Best Screenplay 1981

1927/28 through 1997

What were the best original and adapted screenplays of 1981?

Absence of Malice(Kurt Luedtke)
No votes
Arthur(Steve Gordon)
No votes
Atlantic City(John Guare)
Chariots of Fire(Colin Welland)
Reds(Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths)
On Golden Pond(Ernest Thompson)
Pennies from Heaven(Dennis Potter)
Prince of the City(Jay Presson Allen and Sidney Lumet)
Ragtime(Michael Weller)
No votes
The French Lieutenant's Woman(Harold Pinter)
Total votes: 39

Mister Tee
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Re: Best Screenplay 1981

Postby Mister Tee » Wed Mar 25, 2015 9:41 pm

I’ll echo Magilla’s support for True Confessions (though not all the way up to his saying he’s vote for it outright). And, though it’s a genre piece, I find Eye of the Needle a stronger script than some of the other adapted nominees.

Worst of all those nominees, of course, is On Golden Pond, as cloying a movie as has won major Oscars in my lifetime. Ernest Thompson (who – surprise – hasn’t had a long, distinctive career) is a shameless heart-tugger. He brushes past serious generational issues with “I’ll do a back-flip for you, Dad, and all will be forgiven”; he indulges in metaphors so obvious a ninth-grader could see past them (“listen, Ethel – the loons”); and he creates a juvenile character so irritating he can get liberals in the audience to root for a death sentence. One of the worst screenplay Oscars EVER, and one I could never endorse.

Ragtime and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are cut from the same cloth – based on quality-fiction best-sellers, cast with some of the better actors around, directed by class acts, inevitably falling somewhat short of their literary sources (in each case because those sources were more literary than dramatic). I liked both of them to a degree – Ragtime especially for the Coalhouse Walker sequences (which were the most gripping parts of the book, as well), French Lieutenant for its period story more than the tony framing device. I wouldn’t vote for either, but I don’t begrudge their nominations.

Pennies from Heaven seemed better to me when I saw it cold in 1981, as opposed to after I’d seen the much longer BBC series from which it was adapted. Inevitably, you start to notice what was lost; the British version was simply more delicately textured (as was Potter’s even better Singing Detective vis a vis the Downey Jr. film). Even giving the Herbert Ross version its props, I wouldn’t see it as a logical winner for screenplay; it’s more memorable as concept than as a dialogue/character piece.

And it’s competing with Prince of the City, which I think is a major work. Most people think Network is the strongest screenplay from which Sidney Lumet ever worked, but I’d opt for this effort, instead. Lumet had of course already dealt with police corruption, entertainingly, in Serpico, but here he makes that earlier effort look like once-over-lightly – plumbing deep into life on the crime-ridden streets, making it clear that corruption is an almost inevitable byproduct of trying to limit damage to society. Treat Williams’ central character is like a Greek tragic hero – striving to do some level of right, brought down by his own flaws. This was by far the most powerful film I saw in 1981, a great drama that never truly got its due. I’m happy to give it my vote here.

Under original, I’m not sure if My Dinner with Andre would really qualify, but it’s some kind of wonderful and original experience. Apart from that, I don’t really miss anything. (Raiders was great fun, but not really on the writing level)

Absence of Malice is actually a fairly weak script, largely because it seems determined to cram a big-star romance into a movie that doesn’t truly require one. The logistics of the planted evidence/journalistic indifference plot are decent enough – more than that where Melinda Dillon’s character is concerned (though things do descend to the trivial when Wilford Brimley rides in to resolve the conflict). The machinations pushing Newman and Field into a clinch, though, are completely ridiculous. Newman, pro that he is, somehow plays his part with conviction, but Sally seems to understand her actions make no sense, and she wanders around looking utterly lost. Wildly overrated movie.

As I’ve said here before, the main thing about Arthur is, I found a lot of it funny. Not deep, not engaging in any life sense – just providing a lot of laughs. That’s not enough to rate a screenplay Oscar, but maybe worth a nomination in a mediocre year.

Chariots of Fire’s win in this category was a real surprise to me, as I thought the competition was strictly between the two bigger critical favorites. I have a higher opinion of the film than some – I think it takes a relatively thoughtful look at sporting competition, at what both winning and losing mean. But I value it more highly for its atmosphere than for any great writerly achievement.

Reds is something of a maddening film. What’s good about it – the sense of intellectual ferment, articulated by both the actors in the drama and the aging reminiscers in the documentary footage – is greatly exciting, and helps us see back into an era that was distant past. But the central romance, even as put across by two good actors, isn’t worthy of that background; it feels like the price of admission we have to pay to get all that good stuff into the movie. I could possibly vote for the film for its many high points, but would regret having to endorse the less-than-thrilling parts in the bargain.

This isn’t to say I full-throatedly endorse Atlantic City, the clear critics’ favorite of the year. I’m a long-time John Guare enthusiast, and there are moments that show his touch (like the memorable line “The Atlantic Ocean was something. then”). I like the idea of the decrepit city, being brought to fresh life, as metaphor for what happens to the film’s central characters. But the story doesn’t quite go enough of anywhere for me to echo the critics’ huge enthusiasm. This is another case of the least ugly child being the family beauty: I don’t love Atlantic City…but I like it more than anything else of the roster. So, it gets my vote.

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Re: Best Screenplay 1981

Postby Big Magilla » Wed Mar 25, 2015 7:14 pm


For me, it's between Reds and Atlantic City.

Reds is an absorbing look at the people behind the headlines. John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugnee O'Neill and Emma Goldman come alive in the impersonations of Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicolson and Maureen Stapleton through the words of the screenplay with as assist from the surviving "witnesses" to the history of the period. My only caveat is that this like all films made about real-life people, are adaptations to me. The same would therefore hold true of the Oscar winning Chariots of Fire.

Atlantic City is the year's best fully original story.

The very funny Arthur deserves it nomination but I would give the fifth slot to Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Gallipoliover Absence of Malice.

In the end I have to go with Reds. It's just too good to ignore.


Aside from Prince of the City this was a pretty dismal group of screenplays. Pennies from Heaven worked better as a 1978 TV mini-series with Bo Hoskins than it does as a movie with Steve Martin. The French Lieutenant's Woman was an acting showcase for Meryl Streep in a dual role that gets around the plot limitations of the novel, but is not completely successful in my opinion.

Ragtime was a bastardization of a great novel, the antithesis of Reds. I didn't find it at all compelling.

The less said about On Golden Pond the better. I loved the acting of Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn but the film's charm came from their interplay and the supporting performances they helped bring out of the rest of the cast. The dialogue they were given to spit out was pretty bad. Twenty years later Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer did a live TV version of the play which I found unwatchable and gave up on after maybe twenty minutes.

True Confessions and Cutter's Way should have been nominated in lieu of at least two of these. True Confessions would be my choice for the win but since it's not nominated I'll have to go with The Prince of the City.
“‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” - Voltaire

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Best Screenplay 1981

Postby Kellens101 » Wed Mar 25, 2015 11:08 am

What was the best screenplay of 1981?

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