It’s been a rocky road for “Women Talking,” having underperformed or been overlooked completely (ahem, BAFTA) at various precursors, but it managed to earn two Oscar nominations: Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sarah Polley. The latter category has long been predicted to be the one that the drama could win and it is currently out in front with 16/5 odds. If Polley does pull through, she’ll join a short list of not just female winners in the category but an even shorter list of female writers who’ve won individually.
As is the case with most non-gendered categories, female champs are rather infrequent in Best Adapted Screenplay. In the 94-year history of the Oscars, the award has gone to women just eight times — and twice to the same person, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who prevailed for 1986’s “A Room with a View” and 1992’s “Howards End.” Jhabvala is one of three women who’ve won as solo writers, the others being Emma Thompson (1995’s “Sense and Sensibility”) and reigning champ Sian Heder (“CODA”). A Polley victory would mark the first instance of back-to-back female winners in the category.
The category’s other female winners triumphed as part of writing teams. Sarah Y. Mason became the first woman to win adapted screenplay for co-writing 1933’s “Little Women” with her husband Victor Heerman. Claudine West shared her award for 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver” with co-writers George Froeschel, James Hilton and Arthur Wimperis. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens penned 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which swept all 11 of its categories, with Peter Jackson. Diana Ossana was the last woman before Heder to win, taking the honor with co-writer Larry McMurtry for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain.” This year, “All Quiet on the Western Front” co-writer Lesley Paterson shares her nomination with Edward Berger and Ian Stokell.
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A previous nominee for 2007’s “Away from Her,” Polley has already joined another exclusive group with Jhabvala. She is the third solo woman to receive multiple nominations in adapted screenplay. Jhabvala holds the record with three, her other for 1993’s “The Remains of the Day,” while Bess Meredyth first accomplished it as a double nominee at the 2nd Academy Awards in 1930 for “A Woman of Affairs” and “Wonder of Woman.”
Now the question is, can Polley really win? The Best Picture bid for “Women Talking” — following snubs for the top prize at the Golden Globes and Producers Guild of America Awards, and a BAFTA shutout — provided some wind in its sails. Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews‘ 2018 novel of the same name, which won the Critics Choice Award, is the most writerly of the lineup, centering on extended conversations between a group of women in a religious community reckoning with sexual abuse.
However, history is not exactly on its side. “Women Talking” would be the first film since “Sling Blade” (1996) to win Best Adapted Screenplay with just one other nomination. “Sling Blade’s” other bid was Best Actor for star and screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton. Best Picture is obviously a bigger (the biggest) category, but there are other Best Picture nominees in adapted screenplay that are stronger, nine-time nominee “All Quiet on the Western Front” (in second place) and six-time nominee “Top Gun: Maverick” (in fourth place), though neither genre — a war movie and a blockbuster action sequel — are traditionally well regarded for its writing.
The other two nominees are in a similar boat as “Women Talking.” In fifth place in the odds, “Living,” adapted from “Ikiru” (1952) by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, has just one other nomination as well, Best Actor for Bill Nighy (so it’s the “Sling Blade” of this group). And “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” in third place, has the steepest hill to climb as it has no other nominations and no lone nominee has won this category.
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