Monday, August 13, 2012

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Twice-Told Tales: Adapted Screenplay, 1975

Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay tend to go hand in hand. 1975 is one of the three years where one film ruled the Big Five -- Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay -- but in all three cases, that screenplay category was Adapted. Of the 84 films that have won Best Picture, 58 of them are adapted works. And, as in most years, while it's obvious who wins Original Screenplay, the Adapted Screenplay field consists of more than one Best Picture nominee, plus some audience and critic favorites.

When a miniseries of Vanity Fair aired on British television, Stanley Kubrick scrapped his plans for an adaptation and, instead, went with Barry Lyndon, another dark satire from William Makepeace Thackeray. Director John Huston had been planning to adapt Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" for decades; finally, with co-screenwriter Gladys Hill, he got a production off the ground. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest began as a novel by Ken Kesey, before becoming a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman and starring Kirk Douglas; Douglas tried to get a film version off the ground, but it was his son Michael who found success with it, with Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben going back to the original novel for inspiration. The traditional foreign-language entry this year was the Italian Scent of a Woman, adapted by director Dino Risi and Ruggero Maccari; it would later be remade in 1992 with an Oscar-winning performance by Al Pacino. And then there's Neil Simon's adaptation of his play The Sunshine Boys, which I'm pretty convinced just missed out on a Best Picture nom. Screenplay, Art Direction and two Acting nods? If Airport can do it...

Notably absent from the lineup is Jaws, based on the novel by Peter Benchley, adapted by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. Was it the fact that everyone looked at it as just a Blockbuster film, with no real pedigree to earn nominations in such intellectual, high-class awards like Director and Screenplay? Was it the fact that the best-written scene was mostly written by an uncredited Robert Shaw? Or were these five genuinely just better?

Well, I know at least one of them isn't better -- by far. But take a look yourself! The nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are:

Stanley Kubrick for Barry Lyndon, from the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray

Dryly humorous, with great moments of irony via a coldly-written narrator. Almost imperceptibly slips from a period comedy to a drama, building up the hitherto hinted-at ferocity of Mrs. Barry, squeamishness of Bullingdon and the manipulations of Reverend Runt. True, it's obviously building this from the source novel, but it is written clearly, missing neither detail nor tone.

John Huston and Gladys Hill for The Man Who Would Be King, from the short story by Rudyard Kipling

Thrilling, another fun romp that evolves into something more. The central characters are distinct enough that you get their individual temperaments and still understand the mutual craziness that bonds them together. The ease with which one falls from power is hinted at throughout with the darkly-funny reoccurrances of the Buzkashi games. And, of course, turning the source tale's narrator into Rudyard Kipling himself adds an illusion of veracity and weight to the proceedings.

Bo Goldman and Lawrence Haubner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, from the novel by Ken Kesey

By turning the focus from literary protagonist Chief Bromden solely to Randle McMurphy, we get a more focused character study of a sane man fighting the system from a madhouse. Little tweaks make McMurphy more of a rebel/liberator, such as breaking the patients out for some fishing (in the novel, it's a sanctioned field trip), thereby emphasizing his role as everyman hero. This firmly anti-establishment siding with McMurphy risks simplifying the conflict between him and Nurse Ratched, though still plays ambiguously enough so that the actors can interpret it either way.

Ruggero Maccari and Dino Risi for Scent of a Woman, from the novel Il buio e il miele by Giovanni Arpino

It's the original Italian version of that movie Pacino won his Oscar for! There are fewer Big Moments here, focusing a lot on the blind captain's love of big brunettes, finding several ways to show his softer, more sensitive side without resorting to a tango. Mostly, this comes in the form of a beautiful young woman who has always loved him, but that section kind of creeped me out, especially since the script, if I'm judging that ending correctly, roots for them to get together. The poor young man charged with accompanying the captain is sidelined, his arc not unfinished so much as declared unnecessary. Weird, considering he was the protagonist.

Neil Simon for The Sunshine Boys, from his play

Simon gets three things right. First is the relationship between Willie Clark and his nephew, written with the casual cruelty that some family members can unknowingly deliver. Second is the working relationship between Willie and Al Lewis, written with the familiarity of 30 years of friendship and the bitterness of ten years of animosity. Finally, of course, is that Doctor sketch, so creaky and groan-inducing, yet occasionally funny enough, that it seems almost lifted from an actual sketch from the 20s or 30s. Perhaps there's a one-liner too many that interrupts the flow of some scenes, but it's still a solid base for the actors to work from.


No one was going to stop the juggernaut that was Cuckoo's Nest, but it's pretty obvious that I care for another screenplay more. The Oscar goes to....

Sikander would be proud

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