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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, CSI, Some Short Takes on Late Winter-Early Spring 2010 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that Preston Struges as a writer “organizes chaos,” but isn’t that what all screenwriters do? Unless you have seen writers’ treatments and first draft screenplays, you have no idea how chaotic a lot of movies that seem so perfect started out. With Sturges of course, he is writing about chaos as well. I agree with David that Wiseman’s Model (1980) is a much better film than Crazy Horse. Model brilliantly raises the question of why we should think of the models as “models” for us to follow. And it suggests that—gasp—the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

Both David and Victor Schwartzman take up the issue of race in regard to Red Tails. I certainly agree with David that Intruder in the Dust (1949) is one of the great American films on the subject. I was not quite as taken with Shadows (1960), and I am assuming David is at least partially joking about Mandingo (1975), but it does show you how race can drive everybody crazy, including Hollywood filmmakers. I happen to have a fondness for Pinky (1949). Yes, yes, I know that Pinky, the light-skinned Negro girl, is played by a white girl, but look at the scene in the store where the attitude of the shopkeeper changes as soon as he is told she is black. That’s one of the best examples I know on film of showing everyday racism.

Victor raises the issue of the portrayal of black characters in older films. Yes, there is a lot of cringe-worthy stuff in those films. I remember when I was in the Navy in the early ‘60s. One of my fellow officers and my best friend in the Navy was one of the few black officers at the time. I remember we would get old ‘40s movies to show on board ship, and the wardroom would all be embarrassed when we would see some of the stuff with Willie Best and others in Vance’s presence. Time makes you rethink things.

Downton Abbey (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. Season 2, 7 episodes, approximately 540 minutes.)

Ahh, it came back and nearly all was right with the world: You may remember that when the first season of Downton Abbey came along, I got so hooked into it so quickly I wasn’t able to take the usual kinds of notes I do when I am watching something on television. See US#70 for details. Well, this time I took a lot of notes. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you a complete summary of this season, tempting though it might be. What I am going to do, just because I like to be perverse from time to time, is start with the last twenty minutes or so of the 7th and last episode. What happened was that my wife and I were away in Palm Springs the night it was on. Since I had no idea if the hotel we stayed at got the new PBS station in Southern California, I set up my DVR to record it. As it turns out, the hotel did get the station and we did watch it there. But I was a little sloppy on taking notes, and when we got back to Los Angeles, I wanted to look at the last twenty minutes to make sure I had got stuff right. What struck me in looking at those twenty minutes for a second time is how well Fellowes does everything in this series.

Lady Mary has been engaged to the press lord Sir Richard. He has threatened to print all the lurid details of the death of the Turkish diplomat from season one if she tries to break the engagement. But she has finally told Matthew about the death of the Turkish diplomat in her bed, and being slightly more modern than most characters on the series, he accepts it. That’s a pleasant surprise for Mary. So she tells Sir Richard that she is breaking their engagement. He is not happy about it, since he has spent a lot of time and money on her, buying a stately home near Downton Abbey and everything. Well, you can see why he is pissed. And this is part of what makes Fellowes’s writing so good. Sir Richard may be a skunk (think Rupert, or better, James Murdoch), but he is not without his feelings. She sort of really loves Mary, well, in addition to wanting to own her. And he is perfectly willing to take her on even though he knows (he’s not stupid) that she loves Matt. So, yeah, he’s pissed. And Matt makes it worse by walking into the room. And Sir Richard tells him that Lavinia knew Matt was not in love with her. OK, back up a minute. Lavinia was the woman Matt was engaged to when it did not work out with Mary in season one. She was a sweet young thing, but in over her head with these people. You just knew when the logline for Episode 6 said that “Spanish flu infects Cora [the lady of the house], Lavinia, and Mr. Carson [the head butler]” that Lavinia was not long for this world. When she was in a fevered state, she saw Mary and Matt dancing in the hallway and kissing, so it is likely she told Sir Richard (or is he just being a shit and guessing?). Lavinia was then able to die a wonderfully tragic death. Again, Fellowes giving as much detail to a relatively minor character as to the major ones.

So Matt and Sir Richard get into a fight. How plebian! And Robert, the Earl of Grantham and head of the house, orders Sir Richard to leave. Yes, Robert finally knows about the Turkish diplomat (it is way into this second season that he learns) and will take his chances with whatever gets printed. Sir Richard tries to be as polite as possible, the kind of turns of character that Fellowes is great at, and says to the Dowager, “I doubt we shall see each other again.” Class. And you will remember that the Dowager is Dame Maggie Smith. So what line does Fellowes give her? “Do you promise?” Like every other line Fellowes has given her, it is a perfect Dame Maggie line. But in Season 2 he has deepened the Dowager. She is no longer just a silly old lady, but one who sees better than some of the younger people the changes that are coming. Since she has been through a lot of changes in her life, she is better prepared to roll with the punches. So Fellowes is developing her rather than just falling easily into a bunch of great Dame Maggie lines.

Bates, Robert’s valet, has been accused of the murder of Mrs. Bates. There has been a trial and there is enough circumstantial evidence to convict him. And he is sentenced to death. Since testimony from Robert and others in the household have helped build the circumstantial case against him, Robert is determined at least at first to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. While he is working on that, Anna, Bates’s true love, is telling Mary that if Mary has to go to live with her maternal grandmother in the United States until the scandals blow over Anna will go along with her if she likes. Bates and Anna now have a nice scene in which he tells her that she has to live her own life, make new friends. Fellowes tends to make the lower classes just as dignified and noble as the upper crust. But Bates’s sentence is commuted, so does Anna stay at Downton Abbey as Robert tries to get him completely exonerated?

When have you ever seen a Servants’ Ball? It is a ball put on by the servants in which the upstairs folks dance with the downstairs folks. And Anna, now encouraged by Bates, notices that the maid to Lady Rosamund, the Dowager’s daughter, is sneaking upstairs with Lord Hepworth, who is trying to marry Rosamund. (There was a great, earlier scene where the Dowager, who had a fling many years ago with Hepworth’s father, nails his ambitions to the floor. See what I mean about Fellowes deepening her? Anna, the loyal maid, tells (off-screen) Mary, and Anna takes Mary and Rosamund to the room, opens the door, and lets Rosamund see what’s up. Now Anna tells the family she will be staying on. That’s an interesting touch on Fellowes’s part: showing us her decision after the Rosamund scene. It makes clear she understands where her loyalties lie. Especially if Robert can get Bates’s sentence dismissed.

The Bates-Anna love story is only one of two great love stories that Fellowes have given us. The second one is between Mary and Matt. They were obviously attracted to each other in season one, but it was a thorny attraction at best. For most of Season 2 they have been engaged to Lavinia and Sir Richard. Which means we have a lot of scenes (too many for a lot of viewers) of them almost connecting but not quite. Even I, who love Downton Abbey, wanted to slap these two idiots upside the head on more than one occasion. One of those is one of Fellowes’s best moments. In Episode 3 Matt and William, the downstairs guy, have gone off to World War I and have been reported missing. Downton Abbey has been turned into a convalescent center for recuperating soldiers. The family is dealing with this in a variety of ways. One afternoon Mary is singing “If You Were the Only Girl” to the recovering soldiers, accompanied on the piano by her sister Edith. The song is sentimental, especially to soldiers who may or may not go back to find their women waiting for them. The soldiers join in singing. This is an example of Fellowes’s ability to write multiple character scenes. We see the reactions of Mary, Edith, and the soldiers.

And then Matt and William walk in the door. That’s the most heartstopping moment I’ve seen since Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars says to Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, “My heart is and always will be yours.” At which point in Sense they get married and live happily ever after. But you notice this is Episode 3 of 7 episodes of Downton Abbey, so Matt and Mary stare longingly at each other rather than running off to one of the many rooms in Downton Abbey and doing the nasty.

So finally, at the end of Episode 7 Matt and Mary are outside the house, and it is naturally, snowing. Lavinia’s dead, Sir Richard is gone, the war is over, Matt can walk again and presumably do other useful things with the lower half of his body. So he proposes, and Mary, being the finicky person she is, insists that he kneel down and do it properly. Which he does. So they are finally, FINALLY, engaged.

But they are not married yet. Will they manage to screw up that? And what happens when Sir Richard prints all the lurid details? Will Mary have to go to visit her grandmother in America? Well, we already know that Shirley MacLaine has signed on to play that grandmother in Season 3, so we will see her either in America, or even more deliciously, trading zingers with Dame Maggie at Downton Abbey. And can Robert get Bates out of the hoosegow so he and Anna can have the happy life they deserve? You’ll notice that Fellowes has made the complications in the two love stories very different. For Matt and Mary the problems are internal; for Bates and Anna they are external.

A couple of other comments on Fellowes. He is a whiz at figuring out what to leave off-camera. A lot of scenes where people explain what’s happened to other people who do not need to see, since we know what they are talking about. Cora explaining to Robert about the Turkish diplomat, or Mary telling Matt about the same subject. Fellowes understands when to come into the latter half of the scene so we can tell from the characters’ reactions and comments what has been said.

Another thing: Fellowes, a Brit, has an American sense of pacing, which was one of the reasons I had trouble doing notes on season one. In the early ‘50s, American television writer Sy Salkowitz went over to England to work on The Errol Flynn Show, an anthology series. He discovered the English writers wrote slower-paced scenes, so he condensed scenes, and added two or three scenes in each episode, which made the episodes at least seem to move quicker. Downton Abbey goes at a very American pace.

Smash (2012. Various writers. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Smash

It’s showtime, folks: This show is one of the Great Ideas that may turn out not to be all that great. We are going to follow the creation of a Broadway musical from the original idea through its development, workshop productions, all the way to its Broadway premiere. That is, if the series runs long enough. It has now been renewed for next year, but without Theresa Rebeck, its creator, as showrunner.

Julia and Tom are songwriters with a Broadway hit or two behind them. One day they are talking to Tom’s assistant Ellis, who suggests a musical about Marilyn Monroe. They don’t like the idea at first, but doodle up a song, which they have Ivy, a woman in one of their shows, do a demo of. Which Ellis sends to his mom, who puts it out on the Internet, where it goes viral. OK, stranger things have happened, but as I was watching the first episodes of the series I was also reading Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, complete with his observations, called Look, I Made a Hat. Sondheim includes comments on the development of his shows, and quite frankly, Sondheim’s versions are more convincing as well as more entertaining.

The video comes to the attention of Eileen, a theatrical producer who is divorcing her husband, and she is looking for a show she can produce on her own. So she gloms onto the Marilyn idea, and wants to do a workshop right away. But, but, there is only one song. Tom and Julia write a few more, but I had no idea from the first three episodes if Julia, the lyricist, is also writing a book for the show. There was no mention at all of a book for the show, unless I completely missed it. Would the creators even think about a workshop with only a couple of songs and no book? In later episodes it does become clear Julia is the one writing the book. Eileen hires a big name director, Derek, to do the workshop. And they immediately start casting. Huh? The creators have not even decided what their take is on Marilyn yet. Which leads them to keep calling back two completely different actors for Marilyn. One is Ivy, a lush blonde who would be great as the older Marilyn, and the other is Karen, a newbie, who would be great as the younger Marilyn. In fairness to Theresa Rebeck, who is also a playwright and television writer, in episode two, “The Callback,” she has Derek, Tom, Julia, and Eileen discuss these differences, but not in terms of what their view of what the show is all about.

In the third episode, “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” Rebeck does a little backtracking and in the writing makes it clear that the creators of the musical are only preparing for a workshop. This may have been in reaction to all the excessive hype NBC gave the show, which emphasized it was about the creation of a BROADWAY MUSICAL. Which suggests another problem the show is going to have as it goes along. As the songwriters come up with the songs, we are going to get awfully tired of hearing the ones that stay in the show. Rebeck has so far been rather ingenious about making sure we don’t hear what we have too much, and she gives us scenes of both Ivy and Karen singing other songs. And in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” we get a song written for the show that we had better not hear again. Ever. It is something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which Marilyn and Joe sing about how they want an ordinary life. Yeah, right. But Rebeck doesn’t give us everybody deciding to drop the song.

Here is an odd thing that happens occasionally in television writing, although I can’t off the top of my head think of another example. Rebeck wrote the first three episodes. Playwright David Marshall Grant wrote the fourth, “The Cost of Art,” which was better than the first three, written by Rebeck, the creator of the show. We finally get a mention of the book, which Derek says is “still somewhat in flux.” So I suppose that is why the rehearsals seem to be more about the musical numbers than the book scenes. Ivy is bothered that nobody told her Karen is going to be in the ensemble and diva’s her out of the way in rehearsals. At one point Karen is sitting in the hall of rehearsal studio and one of the ensemble, whom we have heard being catty about her, listens to her complain and decides to help her. Three of the ensemble take Karen out for an “intervention,” getting her new clothes, but more entertainingly, teach her how to come to rehearsal (in regular clothes with your hair up) and change in the bathroom (to rehearsal clothes, and putting your hair in a ponytail). Now that feels like something written from experience. As does the three teaching Karen how to blend into the ensemble.

Eileen is trying to raise money by selling her (very nice) Degas sketch, but no dealer will touch it, since her ex-husband was the one who bought it. Derek is giving a party for Lyle West, a now-famous pop star Derek says he discovers. And Tom later says he discovered. So we think Eileen is going to hit him up for an investment, but where is where Grant is sharp. She offers to “rent” him the Degas for the startup money. Now that’s a nice twist.

The fifth episode, “Let’s Be Bad,” is written by Julie Rottenberg & Elisa Zuritsky is back to being sloppy, since it is mostly about all the characters having sex. That does lead to my favorite scene in the series so far. Tom, the lyricist, has gone out in “The Cost of Art,” with John, a lawyer. Tom and John’s mothers set up the blind date. Eeew, you know what that must be like. But John’s gorgeous and he and Tom hit the sack in this next episode. The great scene is the post-coital one, which starts out with them talking about how great the sex was, but then they quickly admit it was horrible, the worst sex they’ve ever had. You don’t see that in many American films and television shows.

I do have a problem with the writing and casting of the male characters. (On the female side Katharin McPhee and Megan Hilty are great as Karen and Ivy, respectively, and Anjelica Huston is fun to watch as Eileen.) The male characters are all played by good-looking, thin, guys with dark hair, so it is a bit hard to sort them out. As befitting a show about Broadway, several of the male characters are gay, but the straight male characters are deeply flawed. Derek screws every woman in sight and Julia’s husband is not very supportive. Michael, the actor they cast as Joe DiMaggio, had a fling before with Julia and starts up again, even though they are both married. Ellis has been cast and directed to be gay, but in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” we find out that he’s sleeping with one of his female roommates. It’s obvious his heterosexual side is the one that causes him to be not a nice person. When Lamar Trotti wrote the screenplay based on Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946), he told fellow Fox writer Philip Dunne that the story was “Basically… an anti-heterosexual picture.” There is an element of that here. As a straight male, I ought to object, but after all those years of gay psychotic and sociopathic characters (e.g., Quarles on this season’s Justified), it seems only fair that we now get the reverse. And if it gives us great scenes like the one between Tom and John, I am all for it.

There are pleasures to be had from the show, and I have not given up on it yet. The musical numbers, which shift in the cutting from rehearsals to fully staged, are entertaining, and the cutting of the final few moments of the “Pilot” episode, in which the characters all come together for the callback sequence is nicely done. The show was not dead on arrival, but like the theater always says about itself, it is ailing.

Luck (2012. “Pilot,” written by David Milch. 60 minutes.)

Luck

Horsies, some of them now deceased, and gamblers: David Milch is one of the biggest and best television writers around, with credits that include Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and Deadwood, just to name a few. His co-creator of this series is Michael Mann, who before he became a Great Director, was a pretty good television writer himself. See my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for details. So with HBO doing its usual overhyping, at least some attention had to be paid.

The pilot introduces to a lot of characters, all of them associated with horse racing and particularly the track at Santa Anita. The pilot starts out slow, but given the talent in front of and behind the camera, you know there is going to be more development. Whether you stick around for it depends entirely on how interested you are in the world of horseracing. The community seems pretty much hermetically sealed, with very little of real life intruding on it. I admire Milch for creating this world, but I don’t especially want to live in it. The world does give Mann an opportunity to have a lot of great shots of the horses, who are more expressive than those in War Horse (2011; see US#91). So this series appears to have been for guys who like gambling and 11-year-old girls who love their horsies.

I turned out not to be the only one who did not want to live an hour a week in the world of racetracks and gamblers. I was reminded of a film a studio made many years ago about bowling. The studio assumed that bowlers, of which there are millions in this country, would turn out for the movie. They didn’t. They preferred to bowl. I am sure gamblers preferred to gamble. There were no statistics on 11-year-old girls watching, but if they were, they, and everybody else, were turned off by the news that a total of three horses died during production. HBO canceled the series while still in its first season, a combination of bad ratings and dead horsies.

CSI (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Goodbye Catherine, hello Julie: The buildup to Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows leaving the show took several episodes, involving an old friend of her, Laura Gabriel, who was married to a nasty millionaire who ran a security service. All this involved Catherine with the F.B.I., especially agent McQuade. So when the case seems to be winding down in “Mrs. Willows Regrets” (teleplay by Christopher Barbour & Don McGill, story by Christopher Barbour), we are not surprised that Russell finds a letter of resignation from her in his email. Meanwhile she has been shot at and Russell rescues her. In the following episode, “Willows in the Wind” (written by Christopher Barbour & Richard Catalani, story by Carol Mendelson & Don McGill), Catherine discovers that Mark Gabriel is not the villain they thought he was, but the subject of an attempted assassination by Laura and McQuade, whom everybody thought was dead. That would push anybody to resign, but does not explain why she is taking a job with the F.B.I.. Before she goes, we do get a nice scene that finally explains in detail how she went from being a pole dancer in a club to a CSI. Her life as a stripper was alluded to in the early seasons, then pretty much dropped until now, and for good reason. It seemed like one of those ideas designed to appeal to the male executives but, at least during the run of the show, really was not particularly useful to the writers. Catherine’s farewell scene to the CSI crew really sounds more like Helgenberger’s farewell to the cast and crew of the show, and then is topped by a very anticlimactic scene with her and Morgan Brody, the youngest of the CSIs.

Two episodes later we are introduced to Julie Finlay, or “Finn,” in “Seeing Red” (written by Christopher Barbour & Tom Mularz). She is an expert in blood splatter. She also worked with Russell before, and their backstory gets laid out over the next several episodes. He fired her once, she insists he not call her “Jules,” and he insists she not call him Diebenkorn, which is what his initials D.B. stand for. She helps solve this case, then agrees to come to work for the crime lab full-time. She is a little younger and livelier than Catherine was, which may fit better with Ted Danson’s Russell.

Some Short Takes in Late Winter-Early Spring 2012 Television

Justified

I was intending to write a bunch about the new season of Justified, but Luke de Smet has been doing such a knockout job on his episode summaries and commentaries that I don’t have a lot to add. What I like is that he has been dealing with some of the writing problems and solutions the show is dealing with. In his discussion of episode one, he brings up the difficulty the writers must have had in trying to follow the spectacular life and death of Mags Bennett, an issue he deals with again in his comments on episode four. I am not at all sure they have managed it, but it may have been impossible. I also liked the way Luke dealt with the introduction of Limehouse in episode four, as well as his discussion of race in the same episode. Luke is also good on how this set of story arcs is getting us into Raylan’s feelings about his native habitat. He does not specifically lay all that on the writers, but they’re the ones who put it in the show. This show, by the way, escaped the curse of Smash: from the very beginning, all the writers are on the same page as to what show they are writing. Well, it helps if you have Elmore Leonard as your inspiration.

How I Met Your Mother still has not introduced to the mother. The creators of the show have been saying all along they had a plan for the whole series. But at a television critics meetings in Los Angeles, one of the creators of the show actually admitted they had made a huge mistake early on by not making Robin the mother. She and Ted had terrific chemistry, as did the two actors, Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor. But in the older Ted’s narration, he kept referring to her as the kids’ “Aunt Robin.” In “The Drunk Train” (written by Craig Gerard & Matthew Zinman), Robin’s new boyfriend Kevin proposes, but when Robin tells him she not only cannot have children, but does not want any, he passes. She tells the same thing to Ted, and he says he loves her. Well, that could end the show right there, but in the following episode, “No Pressure” (written by George Sloan), Sloan has to write them out of that problem, so we spend the whole episode waiting around for Robin’s reply to Ted’s declaration of love. Eventually she says she does not love him. God, they are worse that Matt and Lady Mary, but unlike Downton Abbey, this show has already foreclosed on the possibility of them getting together. Dumb mistake.

White Collar has not has as lively a season as it’s previous one. We have spent most of the season waiting around to find out Neal’s sentence is going to be commuted. Other than that, there has been no big arc to follow. The individual episodes are all right, but not up to their usual standard.

30 Rock has been going through a bad patch. It seems to have lost its zing. Take the “Leap Day” episode, written by Luke Del Tredici. It was all about a fictional holiday, the sort of thing any second-rate sitcom would do. The same was true of the “St. Patrick’s Day” episode written by Colleen McGuiness. There were virtually none of the usual 30 Rock connections with the real world that make the show sparkle at its best. “Kidnapped by Danger” brought back some of the life. Of course it helped that it was written by Tina Fey her ownself.

Desperate Housewives, coming up to its series finale, has also lost its zing. It plays more like a melodrama than a comedy-drama. In “She Needs Me” (written by Jason Ganzel) we get several scenes that would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera. “Women and Death” (written by Annie Weisman), which dealt with the aftermath of Mike’s death, was all soap opera. And worse, both episodes are sentimental, which is not a term anybody has ever used about Desperate Housewives. Maybe showrunner Marc Cherry was too busy with the lawsuit Nicollette Sheridan filed against him to mind the store properly.

GCB would seem to be intended to replace Desperate Housewives, but I have my doubts. It is based on the book Good Christian Bitches by Kim Gitlin and developed by Robert Harling, who wrote the play and screenplay for Steel Magnolias (1989). That genealogy pretty much tells you what to expect: Southern women being bitchy to each other. In this case they all live in Dallas, so there are a lot of Texas zingers as well. The “Pilot,” as many pilots are, is a little extra stuffed setting up the situation. Amanda was the queen bitch when she was in high school. She married a guy who made millions, but not legally. He is driving away with his ill-gotten gains. His mistress, Amanda’s best friend, not ever have read The World According to Garp on the safety hazards of doing this, is going down on him while he is driving. An accident ensues and all the lovely money they had with them floats away on the highway. That was a nice shot, by the way. So Amanda, broke, goes back to Dallas and even has to move into his mother’s mansion with her two teenaged kids. The women Amanda terrorized in high school are out to get revenge. Now whom do you root for? Amanda seems chastened by all that has happened to her, but the other women have a point as well. The writing in the pilot was very cartoon-like, which may not wear well over the series. In the second episode “Hell Hath No Fury” (also written by Harling), it is clear this is going to be a one-joke series: fundamentalist Christians do not behave well. We get it, now move on. There does not yet appear to be an at least semi-serious counterpoint, as there often was on Desperate Housewives. There is also a very odd casting problem. Carlene, the new queen bitch among the women, is played by Kristin Chenowith. That would appear to be perfect casting, but it may be too perfect. With her almost cartoon-like face and voice, and with a wig and outrageous clothes added, she may just be too much. Write for performance, as I always say, but Harling and his writers need to develop more for Chenowith to do than just the obvious.

Fairly Legal is back. You may remember in US#70, I almost did not watch the new show last winter called because I kept coming across the ads that showed its star, Sarah Shahi, with her cute little finger in her cute little mouth. Fortunately the show was much better than that. It still is in the new season. But I was driving down the street in Hollywood a few weeks before it premiered and a bus pulled up alongside me. I looked over and there is Shahi on the side of a bus. Announcing the upcoming return of the show. With her finger in her mouth. I am watching in spite of the ad rather than because of it.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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on

Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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