Character is destiny. Score one for Heraclitus, whose succinct aphorism seems especially apt in describing screenwriters' path to the Oscars this year.
While taut plotting and visual ingenuity were certainly in abundance in this year's crop of nominated screenplays, it is the writers' compassionate, three-dimensional depictions of the flawed and fearsome, the courageous and resourceful, the bereft and bruised, that most beckoned for reward.
It may seem a facile thing to say, for what story doesn't live or die on the relatable nature of its characters and their actions? But at a time when a battered world cries out for an understanding of humans' most troubling motivations, these deep investigations into the jagged and tender parts of us resonated in the collective psyche with perfect pitch.
"It's always the unusual psychological studies that give most scope to actors and thus catch, I think, the academy's attention," surmised Christopher Hampton earlier this week (others in this article were interviewed over the course of this awards season). Hampton was honored with the adapted award in 1989 for "Dangerous Liaisons" and is a nominee this year for his adaptation of Ian McEwan's "Atonement."
Focus on character
Such strong, character-driven storytelling -- in "Juno" by Diablo Cody, "Lars and the Real Girl" by Nancy Oliver, "Michael Clayton" by Tony Gilroy, "Ratatouille" by Brad Bird (story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco and Bird) and "The Savages" by Tamara Jenkins in the original category; and "Atonement" by Hampton, "Away From Her" by Sarah Polley, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Ronald Harwood, "No Country for Old Men" by Joel & Ethan Coen and "There Will Be Blood" by Paul Thomas Anderson in adapted -- spills over with ambition, originality, nuance, intelligence, honesty, revealing silence and the epic, universal grandeur derived from the individual's emotional topography.
"I think it's a very unusual year in that way," said Oliver, a first-time nominee who wrote her eccentric script when she was "quitting the business for the millionth time."
"I don't know if that reflects the taste of the academy at the moment or the actual impact of the movies. I think it's great, because it opens [the nominations] to a wider field, with a lot of depth and range."
The critics groups and other industry award-givers have spread their honors around the Oscar nominees this season, with kudos going to Harwood, Anderson, Polley, Bird, Oliver, Hampton and Jenkins. But Cody and the Coen brothers have accumulated a kind of critical mass. The Coens, who won the statuette for their original screenplay "Fargo" in 1997, walked away with Golden Globe and Writers Guild awards for their stark adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel.
"We felt no obligation to stay true to the novel knowing that what we were doing was making a movie," Ethan Coen said. "That said, it's pretty faithful to the novel because it worked. Part of the reason we were attracted to doing it as a movie is we thought, 'A lot of it is there.' "
"We [didn't] want to soft-pedal what's in the novel in terms of the violence," Joel said, "and we [didn't] want to change the things that attracted us to it in the first place that make it somewhat outside the conventional crime story. [Producer] Scott [Rudin] said, 'I want you to write the novel, not some studio version of the novel.' "
Cody, with her tangy personal back story and tart, telling narrative, moves into the final Oscar mix feeling the momentum of the recent British film and Writers Guild awards. (Oscar voting closed Tuesday at 5 p.m.; in the last 20 years, the Writers Guild winner has matched the Academy Award winner 65% of the time, with the last three years showing matches in both categories.)
"I am genuinely surprised," Cody said of the awards success of her debut screenplay, whose $125-million-plus box office continues to expand inexorably like her snarky protagonist's belly. "It's certainly something that nobody could have predicted."
Jenkins draws an inspirational line from this year's crop of nominated scripts back to classic character-driven screenplays like Waldo Salt's Oscar-winning "Midnight Cowboy," Frank Pierson's Oscar-winning "Dog Day Afternoon" or those of Hal Ashby's '70s films -- "The Last Detail," "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory" and "Coming Home" -- all of which were nominated.
"All those movies are gorgeous, strange character portraits," said Jenkins, also a first-time nominee. "I've always been attracted to that period for that reason. If this is any kind of indication of a rebirth of that, I'm all for it."
"They have something to say about the human condition," Harwood said. "Which is, to me at any rate, the main function of art."
The art of winning
Harwood was nominated for an Oscar in 1984 for adapting his own play, "The Dresser," and then won one in 2003 for his adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman's "The Pianist."
"I've been nominated twice," said Harwood, not counting his current nomination for his transcendent and challenging adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
"My view is to be very pleased if I'm nominated or given something, and it's better to win than not to win," Harwood said. "That's my motto."
When told of Harwood's quip, Paul Haggis, who was nominated for a screenplay Oscar three years in a row from 2005 to 2007 and won one for co-writing "Crash," laughed and said, "I don't know if that's actually true. I like being nominated better than I like winning."
"Well, with 'Crash' I had a very popular, nice little independent film until we won Best Picture," said Haggis, who "ran off to France" in the lead-up to that year's awards to avoid the hoopla. "And then suddenly I was one of the most hated men. I went, 'Hey, hey -- I didn't vote for myself!' "
He may have a point. His writing-directing follow-up "In the Valley of Elah," which I thought was one of the most powerful movies of the year, was largely ignored by audiences and the academy.
Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun