‘Eighth Grade’: WGA Awards win sends this writer back to school

In my over-confident, thoroughly wrong pre-event analysis of the nominations for Sunday’s Writers Guild awards, I drew an analogy between screenwriters and architects, the first providing blueprints for movies and the second for buildings. I had in mind bigger buildings than “Eighth Grade” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

I was thinking of towering, or mini-towering, achievements — “Roma” in the original screenplay category won by “Eighth Grade,” and “BlackKlansman” or “A Star is Born” or “Black Panther” for the adapted category won by “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Both wins last night were shockers, but Bo Burnhams win for “Eighth Grade” is the kind that brings down. . .oh yeah, big buildings. Neither the screenplay nor the movie is nominated for an Oscar and that hasn’t happened with a WGA winner since Steve Martin won for the 1987 “Roxanne.”

Its failure with academy voters is why I discounted “Eighth Grade”‘s chances, along with those for “A Quiet Place,” whose only Oscar nomination is for sound editing. Burnham’s earnest screenplay about an awkward girl’s stumble-steps into adolescence — knocked off three movies — “Roma,” “Green Book” and “Vice” – with a total of 24 Oscar nominations.

SEE All 8 Best Picture Oscar nominees won at least one guild award but were snubbed by the WGA Awards

In voting for “Eighth Grade,” the WGA members set aside their desire to influence the academy voter in order to reward the outsider, the underdog, the little engine that could. It is a low-budget movie that, boosted by admiring reviews, is doing modestly well at the box office and doing wonders for Burnham’s career.

The 28-year-old comedian and actor-turned-filmmaker is having the year Bradley Cooper was supposed to be having. Both actors are making their twin debuts as writer-directors, but Cooper’s was the big, bold entrance that Hollywood loves.

SEE 2019 Oscars guild awards scorecard: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ moves into first with two days of voting left

The other thing Hollywood loves is a surprise, and the WGA gave it to them. What “Eighth Grade’s” win over favored “Roma” suggests is that structure matters to other screenwriters. Burnham’s script is a conventional three-act story. While “Roma” makes you wait and wait and wait for its emotional revelations, “Eighth Grade” stands and delivers. And it does so with humor.

For adapted screenplay, I think I can be forgiven for overlooking “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” I raised the question a long time ago about whether the academy members are ready to enshrine Spike Lee into the pantheon of Oscar winners, and I felt that with “BlackKkKlansman,” they might be. They still might; his screenplay is on their ballot. But the WGA did him no favors.

PREDICT the Oscar winners now; change them until February 24

When awards season began lo those many months ago, “A Star is Born” looked like gold. It’s a big-budget movie, and now blockbuster, whose script pedigree goes back more than 80 years and includes, besides Cooper and his writing partners, such illustrious names as Joan Didion, Moss Hart and Dorothy Parker. It got a great send-off from critics and has won multiple nominations with every important guild or group.

But, Cooper and the movie, are facing a shut-out in major awards. The one we all thought Cooper could count on was the DGA award for outstanding achievement by a first-time feature film maker. Instead, that prize was claimed by. . .Burnham.

Cooper still has all those chances at the Oscars, but methinks no one in his camp is holding his breath. By any other measure, Cooper is having a fantastic year and if you were to ask him whether he’d rather have Burnham’s two big guild wins or his income as a producer, writer, director and star of “A Star is Born”. . .right, dumb question.

On to the Oscars.

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