With the announcement this morning of the Academy Award nominations, I looked to see which films were nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. None of the nominees are all that shocking. The contenders for Best Picture are all up for awards in their respective screenplay categories (which means Supreme Hack Paul Haggis is nominated once again. Terrific.)
The most interesting nomination by far is for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, not so much because it is a comedy (after all, Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy), and not because it is offensive (frankly, so was last year’s Best Picture winner). What’s compelling to me about this particular nod is that, well, there was no script for Borat. According to the filmmakers, there was an outline, but then they let Borat loose and filmed what happened. Almost everything in the film is improvised. As Slate points out, we can’t blame the Academy for this one, as the Writers’ Guild actually nominated Borat for Best Adapted Screenplay and United 93, Paul Greengrass’ brilliant portrayal of the doomed 9/11 flight, for Best Original Screenplay. Why would the Writers’ Guild nominate two films that don’t have scripts? It has something to do with “America’s Next Top Model”:
It might seem that members of a writers guild would recoil from screenplay-free movies. But the guild is trying to expand its jurisdiction to reality shows. The production companies say those shows have no writers but the guild counters that those who shape the stories are in fact writers and deserve to be compensated as such. So, perhaps Fox should demand that Cohen withdraw Borat from consideration. Accepting a writing award for a film that is made for “an age in which reality and entertainment have become increasingly intertwined” might suggest that the guild’s argument has merit after all.
All of this further calls into question the Academy’s division of the screenplay category into only two parts. It seems obvious that the Academy believes original scripts are a slightly different animal from those adapted from an existing source, but do they feel that something like Borat is really comparable to more traditional literary adaptations like Children of Men and Little Children (It was a good year for films with “Children” in the title)? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. With the immense financial success of heavily improvised films like Borat, United 93, and the Jackass movies, it seems we will be seeing more of this style of narrative. Can the Academy adapt?