts in danger by fashioning him as a possible Messiah. “The Bene Jezeret women soothsayers ran the society spiritually,” Roth said. “There’s an essential female quality within it, the moon and the dunes.”

“Dune” - Credit: ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
“Dune” - Credit: ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

When Spaihts came on board, he took Villeneuve’s reworking of Roth’s script, and “built a spreadsheet of the novel to understand the structure of it and the flow of scenes and information,” he said. The decision had already been made to split the novel in two. This was a “Dune” challenge: how do you make such a complex plot accessible? “Dune” was a Rubik’s Cube puzzle to solve, including figuring out where to divide the narrative. “Dune: Part One” is structured like a classic three act tragedy. In Act One we are introduced to the complex world of planets and houses under the rule of a ruthless Emperor who is fomenting dissent among his kingdoms.

“We see House Atreides reverberating from the shock of the Emperor’s instruction that they must abandon their hereditary home world,” said Spaihts, “and travel to Arrakis and undertake a dangerous new stewardship. We see them arrive on Arrakis and try to make a go of things. They’re beset by enemies, assassins, and spies. And the hardships of the planet itself. And their struggles will become increasingly dire until we break into the third act with dire events in the House, and their retainers and lieutenants. And it’s a calamity and you know that the happy ending (to the extent that we have one) is that a seed survives, and that the house of Atreides still stands, if lessened, and in secret.”

“Dune” is unlikely to win a writing Oscar this year because, despite their success, Part One leaves audiences hankering for Part Two. This was always Villeneuve’s intent. “Frankly, if I had to do it again, it’s exactly where I will stop the movie,” he said. “If you look at Paul’s trajectory, which is a boy that is trying to find his place in the world and at the end becomes finally an adult by being able to step in front, it’s a very important moment in a young man’s life to stake his ground. Paul’s arc is complete for that first part. Now the fact that people are coming out saying, ‘I wanted more,’ is a total victory!”

Original Screenplay

Kenneth Branagh speaks onstage at the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF
Kenneth Branagh speaks onstage at the Writers Panel during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

Getty Images for SBIFF


Writer-director: Kenneth Branagh

Oscar love: 2012 Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (“My Week with Marilyn”), 1997 Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination (“Hamlet”), 1993 Short Film, Live Action Oscar nomination (“Swan Song”), 1990 Best Actor and Best Director nominations (“Henry V”).

Awards and prospects: After landing the coveted People’s Choice Award at TIFF, “Belfast” was nominated by many critics groups and guilds, and has won more screenplay awards than anything else, including the Best Screenplay Golden Globe; Outstanding British Film of the Year BAFTA; Best Young Actor/Actress Jude Hill, Best Acting Ensemble, Best Original Screenplay, Critics Choice Awards; Best Script Irish Film and Television Awards. (It was not eligible for the WGA, which was won by “Don’t Look Up.”) Its best shot at winning an Oscar out of seven nominations, including Picture and Director, is Best Original Screenplay.

Distributor: Focus Features, which has a strong track record at the Oscars, including in recent years wins for “Promising Young Woman,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Darkest Hour,” and “Phantom Thread.”

Bottom Line: Branagh gets extra points for using his peace and quiet during the global pandemic to steer away from a series of mainstream Hollywood acting and directing projects like TV’s “Wallander,” Marvel’s “Thor” series, and the Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot vehicles “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile.” Instead the filmmaker turned back to something personal that had been gnawing at him for years. “Lockdown invited this introspection,” he said. “Suddenly one’s mind expanded a little. What came in to fill the vacuum were the sounds of Belfast, this unmistakable, irresistible pull toward what I understood to be the most significant change in my life, because it made such a profound change in where I lived and who I was, my identity.”

Branagh looked back at his nine-year-old self: Buddy (Jude Hill) lives on a Belfast street that comes under attack from Catholic rioters trying to drive away Protestants like his family. His movie fan mother (Caitriona Balfe) wants to keep things the same, surrounded by the comfort of familiar neighbors and family like Buddy’s grandparents (Oscar-nominated Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench). But as the Troubles continue, his father (Jamie Dornan), who works in England, decides that he should move his family to safety outside the country.

Inspired by such tearjerker classics as “The 400 Blows” and “Au Revoir les Enfants,” Branagh tried to find ways to make the story universal. “I’d begun to be more sympathetic and compassionate toward that nine-year-old boy,” he said. “I also wanted to understand better what my parents had been going through, consider that big change as families make decisions about things that are important that affects the rest of their lives. Were there elements that people could recognize? I began to think that there were.”

Paul Thomas Anderson at SBIFF - Credit: Getty for SBIFF.
Paul Thomas Anderson at SBIFF - Credit: Getty for SBIFF.

Getty for SBIFF.

“Licorice Pizza”

Writer-director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Oscar love: Since “Boogie Nights” in 1998, Anderson has been nominated a total 11 times, for writing, directing, and producing, but never won. “Licorice Pizza” scored three Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay.

Awards and prospects: Anderson won Best Original Screenplay at the BAFTAs, but lost to “Belfast” at the Critics Choice and “Don’t Look Up” at the WGA. Original Screenplay is Anderson’s likeliest win after all these years. But while delightfully unpretentious, the script could feel too episodic and meandering for some voters.

Bottom Line: Audiences have embraced this slightly off-kilter look at the 70s San Fernando Valley, an area that Anderson knows like the back of his hand; in fact, while driving his kids to and from school, he imagined stories and locations for the film. As a writer, Anderson is always juggling different story ideas in his head, waiting for creative lightning to strike. “But then you get lucky,” he said at a recent Q & A. “And out of the blue, some brand new thing comes to you.”

Writing is “pretty lonely,” Anderson said. “I prefer to do it alone. Because ultimately, there’s nobody else that can do it. I have to struggle through it and get it into fair shape, so that we present a beginning, and a middle, and an end. Anything else is kind of trying to cheat the process that has to happen.”

“Licorice Pizza” centers on two young people: Alana was inspired by Alana Haim, the local musician Anderson had come to know by shooting several music videos for her band Haim. “I’ve known Alana for a number of years now,” he said. “I made the decision, it was more like this hurricane in front of me of talent, like: ‘I’m here and in your life.’ And when I had this story, it became very thrilling: I knew she’s gonna be incredible in this film, and she could do this.”

Her foil is a 15-year-old entrepreneur (based on Anderson’s old friend, producer Gary Goetzman) who is “trying to act like this 25-year-old hustler guy, but really is a kid,” Anderson said. “So it’s verging on adolescence. And he’s annoying, but not really annoying, because he’s just pulling on air.”

Luckily, Anderson had known Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper since he was a child. “He has incredible charm, and he always wanted to be at the adults’ table,” he said. “As written, it seemed completely implausible that Alana would hang out with this guy at all. That was the thing that I liked the most about the relationship. So she’s completely unstable and acts like a child. And he’s kind of a grown up. And they were very comfortable together, which was the essential element that, even if they couldn’t say lines and bumped into the furniture, there was this string between them, it seemed to vibrate. And you just have to bet on that.”

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