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Oscars: Is ‘Moonlight’ Poised To Make History After WGA Original Screenplay Win?

Deadline logo Deadline 2/20/2017 Pete Hammond
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Well that didn’t settle much!

For only the third time since 1984 (some 32 years ago), the Writers Guild and the Oscars are possibly going to have two different winners in the Original and Adapted Screenplay categories, although you can put an asterisk on that statistic since they are both likely to have Moonlight as a shared winner – but in two different writing categories. If I haven’t confused you enough, let me make this even more perplexing.

With tonight’s newly minted WGA winners, Moonlight for Original Screenplay and Arrival for Adapted Screenplay, the scene is set for a different Academy Award winner in those categories since the two will, in a highly unusual situation, be facing off against each other in the Adapted Screenplay category. The Academy’s writers branch determined that Moonlight is an adaptation of an unproduced play, whereas the WGA, as well as BAFTA, deemed it an original. Moonlight beat stiff competition Manchester By The Sea and La La Land in that category to take the WGA prize, but won’t be facing off against them at the Oscars, instead against WGA’s Adaptation winner Arrival. If Moonlight wasn’t already the heavy favorite to take Adaptation Screenplay at the Oscars, it certainly is now after its Original Script victory, giving it real momentum going into the final two days of Oscar voting. It is also sweet revenge for Barry Jenkins’ script as it got wiped out last Sunday at BAFTA by Manchester By The Sea in a similar Screenplay face-off that doesn’t exist at the Oscars. Pundits don’t give Arrival the same odds of victory despite its WGA win.

So, we may well have a different film winning in the Academy’s Original and Adaptation categories than what the WGA chose for the first time since 2003 when Bowling For Columbine and The Hours took the WGA scribe prizes, while The Pianist and Talk To Her won the Oscars. The only other example came in 1984, the first year WGA and Oscars began having identical writing categories, when The Killing Fields and Broadway Danny Rose took the Guild honors, while Places In The Heart and Amadeus beat them at the Oscars.

The situation of having a movie like Moonlight deemed a winner in two different writing categories at the WGA Awards and the Oscars would be extremely rare. In fact, it has never occurred in the almost 50 years the Writers Guild has had those designations in common with the Academy (although until ’84 WGA divided their then – four writing prizes between Comedy and Drama Original and Adapted categories).

Ironically, one of the films it beat at WGA was La La Land, whose writer Damien Chazelle knows what it’s like to have a movie labeled Original by the WGA only to be nominated for Adapted Screenplay by the Oscars. He did it two years ago with Whiplash, but didn’t win either one. With the fact that it is now a heavy favorite to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, Moonlight is on the precipice of making history this season. It has been on that trajectory ever since I broke the news that the Academy’s Writers Branch determined that Jenkins’ script, with story by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the original theatrical piece that inspired it), yanked it from Original Screenplay to put it in the Adapted contest instead. The plot thickens.

The WGA awards, covered exhaustively already by my Deadline colleagues, are the last of the major Guild awards to be announced this season in advance of next Sunday’s Oscar show. Already the DGA, PGA and SAG awards have tipped in the direction of La La Land, making that movie the heavy favorite, even with no WGA win. The Guilds are the most reliable indicator of Oscar success since both the Academy and Guilds have the largest number of members in common.

Although some pundits may look at La La’s loss in this final major Guild battle as a setback, you have to remember musicals, even those that win Best Picture, are a real long shot in Oscar’s writing categories, as well as at WGA in recent decades. The last musical to win an Oscar was Gigi for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1958, and the last purely original screen tuner to take the Academy’s writing prize was An American In Paris in 1951. Still, La La Land did grab Screenplay honors at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards (tying Manchester By The Sea at the latter) and it has a decent shot to reverse the curse of the musical scripts next Sunday at the Dolby. Time will tell.

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