Angelina Jolie © Featureflash/Shutterstock; Jim Rash via YouTube
It was the Oscar pose heard ‘round the world. Before doling out the best adapted screenplay award last year, Angelina Jolie hit the stage in a black gown, placed her left hand on her hip and beveled out the right revealing one of the thighs that launched a thousand Pitts. It was the evening’s most scintillating moment, that is, until seconds later when Jolie called the writing team behind “The Descendants” to the stage. While director Alexander Payne accepted, bald-headed, bespectacled Jim Rash banked stage left, Oscar in hand, and assumed the leg-out Jolie position with all the concentration of an Olympic diver at the end of his board.
Any connoisseur of Oscar trash can quickly rattle off Cher’s ostracized Bob Mackie headdress, Rob Lowe’s laser-beam duet with Snow White or the Indian squaw Marlon Brando sent to the podium in his stead, but with the exception of Sacheen Littlefeather, these folks are all professional actors. What happens when lowly writers locked in a room all year spring from their cages? Rash is just the tip of the iceberg.
On November 3, 1930, screenwriter Frances Marion took the stage of Los Angeles’ now demolished Ambassador Hotel to accept the Academy Award for her original script “The Big House,” making her the first woman to take home a non-acting award. Though classifying her craft as “the refuge of the shy,” Marion would rule the roost for several more years as Hollywood’s highest paid writer: male or female. Back then, the prize was simply called “Writing Achievement” and would go through several clumsy iterations, including “Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium” (hello, “Ghost”), before finally settling under the heading “Best Adapted Screenplay,” where it’s been for the last decade, but the milestone of writers behaving badly probably dates back to the three-time winner Paddy Chayefsky.
The “Network” scribe used the podium to publicly slap Vanessa Redgrave for her “Zionist hoodlums” speech in 1978, saying, “Her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple 'Thank you' would have sufficed” before accepting his own Oscar from Norman Mailer “in the name of all us perverts.”
The following year, newcomer Oliver Stone banked a fairly demure acceptance speech for his adaptation of “Midnight Express,” dedicating the award to “all the men and women all over the world who are in prison tonight.” Of course, Stone being Stone, he later publicly apologized for the film during a trip to Istanbul admitting he “over-dramatised the script.”
Fast forward to 1996 and imagine Frances Marion doing barrel rolls in her grave as Emma Thompson takes the stage to accept the clunkily named Oscar for “Writing (Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published)” for her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Ms. Thompson began by detailing a visit to “Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral to pay my respects, you know, and to tell her about the grosses. And I don't know how she would react to an evening like this but I do hope, I do hope she knows how big she is in Uruguay.” And while cementing her kooky Brit status in Hollywood, it was a major step down for Thompson from her Golden Globes speech earlier that year wherein she actually accepted as Jane Austen. And while her description of “The Golden Spheres” and its “heat, noise, and overcrowding” initially got some laughs, it quickly lapsed into awkward-ville as Thompson went on to thank director Ang Lee and star Kate Winslet. As Austen!
The following year, awards loose cannon Jodie Foster handed off the screenplay award to Oscar’s first Billy Bob and his script for “Sling Blade.” A Colonel Sanders-tied Mr. Thornton began his acceptance speech with a “Whoa, Lord have mercy” that elicited the requisite whoops from the audience. He later sported a black ZZ Top baseball cap in the backstage winner’s circle. Not to be outdone, novelist John Irving set the record for use of the word “abortion” during his 2000 speech when he accepted for adapting his own “Cider House Rules,” capping his thanks with a nod to Planned Parenthood.
It’s anybody’s guess, but “Silver Linings Playbook” scribe David O. Russell would certainly ascend the podium as Hollywood’s biggest bad boy with not only a pending battery charge, but also a potty-mouthed, viral freakout on star Lily Tomlin during his “I (Heart) Huckabees” shoot still clogging email in-boxes. Playwright Tony Kushner is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winner “Angels in America,” which clocks in at seven hours and is usually performed over two consecutive evenings. His win for “Lincoln” could dictate an Oscar day-two results show, but Kushner’s controversial stance on Palestine could also make him this year’s Vanessa Redgrave.
“Life of Pi” adaptor David Magee used to earn his keep abridging books and Chris Terrio’s script for “Argo” was based on a 5,000-word feature in Wired magazine so we can expect short speeches in either case, but the real wildcards in this category are “Beast of the Southern Wild” collaborators Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin. These screenwriters are such relative newcomers that they could bet the farm and bring home the Katrina-infused sentiments of their script by emulating notorious awards disrupter Kayne West who raged, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a live televised Katrina benefit for The Red Cross. In any event, let’s keep a paramedic at the ready.