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 an Original Screenplay Oscar Nomination in 2015?
Straight Outta Compton — Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
What Is ‘Straight Outta Compton’ About?
Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise of rap group N.W.A. from their humble beginnings in 1986 Compton to their genre-defying rise to fame in the 90s. In particular, the film focuses on their runaway hit song “Fuck tha Police,” inspired by police violence inflicted on the group. As the group achieves success, each of the members grapples with their own artistic voice and spotlight. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) takes naturally to the spotlight and becomes an activist in the wake of the Rodney King riots, as well as an actor in Boyz n the Hood. Meanwhile, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) aligns himself with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and breaks off to form Death Row Records. Both men’s success causes Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) to fall behind.
How Did ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Earn Their Adapted Screenplay Nomination?
The film was a phenomenon. After opening to a whopping $60 million domestically in the dog days of summer, the film went on to gross over $200 million worldwide. Thanks to a smart advertising campaign and the behind-the-scenes involvement of NWA, people turned out in droves to see the film and didn’t stop talking about it. It had been quite a while since a music biopic had struck such a chord with audiences and critics alike.
Strangely, original screenplay didn’t seem like the most obvious place for Straight Outta Compton to earn awards. Most of its awards season buzz was in Best Picture and Ensemble categories. The WGA gave it a screenplay nomination, but that was the only major precursor that cited it. As we’ve seen in other past examples, the screenplay category can sometimes act as a “catch-all’ category for movies the Academy wants to reward, but they don’t know which element to single out (see The Big Sick and Knives Out).
What Other Categories Should It Have Showed Up In?
Straight Outta Compton came very close to a Best Picture nomination. It landed high profile nominations at three of the four main guild awards – PGA, SAG and WGA. The only one it missed was the DGA. Since 2009, only three other movies with at least three of the four guilds did not get into Best Picture (Bridesmaids, The Big Sick, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). It also landed on top ten lists from AFI and the National Board of Review, signifying broad appeal. Straight Outta Compton seemed like a populist option that would’ve fallen in line with the Academy’s favorite subgenre, musical biopics. Two things held it back from greater Oscar glory: the Academy’s bias against rap music and lack of buzz in other categories.
Yes, movies like Hustle & Flow have seen some success at the Oscars. Unfortunately, Straight Outta Compton came out in the second year of #OscarsSoWhite and the structural changes that President Cheryl Boone-Isaacs had put in place had not yet altered the membership and their choices. Had Straight Outta Compton come out a few years later and had similar levels of success, it might have had a better shot at a Best Picture nomination.
Even more so than writing, Straight Outta Compton earned citations for its talented ensemble. It’s no easy feat to bring to life the iconic members of NWA. However, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr and Aldis Hodge were more than up to the task. Many of these actors have gone on to great, more high profile careers. Yet, at the time, none of them were household names, save for maybe O’Shea Jackson Jr for being Ice Cube’s son. If there was a potential standout, it was Jason Mitchell, who brought to life the thorny passion of Easy-E. Yet, precursors, such as the Critics Choice, opted to give them ensemble nominations rather than singling out any member of the cast. This presented challenges for getting anyone into the acting categories.
Being a music biopic, the sound categories also seemed very doable. Straight Outta Compton received a nomination from the Motion Pictures Sound Editors branch, which was very promising. Unfortunately, a corresponding Oscar nomination did not follow.
How Well Do These Movies Hold Up Compared to Their Fellow Nominees?
- Bridge of Spies — Written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
- Ex Machina — Written by Alex Garland
- Inside Out — Screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; Original story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
- Spotlight — Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy – WINNER
- Straight Outta Compton — Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
Original Screenplay was the only Oscar Spotlight won before winning Best Picture. Tom McCarthy’s drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation into Catholic priests molesting children remains just as pertinent and searing today. What McCarthy and Josh Singer do so well with their script is move between the different members of the Spotlight team, creating this rich tapestry that perfectly conveys how multi-layered and deep the corruption and abuse within the Church ran. While being broad in scope, it never loses its humanity and has terrific moments that let the victims’ stories take center stage. I would still give Spotlight the win today.
Straight Outta Compton would fall right in the middle of the category for me, just behind Ex Machina. Alex Garland’s minimalist science fiction thriller keeps the twists and turns coming. However, its success is fully based on the strong central trio that Garland defines in the script.
This lineup features an impressive array of genres and tones. While dramas and music biopics are frequently honored, it also managed to make room for animated and science fiction entries. Inside Out features one of Pixar’s most creative and ambitious concepts to date. Unfortunately, the spark of originality gets snuffed out as it becomes a more rote “journey” story with Joy and Sadness. Conversely, Bridge of Spies feels like the dull choice on paper here. However, the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman do a great job building the relationship between Mark Rylance’s spy, Rudolph Abel, and Tom Hanks’ dogooder lawyer, James B. Donovan. The Cold War set drama is more engaging than its reputation suggests, though it is on the bottom tier of this lineup.
Who cares about Oscars when you can be a box office hit? Straight Outta Compton was poised to do really well at the Oscars. However, being a late-breaking summer hit was much more important. The $200 million plus worldwide haul proves that NWA’s legacy endures. This also helped revitalize the music biopic genre for films like All Eyez on Me, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. The film’s cultural imprint is far greater than its Original Screenplay nomination.