How To Win An Oscar (For Lady Writing)

The Oscar nominations are out, and it looks like a good year for lady stories. Both films I reviewed last week, Carol and Brooklyn, have received noms for best adapted screenplay, along with Emma Donoghue’s film version of her novel Room. I haven’t written about Room yet, mostly because I’m still in therapy from reading the book and my doctors feel it could be a trigger for me. But still, that’s three female-driven screenplays receiving film’s highest recognition for excellence. (Not to mention some pretty cool female-driven plotlines in the original screenplay category, specifically Alex Garland’s kick-ass original script for Ex Machina and Meg LeFauve’s mind-blowing Inside Out.) Go, ladies!

So in the spirit of the annual awards show which celebrates the most beautiful, the most moving, and the most technically brilliant films of the year, and then systematically compares those films to each other, cruelly deciding which one is “best” and then ruthlessly discarding the others, here are the TOP 10 WAYS to win an Oscar with lady stories!

Winslet Oscars

In Room , Brie Larson does it with such fiery passion in her eyes that you can’t help but do it with her. Brooklyn’s Saoirse Ronan does it because she’s homesick, in a way that anyone who’s ever missed anything can’t help but be moved by. And both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara do it all over the place in Carol. (And not for nothing, they all got acting nods as well.)

What have we learned? If you want to write a female-driven script that gets critics’ attention, let your leading ladies cry it out. Sure, you could say the same is true for male-driven dramas, but not always. Women have to cry at least once. It’s how we know they’re really struggling, and how, like all good stars, they’re “just like us.”


How else do we relate to characters? Through their sense of humor, of course. At the beginning of Carol, Therese is forced to wear a ridiculous-looking Santa hat at work. She hates it, but her boss insists, and we see her self-consciously adjusting it behind the counter. Carol comes in, orders a doll for her daughter, and whispers as she’s walking away, “I like the hat.” Therese chuckles. Someone has understood her. It’s their first moment of connection.

Now for my money, this script could have used a few more of those, but it does succeed in letting us know that Carol and Therese find the same things amusing. It’s part of what draws them together. Similarly, the only person who seems able to elicit a smile out of Brie in Room is her son Jack. Saoirse really comes to life in Brooklyn when she’s falling for her American beau Frank and laughs at his sometimes awkward “frankness” (sorry, couldn’t help myself) about his family. The lesson? A similar sense of humor is the quickest shortcut to creating intimacy between two characters.

Torture. Rape. False imprisonment. Death of a loved one. Losing custody of a child. And all through no fault of their own. Now all of these scripts handle these devastating things pretty deftly, and it’s why they’re nominated. But let’s face it. We don’t nominate field trips to the zoo.

If you’re writing a drama, always remember to keep those stakes raised as high as possible. As my longtime writing teacher always says, “What’s the worst that could happen? Do that.”

If you’ll pardon that obnoxious phrase for a moment (think about it—keep it tight?? What exactly am I supposed to be keeping tight for you?), we’ll move on. What do these three movies have in common, especially when held up against the male-leaning movies nominated in the same category (The Martian and The Big Short)? Well, neither one of them features a space station on Mars where Saoirse Ronan lives for years growing potatoes fertilized by her own feces. (If you haven’t seen The Martian, don’t worry about it. It’s this whole thing.)

By and large, female-driven movies that are recognized for their writing are not what we’d call “high concept.” They’re small. They’re character-driven. I mean, sure, you can put Sandra Bullock in space and win a bunch of Oscars (although not, interestingly, for writing), but just have her float around and feel stuff for most of it. If you try to have her save Pluto or something, people might get confused.

Yes, these leading ladies cry and feel things and they’re isolated and ostracized and maybe even tortured, but… ooh, is that an emerald brooch Cate Blanchett is wearing? Wow, that’s pretty. And so shiny, too.

Leading ladies are pretty. They’re thin. And boy, are they usually white. Now listen, I love all these actresses and they all KILLED IT in these movies. But for every Gabourey Sidibe who gets discovered for a Precious (and every Geoffrey Fletcher who wins an Oscar for that adapted screenplay), there’s a whole roomful of skinny white ladies who dared to—gasp—appear onscreen with no eye shadow and oily hair, but who will most assuredly accept their awards in a size-zero custom designed Valentino.


What have we learned? Well, I guess if we want to play it safe, we’ll write a part that a movie star can play. And we’ll keep in mind the kind of star that might be right for our material. (But seriously, if you’re looking to adapt the next Precious, please do so. We all know Cate Blanchett can act, but we love finding out somebody else can, too.)

And by that I mean, make the men just a little bit dumb. Sorry, men, but in a female-driven screenplay, we need to outshine you. You can be nice. You can be well-intentioned. You can most definitely be hot. Biceps are always welcome. Good hair. Unless you’re the kidnapper in Room, of course. If you’re the kidnapper in Room, you only have to do one thing, and that’s make us hate you with the heat of a thousand suns.

Both Carol and Brooklyn feature male suitors who, shucks darn it, are super swell guys who are totally in love our leading ladies. Even when they’re not super swell, they’re just acting out because they love our girls so much, and don’t know what the missing piece is that keeps the ladies so distant. And yet we know, as the audience, that they’ll probably never really understand what makes our girls tick. Sure, Frank and Jim are lovely in Brooklyn. But who would you rather fill out the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle with? You guessed it.

Once is never enough… with a girl like you.

I have a rule of thumb I try to follow when I write. “They should cry once… and only once.” But if you’re going to win an Oscar, you might want to consider breaking that rule. All three of these movies should be viewed with a raincoat on. They cry when they’re sad. They cry when they’re happy. Saoirse cries on the bed when she gets letters from home. Rooney cries on the train home when she’s afraid Cate might not being falling for her when she’s already head over heels. And Brie—well, let’s cut Brie some slack, shall we? Girlfriend’s been locked up in a damn room for seven years.

Great directors and great actors and actresses find ways to make startling and unexpected choices throughout a film, and often that means not crying even when emotions are at the highest. But don’t get it twisted. We still want to see those waterworks turn on regularly throughout, especially as the stakes get raised, just as a little “empathy check-in station,” if you will. Because seriously, if women don’t cry for at least half an hour, how will we know there’s anything wrong with them?

This is similar to the “make them smart” note. Women need to be deep. They “feel things… deeply.” (It’s a Beaches thing, don’t worry about it.) They connect with each other… deeply. They miss home… deeply. They really fucking want to get out of Room… deeply.

And the men? Yeah, sure, they feel things. Like that time when the Brooklyn Dodgers lose a game, and Saoirse’s boyfriend Frank is, like, totally bummed for a minute, but then his mom makes spaghetti and it’s, like, all good again.

Where was I going with this? Oh, look, a shiny brooch.

A climactic scene from Carol. This scene works pretty well in the movie, because by gum, Cate Blanchett won’t rest until she’s made it work! But try imagining Sally Field in Soapdish saying it. You’re welcome.



In Brooklyn, we know Eilis has come into her own at the end when she starts wearing makeup, something she had “played at” before when she first got off the boat in America and wanted to “look American.” Similarly, in Carol, the otherwise school-girl looking Therese gets a makeover at the end, complete with new clothes and red lipstick. And in Room, Joy’s hallowed eyes and gray skin give way to a fully made-up face for her TV interview, letting us know that she’s crawling her way, kicking and screaming if need be, into the real world.

The lesson? No matter how rough in appearance or tough in attitude our leading ladies may get in these movies, at some point, we want to know they’re going to be okay. And how do we know a lady is going to be okay? Um, hello, Cinderella anyone? Cut out the fairy godmother scene, and guess what you get. That’s right—a frumpy wallflower with limp hair and a pumpkin where her Oscar should go.

Follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter @DownWorldNovel

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