Best Insult

Oscar’s annual “screw you” to screenwriters.

Here’s how P.G. Wodehouse might have put it: Where the Academy Awards are concerned, screenwriters have a tendency to feel, if not exactly disgruntled, then still, very far from gruntled.

It isn’t the award per se. On the contrary, screenwriters are overjoyed to be recipients, just like everyone else. My father won a screenwriting Oscar back in the ‘60s, and there’s no question he regarded it as the capstone of a long and complicated career. The statuette was displayed proudly on the mantel ever after and was trotted out for anyone who entered my parents’ house, not excluding FedEx drivers and befuddled strangers asking for directions.

No, what we writers hate about the award is the way it’s presented. Generally, some impossibly good-looking actor or actress—or occasionally, some classy novelist with no connection to the medium—invokes the scriptural cliché, “In the beginning was the word.” After this bit of cultural piety, the audience is shown five short pieces of film, each containing a snippet of snappy dialogue. This is meant to represent the writer’s contribution. Now, snappy dialogue is certainly part of what screenwriting consists of, but viewers are led to assume that it’s all it consists of. Most of us writers have had the experience, at one time or another, of devising an original story idea, working out the plot, creating the characters, constructing the scenes, and yes, writing the snappy dialogue, and then going to the theater and seeing the words “A film by,” followed by the director’s name. A director who was hired long after the film was conceived, written, and then repeatedly re-written. It doesn’t always happen this way, of course—movie development is a rich and mysterious process, and ideas can come from anywhere—but this one’s at least as common as any other.

Legendary director Martin Ritt refused to accept the so-called possessory credit, protesting that every film he directed was a collaboration among its writers, its actors, its editors, and its director. But many of his colleagues lack such scruples. When directing the film Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick generously offered to appropriate the film’s writing credit for himself because the script had been written by a blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo, whose name on the credits was regarded as problematic. Only the courageous intervention of the film’s producer, who also happened to be its star—Kirk Douglas—prevented this from occurring. But similar claim-jumps had happened many times before and have happened many times since.

Although writers and directors sometimes find themselves in an adversarial position, most of us are happy to acknowledge the indispensable contributions of both groups. What we writers hate, though, is the lazy critical practice of designating directors as the authors of the films they direct. It’s obviously more convenient that way, having one person to whom responsibility can be attributed, but it does violence to the disorderly truth of movie-making.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. The exaltation of the director, the notion that film results exclusively from the director’s vision—the so-called “auteur” theory—is only a few decades old. But even before it came along, writers in Hollywood didn’t have much reason to feel especially gruntled. Several generations ago, MGM production head Irving Thalberg said, “Writers are the most important people in this business, and if they ever realize it, we’re in big trouble.” He was wrong about one thing: The problem isn’t that writers don’t realize it, the problem is that no one else is willing to acknowledge it publicly.

The director is often—and incorrectly—thought of as the equivalent of the composer of an opera. The success of an opera certainly doesn’t depend on a gripping libretto; if it did, the standard repertoire wouldn’t be sizable enough to sustain a single season. And even if there were more good libretti than there are, a good libretto with a bad score isn’t worth sitting through. Opera lives or dies by the music composed for it.

But there’s another way to look at it. One can regard the film director as being more closely akin to an orchestral conductor. He interprets, he shapes, he balances, he paces—a symphonic performance is unimaginable without him—but he is not the sole or even primary creative element. Wilhelm Furtwangler was a great conductor, and some of his performances were revelatory, but we still understand that when he conducted the “Eroica” symphony, it was Beethoven’s music he was conducting, not his own.

Neither of these metaphors is a perfect fit. For one thing, the director often does some re-writing on the set, or instructs the writer how to re-write. And for that matter, the screenplay often contains camera angles and line-readings and stage directions which are conventionally considered the province of the director. And let’s not forget the film editor, a figure even more unsung than the writer, who often creates a coherent entity out of a chaos of sloppily-assembled footage.

No single metaphor can accommodate the reality of film-making; the process is too inherently unruly. But the mis-en-scène simply isn’t its be-all and end-all. Despite the film-school cliché, movies aren’t a purely visual medium. They’re a narrative medium. A beautiful movie without a compelling script is … well, let’s never forget Heaven’s Gate, a movie only the French could like. (It’s no coincidence that the French are responsible for the auteur theory.) Most of us don’t go to movies in order to look at pretty pictures; we go to be told a story. And the one who has a story to tell is the writer.

You won’t find this self-evident fact acknowledged during the Oscar broadcast, though. Watch and see.