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?
The Big Sick – Best Original Screenplay – Written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
The old adage goes that comedy is tragedy plus time. Writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani mined their real-life romance for drama and comedy in The Big Sick.
Kumail (played by Nanjiani himself) is a hapless comedian caught between his career ambitions and familial obligations. He dreams of moving from Chicago to New York and expanding his comedy career. On the other hand, his mother (Zenobia Shroff) wants nothing more than to arrange marriage for him. This rift only widens once Kumail meets and falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a psychology student. Kumail keeps Emily hidden from his family. When she realizes this after finding photos of all the women his Mom has set him up with, she breaks up with him.
Everything changes when Emily falls into a coma shortly after. Kumail comes to her aid and visits her in the hospital, alongside her parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). While at first Terry and Beth are wary of Kumail’s involvement, they soon bond over their shared love of Emily and hope for her to come out of her coma.
It’s hard not to get swept away in the narrative behind the making of The Big Sick. From the moment it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, people were abuzz about the true story romantic comedy. Since star Kumail Nanjiani wrote it alongside his wife Emily V. Gordon, original screenplay seemed like the best place to reward the movie. On the surface, Gordon and Nanjiani were able to construct a funny and heartbreaking romantic comedy that blended so many tones and storylines so well. It was a tale of romance, clashing cultures and medical drama all wrapped into one. Adding in the personal layer that this story was based on their actual courtship only enhanced the film’s campaign.
The highly personal nature of the story helped make The Big Sick a sleeper summer success. After opening in limited release to $421K, it continued to expand over July and August, reaching a weekend high of $7.5 million in 2,597 theaters. By the end of its multi-month run, The Big Sick grossed a stellar $42.8 million domestically and $13.5 million internationally. In terms of independent film successes, only Best Picture nominees The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Lady Bird outperformed The Big Sick. It was a big enough hit to be in the Oscar conversation.
The Big Sick had an impressive awards run leading up to the Oscars. For screenplay, it earned nominations from the WGA, Critics Choice and Gotham Awards. Additionally, it won Best First Screenplay at the Indie Spirit awards. Many had predicted the film to show up in Best Picture (we will get into that soon), so Original Screenplay was supposed to be the foundational nomination from which others might build off of.
Throughout the season, The Big Sick seemed poised for Oscar success. We already detailed all the success it saw in the screenplay precursors. Additionally, it had a strong shot at a Best Picture nomination. The film was a guild favorite, showing up in three of the four main guild awards. The Big Sick received nominations at the PGA Awards, SAG Awards (for Best Ensemble) and WGA Awards. Few movies miss Best Picture when they have all three of those guilds. The film also was nominated at the Critics Choice awards for Best Picture (including winning Best Comedy). Only the Golden Globes snubbed the movie entirely. Normally the Globes favor larger movies with more starry casts. Additionally, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has no voter overlap with the Oscars. This snub didn’t appear to forecast an Oscar snub. Yet, it may have halted the movie’s momentum, keeping it from the top category.
Even more shocking than the film’s Best Picture snub was the Holly Hunter snub in Best Supporting Actress. The Oscar winner earned rave reviews as Beth, the tough no-nonsense mother of Emily. This character archetype usually does well in the Supporting Actress category (see June Squibb in Nebraska, Patricia Arquette in Boyhood and Hunter in Thirteen). Additionally, precursor nominations at the SAG Awards, Critics Choice Awards and Indie Spirit Awards all set Hunter up for success. Her misses at the Golden Globes and BAFTA did not seem too worrisome since it was a smaller, American film. Yet, her slot likely went to Lesley Manville, as Phantom Thread had a very late surge thanks to overwhelming BAFTA support. Hunter was easily in sixth place that year for Best Supporting Actress.
As good as Hunter was, my favorite performance of the film belongs to Ray Romano, who plays her on-screen husband, Terry. His affable demeanor is put to the test as he deals with his daughter’s coma. Always the peacekeeper, he’s the first one to really invite Kumail into their family unit. Compared to Hunter, Romano leans a bit more into the comedy of the piece. This only makes it more remarkable when he switches gears and turns on the water works. It makes one want to watch Romano tackle more dramatic pieces, which thankfully he has done with roles in Paddleton, Bad Education and The Irishman.
- The Big Sick — Written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
- WINNER – Get Out — Written by Jordan Peele
- Lady Bird — Written by Greta Gerwig
- The Shape of Water — Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor; Story by Guillermo del Toro
- Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri — Written by Martin McDonagh
You can’t argue against a win for Get Out. Jordan Peele’s socially conscious horror movie was a genre defining critical and commercial hit. As you read this, there are probably many film students writing a paper about “The Sunken Place” or any other element of Peele’s brilliant film. As the Oscar season went on, some (including myself) were predicting that Get Out could pull out a surprise Best Picture win based on its popularity. Peele’s win in this category stands out as one of the most exciting moments of the telecast.
Among the remaining nominees, Lady Bird likely holds up the best, even if it was probably third place at the time. Greta Gerwig’s barbed love letter to her mother and home town of Sacramento was filled with hilarious one-liners tinged with nostalgic authenticity. The script accurately dramatizes the dichotomy of loving one’s home or family while desiring to get away. As Sister Joan (Lois Smith) beautifully expresses, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
Most likely the runner-up was Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which coincidentally has aged the worst of this lineup. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell won Oscars for their work in the film, in which an angry mother launches a crusade to find her missing daughter against the wishes of the racist local police. McDonagh has a gift for dialogue (see the wonderful In Bruges), but feels lost trying to examine the dynamic between the police and townsfolk of this small town in Missouri. The film, which features a nearly all-white cast, also clumsily handles race, especially as it relates to racism within law enforcement.
The Shape of Water may have won Best Picture, but it was likely in fourth place at the time. Guillermo Del Toro’s love story between a mute janitor and fish man was heralded for its acting and beautiful craft elements. The story, which borrows from many a fairy tale, is very sweet, but was not the main element singled out by fans. Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s script does a great job creating memorable characters, though it may have added one or two too many subplots.
While The Big Sick was likely in last place for Oscar voting, it certainly belongs in third or fourth place in this lineup. It more than holds its own in a category filled with Best Picture heavy hitters.
Romantic comedies often fall into the “Lone Screenplay” category and we will likely talk about more of them as the series goes on. It’s heartening to see The Big Sick make a play for Best Picture glory, as it had all the makings of a “little engine that could” Sundance hit. Among the Best Picture nominees, it would’ve been a more interesting choice than some of the more Academy-friendly options like Dunkirk, Darkest Hour or The Post (though all are good movies). Still, it is great that we still get to call this an Oscar nominated film. Most of all, the movie catapulted Kumail Nanjiani to a new level of acclaim and cemented Nanjiani and Gordon as a writing duo to be reckoned with.