Juno and the Indie Film Oscar Debacles of History

slumdog-millionaire-fl-02Tomorrow night in Los Angeles, as the 81st Academy Awards commence, there will be a fevered buzz amongst indie fans and filmmakers the likes of which we’ve scarcely seen before. For the first time since, well, ever really, an indie picture has a legitimate shot at a major award. Several major awards actually, and while it’s still competing with the pricey prestige pictures and the Oscar-baiting biopics, Danny Boyle’s Dickensian fable Slumdog Millionaire is widely regarded as a Best Picture favorite. But we’re not quite there yet and lurking in the back of the mind are some very serious, well-founded doubts that invite the possibility that the Academy could just bottle it. Why? Because they’ve got a long and glittering history of doing just exactly that, as up to now they’ve had their very own get out of jail free card – the Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars.

The Academy receives more than its share of shtick -- labeled by some as being something of a stuffy, insulated, self-congratulatory organization more concerned with backslapping than rewarding good art. Indeed, last year’s audience figures (the lowest since 1974) combined with the exceptionally low gross of the night’s major nominees indicate that the gulf between what the Academy rewards and what average people on the street actually pay to see may even be widening. But let’s be honest, apart from a few alarming gaffs (hi, Driving Miss Daisy) they generally tend to get it right the majority of the time.

 

But now that independent film has finally clawed its way onto the Academy’s radar, the diablo_cody_stays_busy_postjuno_289x370nominees, and more importantly the winners, of one particular category point to a trend that begs a serious question: have the Screenplay Oscars become the annual bone tossed by the Academy to that year’s little indie darling because they still can’t reconcile the idea of coughing up one of the more high profile awards? More than that, does this practice harm the credibility of the best original screenplay award by turning it into some kind of umbrella award for the token indie, not an award specifically for the screenplay alone. On some recent evidence, and on the back of Diablo Cody’s win for Juno last year, you would have to say yes.

 

The last few years demonstrate this trend: Lost in Translation, 4 nominations with 1 win (original screenplay). Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, 2 nominations with 1 win (original screenplay). Almost Famous, 4 nominations with 1 win (original screenplay). Sideways, 5 nominations with 1 win (adapted screenplay). Yes, where Little Miss Sunshine is concerned Alan Arkin did walk away with a statue for best supporting actor in addition to the film winning for best original screenplay. But that aside, almost universally, if your film has that lost_in_translation_movie_image_bill_murray_and_scarlett_johansonindie vibe to it, then a screenplay award is what you get -- and all you get.

 

Now we know the academy loves stories about triumph. They love underdogs and they love that Rocky phenomenon. But clearly in a few cases they can’t see the forest for the trees. Sophia Coppola needed the recognition of the academy to give her a leg up in the industry, did she? Well someone clearly thought so because rumors from the set of Lost in Translation spoke to the shoot not even having a script at all. Rather Coppola worked from a small stack of handwritten notes and much of the rest was made up as she went along. How that qualifies her for the industry’s highest award for excellence in screenwriting is something of a mystery.

 

Let us not forget that is what the award is supposed to be for not a good film, not a good story surrounding the film, not a good idea for a film, but for excellence in screenwriting and Diablo Cody’s Juno, great film that it is, does not belong in the same time-zone as an award for best screenplay.

 

Opposition to her victory has absolutely nothing to do with Diablo Cody the person, the blogger, the stripper or anything else related to her past or her personal life. While she might juno_080111125417002_wideweb__300x375be enjoying a rocket like ascension to the top of the list of hot Hollywood property, the backlash from critics and even some colleagues has been more than a little vicious and the point has been lost. This is about Diablo Cody the screenwriter and the Juno screenplay.

There is no doubting that Juno is a terrific film. A simple, endearing story brought to life by a stellar ensemble cast led by a star making turn from one of the brightest and most promising actresses to emerge out of Hollywood for some time. If Ellen Page had walked away with a statue last year, very few people would have grounds to complain because she deserved it on the basis of her specific and individual contribution in the category for which she was nominated. But Juno as a whole is a film that succeeds in spite of Cody’s screenplay, not because of it.

 

Great screenplays are a lot like sports officials in that the good ones stand back and orchestrate events, facilitating the flow of the action while doing their best to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. You know the referee has had a good game when you simply didn’t notice he was there and the same is true of a good screenwriter.

 

But if there was ever a case of the writer speaking directly out of the mouth of the characters then Juno is it. The impossibly named Juno MacGuff comes across as a great many things: brave, smart and compassionate. But one thing she spectacularly fails to come across as is a 16-year-old high school girl and it is a testament to Page’s great ability that she could carry the film off while weighed down by a screenplay littered with distractions and attention seeking dialogue. Diablo Cody seems so desperate for some sort of validation from her audience that she is completely unable to detach herself from the story she is telling and ends up sounding like the worst kind of writer - one whose material so insists on itself that she not only tries to tell the adults what all the kids are into these days, she tries to tell the kids, too.

 

When you look at Juno side by side with a screenplay like Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, one of the other nominees for last year’s original screenplay award, then you begin to see the georgeclooneymichaelclaytonclear differences in quality that separate an acceptable script from a great one. Michael Clayton is really the complete screenwriting package: a subtle weaving of a theme around flawed but compelling characters, with authentic sounding dialog, all acting in unison and subservient to the story. By comparison, certain parts of Juno do not read as scenes from a film. They are excerpts from a MySpace page spoken aloud, where Cody name-checks cool things she likes created by other people in an attempt to illustrate to us her vibrant individuality. Then there is Gilroy’s audacious manipulation of structure, using a flashback as the inciting incident and then wrapping up the story in a final act that lasts maybe five minutes and is a maximum of seven written pages. That is not screenwriting. That is art. Juno’s three act structure is literally signposted by seasons for Christ’s sake, and you have to think it fortunate that women take nine months to give birth and not ten because otherwise Codey would have been in trouble.

 

Writers have long been the red headed stepchildren of Hollywood, forever marginalized and ignored while the film’s stars, producer and director grab the glory. Certainly in the face of things, we clearly need a new Oscar category from here on out - perhaps something along the lines of an award for having vision.

 

This persistent trend of tossing out a screenwriter’s one moment of recognition as some sort of consolation prize to the year’s anointed indie because it isn’t serious enough or important enough for a major award is unfair to both screenwriters and indie films. Not only does it awkwardchip away at the credibility of independent film, it also cheapens the vital role the screenwriter has in the process of great work. Tony Gilroy and others like Nancy Oliver, author of original screenplay nominee Lars & The Real Girl, can rightly feel aggrieved. And, honestly, few could have blamed them if when Cody’s name was read aloud that night, they had stood up and called shenanigans.

 

But perhaps this year will finally be different. After all Slumdog Millionaire is serious, it is important and it’s the kind of exotically offbeat yet socially conscious story the Academy typically falls over themselves to reward. It might be a fine example of vibrant, visceral, dirty, sweaty filmmaking that’s the very antithesis of the prestige picture, but it’s sociopolitical – which in the eyes of the Academy makes it very important indeed! Yes, it is foreign, but at it’s core are the kind of conservative American principles of hard work, self-reliance, and belief in a higher power that the American dream is built on. Most important of all it has every major awards body from the NBR to the Golden Globes already having done what they on their own have never managed – hand the top prize of the night to an unfashionable indie. Honestly, Academy, it’s about time.

Feb
21
2009
Neil Pedley • Associate Editor

Neil is a film school graduate from England now living in New York. In addition to JustPressPlay, Neil writes about for Uinterview.com as well as being a columist and weekly podcast host at IFC.com. His free time is spent acting out scenes from Predator in the woods behind his house, playing all the different parts himself.

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