For the first eighty Academy Awards or so, the awards for best screenwriting were chosen by people who had almost certainly read none of the nominated screenplays. Academy voters, like the audience at home, judged writers based on the films their words led to, not the words themselves. Joseph W. Farnham, winner of the Academy Award for “Best Writing – Title Cards” in 1929, was the only exception: As a silent film intertitle writer, his actual words ended up on the screen. The award was never given again, and Farnham next distinguished himself in 1931, at the age of 46, by becoming the very first Academy Award winner to die, but he was also the last screenwriter for decades who could be confident he’d been rewarded for the work he did, not later additions or elaborations from actors, directors, and other collaborators in the filmmaking process.
There’s a logic to judging a screenplay based on the movie it produces: We don’t judge architecture based on the blueprints after the building is finished. And screenwriting, unlike most other literary forms, is almost always meant to be persuasive: It’s meant to persuade strangers to spend an exorbitant amount of time and money making a movie, which puts a premium on salesmanship that you just don’t find in, say, poetry. (The title of American Pie, when it was just a screenplay trying to rise to the top of the slush pile, was Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made for Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate but I Think You Will Love.) The screenplay is an incantation of sorts: the words conjure up the talent and the money and the images on screen like a genie from a lamp. Who cares if the magician said “abracadabra” or “Walla Walla Washington” when there’s a genie running around granting wishes?
And yet all of the same things can be said about theater, but we’re completely comfortable writing and talking about plays as literary works independent of specific productions, even if we’ve never seen them performed at all. The entire high school English industry would grind to a halt if we were purists about Shakespeare, but no one would argue that studying the structure and language of his plays in worthless in the absence of live productions. All of which is to say that given the amount of time a modern human being spends watching film and television, a little familiarity with the form doesn’t seem like a bad thing. So if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, curious about what some of this year’s best movies looked like on the page, or just looking for a way to kill a dull lunch hour, here’s where you can find all ten of this year’s Academy-Award-nominated screenplays. Because some of these are straightforward production documents while others have been spruced up for awards voters—Roma, for instance, comes with a translated version of the full script as well as the Spanish-language original; for a while Netflix was distributing a version of the screenplay for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs screenplay typeset in an old-timey western font—we’ve included a little information about the provenance and links to the studio For Your Consideration pages. Read on to discover which one of this year’s screenplays ends, “Ally looks up and then straight TOWARDS us, the audience … and a star is born!” (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.)
Writing (Original Screenplay)
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Not Nominated (Unjustly)
Austin Powers (International Man of Mystery)
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, by Mike Meyers. Draft dated July 7, 1996.
Not eligible for this year’s Academy Awards.