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The Lone Screenplay Nominee: Paul Schrader’s ‘First Reformed’

Courtesy of A24 Films

Writers are an odd bunch. Every year we get a movie (or two) that earns a screenplay nomination… and nothing else. These deviations from the pack mentality of the Oscars (where we see a few movies dominate in all categories) are what make for a fun and delightful nomination morning. In fact, many times the writing branch of the Academy honors movies that later become much more lauded and acclaimed decades later. We wanted to take a look at these lone screenplay nominees and figure out which have aged well and should they have earned more nominations.

What Movie Only Earned a Screenplay Oscar Nomination?

“First Reformed” – Best Original Screenplay – Written by Paul Schrader

What Is ‘First Reformed’ About?

Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) leads a small congregation at the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. Under his tenure, attendance has dropped steadily as parishioners ventured towards a local megachurch, run by Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). We find Paster Toller in the middle of a crisis of faith that he struggles to handle productively. Often he turns to the bottle (even mixing in pepto bismol at times). One of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches him worried about her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). He’s long been a radical environmentalist, but recently she found a suicide vest that alarmed her. As Pastor Toller starts counseling Michael, he starts to believe in Michael’s environmental causes. The further he becomes radicalized, the deeper Pastor Toller’s religious conflicts grow within him, hurdling him towards emotional and physical destruction.

How Did ‘First Reformed’ Earn Its Original Screenplay Nomination?

Climate change anxiety from the point of view of a jaded pastor doesn’t seem like an obvious Oscar movie. Paul Schrader‘s First Reformed had an uphill climb to get to its Original Screenplay nomination. While reviews were glowing, the film opened in June and only grossed four million worldwide. It was an indie hit, but didn’t cross over to the mainstream.

It didn’t become clear that First Reformed could be an Oscar contender until the precursors started. Both the Gothams and Independent Spirit Awards threw their weight behind the film, which was an early signal that it could be the indie breakthrough. Once Ethan Hawke earned every critics group win under the sun, its chances looked a lot better. Schrader’s screenplay was almost as omnipresent as Hawke’s acting nominations. Not only that, he won the Critics Choice prize for Original Screenplay over much more formidable Oscar frontrunners. 

Paul Schrader was likely a large factor in securing the Original Screenplay nomination. Despite being most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Schrader had never been nominated for an Oscar at this point in his career. The movie likely would have made the lineup based purely on quality. However, this overdue narrative gave the campaign some urgency for the Academy to finally recognize Schrader.

What Other Categories Should It Have Showed Up In?

Ethan Hawke was one of the hardest snubs to swallow on Oscar nomination morning. Especially with such a weak Best Actor lineup (Bradley Cooper from A Star is Born was the only one worth keeping), it’s a shame Hawke was left out. The nomination wasn’t wishful thinking though, Hawke had the precursors to make it happen. He dominated the critics prizes, winning an unprecedented 32 prizes and 16 nominations from critics groups. This included wins at both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) Awards and New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) Awards. This critical love didn’t necessarily translate to all the televised awards. Hawke missed out on the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, but earned a Critics Choice nomination. Missing the SAG Awards was likely the clear sign Hawke was in trouble. However, who knew Willem Dafoe would unseat Hawke for At Eternity’s Gate with only Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations. 

Other than Best Actor, First Reformed wasn’t generating heat in many other categories. The Independent Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards both nominated the movie in Best Picture. However, since those awards specialize in independent film, it felt fitting First Reformed would show up there. Additionally, the Indie Spirits recognized Paul Schrader in the directing category in addition to writing. There was an outside chance First Reformed could factor into the directing race if voters really loved it. Yet, they were able to reward Schrader with an Original Screenplay nomination, so there wasn’t much of a movement to push him for directing. 

How Well Does “First Reformed” Hold Up Compared to Its Fellow Nominees?

  • The Favourite — Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
  • First Reformed — Written by Paul Schrader
  • WINNER – Green Book — Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly 
  • Roma — Written by Alfonso Cuarón
  • Vice — Written by Adam McKay

It’s embarrassing that the Oscars gave Green Book Best Picture. However, I would argue that it’s almost more embarrassing that the Oscars gave Green Book Best Original Screenplay. If there were any things that made that movie successful, they were the performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (who also won an Oscar). The writing was broad and full of embarrassing white savior tropes that minimized Don Shirley’s (Ali) narrative and experiences. Even with that said, I wouldn’t categorize Green Book as the worst script in the bunch. That distinction belongs to Adam McKay’s Vice. It lets the author’s smug-ness drive the movie forward, rather than any characters or plot. For all its tangents and stylistic flourishes, McKay forgets how to craft a story. Rather, he constructs a series of SNL skits in shambles and uses them to preach to the choir. 

Roma is a gorgeous movie that was a frontrunner (and more worthy winner) in the Best Picture category. The praise for the movie was concentrated more in Alfonso Cuaron’s direction (where he won the Oscar) and in the performances. That doesn’t necessarily mean there was anything deficient with the script. The plotting of the film was strong and the vivid characterizations helped elicit such terrific performances, specifically from nominees Yalitza Aparacio and Marina de Tavira. However, this nomination mostly signaled the love for Roma overall as a film, rather than singling out the craft of screenwriting for the film.

This leaves us with the rightful winner. Hindsight is 20/20, but it was clear in 2018 that Tony McNamera and Deborah Davis should have won for The Favourite. The stylistic dramedy of Queen Anne’s rule earned ten nominations, eventually winning Best Actress for Olivia Colman. Not only was the script smart and creatively structured, it also was the driving force behind the film’s unique, darkly funny tone. Rewarding the script would’ve made sense.

Looking at this lineup, First Reformed was the least likely to win. It may have come in third or fourth place depending on whether it was able to inspire enough passion among its strong contingent. However, there were too many people who were passionate about each of the Best Picture nominees for it to surprise. Among my personal rankings, First Reformed would easily be second place behind The Favourite. All in all, this is an Original Screenplay lineup the Oscars should be ashamed by, including their pick for winner.

Closing Thoughts

It’s really a shame Ethan Hawke couldn’t get a Best Actor nomination. His performance drove most of the momentum for the film in terms of awards traction. The Original Screenplay nomination is richly deserved, but feels like a consolation prize for Hawke’s assured, yet dranged, performance. As a career nomination, this feels very representative of who Paul Schrader is as an artist. It captures his singular voice, penchant for paranoia and ability to rile up audiences. 

What are your thoughts on “First Reformed?” Did it deserve more Oscar nominations than it got? Let us know in the comments below.

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Written by Chris James

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