When “La La Land” won the award for Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes, most pundits chalked it up to an across-the-board sweep for the film. But it may actually be a sign of things to come. While smart money is on Kenneth Lonergan to prevail at the Oscars in Original Screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea,” I’m betting on Damien Chazelle to pull off that rare feat of winning a writing award for a movie musical.
You’ll call me crazy, and for good reason. The first and only musical to win Best Original Screenplay was “An American in Paris” (Alan Jay Lerner), which also won Best Picture in 1951. Only seven others were nominated:
1980: “Fame” (Christopher Gore); lost to “Melvin and Howard” (Bo Goldman)
1979: “All That Jazz” (Robert Alan Aurthur and Bob Fosse); lost to “Breaking Away” (Steve Tesich)
1965: “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (Jacques Demy); lost to “Darling” (Frederic Raphael)
1964: “A Hard Day’s Night” (Alun Owen); lost to “Father Goose” (Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff)
1975: “Funny Face” (Leonard Gershe); lost to “Designing Women” (George Wells)
1955: “It’s Always Fair Weather” (Betty Comden and Adolph Green); lost to “Interrupted Melody” (Sonya Levien and William Ludwig)
1953: “The Band Wagon” (Betty Comden and Adolph Green); lost to “Titanic” (Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen, and Walter Reisch)
Things aren’t much better in Adapted, where most of the contenders come from Broadway hits. The only person to win that prize for writing a musical was, oddly enough, Alan Jay Lerner for “Gigi” (1958), another Best Picture victor. Nine others competed and lost:
2002: “Chicago” (Bill Condon); lost to “The Pianist” (Ronald Harwood)
1981: “Pennies from Heaven” (Dennis Potter); lost to “On Golden Pond” (Ernest Thompson)
1972: “Cabaret” (Jay Presson Allen); lost to “The Godfather” (Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola)
1968: “Oliver!” (Vernon Harris); lost to “The Lion in Winter” (James Goldman)
1964: “Mary Poppins” (Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi) and “My Fair Lady” (Alan Jay Lerner); lost to “Becket” (Edward Anhalt)
1961: “West Side Story” (Ernest Lehman); lost to “Judgment at Nuremberg” (Abby Mann)
1955: “Love Me or Leave Me” (Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart); lost to “Marty” (Paddy Chayefsky)
1954: “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, and Dorothy Kingsley); lost to “The Country Girl” (George Seaton)
1944: “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe); lost to “Going My Way” (Frank Butler and Frank Cavett)
So history is not on Chazelle’s side, given that even Best Picture juggernauts “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “Oliver!,” and “Chicago” couldn’t snag a writing win. It also doesn’t help that Lonergan, a Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright (“The Waverly Gallery” in 2000) and two-time Original Screenplay Oscar contender (“You Can Count On Me” in 2000 and “Gangs of New York” in 2002) has been widely praised for his novelistic script for “Manchester.” Yet I can’t shake the feeling that if “La La Land” really is the Oscar behemoth many are expecting it to be, this award should come easily to it, especially given a few recent victors.
Remember 2012, when Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner was a sure thing to win for penning the lengthy and literate “Lincoln?” It certainly looked that way before Chris Terrio beat him at the Writers Guild for Best Picture-frontrunner “Argo.” Remember 2003, when no matter how big of a sweep “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was expected to have it was going to lose for Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson‘s screenplay? Everyone assumed that prize would go to Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”), who adapted Dennis Lehane‘s novel “Mystic River” to wide acclaim. Sound familiar?
“But wait,” I can hear you saying, “even if musicals win Best Picture, they still don’t win for screenwriting.” And yes, I know I made that point earlier. But something feels different this time. Not only did Chazelle win the Golden Globe, but he tied Lonergan at Critics Choice. So he’s already laying the groundwork for a victory, and should the WGA go his way, he’ll be unstoppable. At the same time, however, the guild could instead go for Barry Jenkins, who will compete in Adapted at the Oscars for “Moonlight.” Then it’s anyone’s guess.
Speaking of Jenkins, should he suddenly become a threat to win Best Director, voters may feel inclined to reward Chazelle’s achievements elsewhere, especially if they realize he’s not a producer on the film and won’t pick up a trophy should the film takes Best Picture.
Perhaps what works best in Chazelle’s favor here is how his film makes people feel. Some have found “Manchester” to be a downer, albeit a well-written one. “La La Land,” on the other hand, is a bonafide crowd-pleaser, and if voters really are ticking it off in every category, it seems unlikely they’ll skip the screenwriting award.
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