Oscars 2014: Why American Hustle Will Win for Best Original Screenplay

Don't be surprised if Hustle manages to hustle its way to a Best Original Screenplay win

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Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Productions / Columbia Picures

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze, her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle

Allen is the laureled veteran; Blue Jasmine marks his 16th nomination for original screenplay, including three wins (for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and Midnight in Paris) spread across five decades. At past ceremonies, King Vidor, Shirley MacLaine and Angelina Jolie have accepted Oscars for the absent Allen. Finding a surrogate shouldn’t be a problem this year, as he won’t win. Cate Blanchett’s inevitable Oscar for Best Actress will suffice — and whatever the validity of Dylan Farrow’s allegations of sexual abuse from Allen years ago, that sickly shadow can’t help the auteur’s cause in this category.

(READ: Cate Blanchett comments on the Dylan Farrow allegations against Woody Allen)

Most of the other nominees are relative pups. Nebraska is Nelson’s first credited screenplay, though so much in the sour-dour comic tone of director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants — all Oscar screenplay finalists) that voters might think Nelson a Payne pseudonym.

(READ: Our review of Nebraska)

Borten and Wallack are also first-timer scripters; they wrote Dallas Buyers Club two decades ago, after compiling hundreds of hours of interviews with their subject, Ron Woodroof. Their nomination shows the broad favor the movie has earned from the Academy. Six nominations: this one plus Picture, Actor (a likely win), Supporting Actor (a sure win), Editing and Makeup and Hairstyling.

(READ: Matthew McConaughey on Dallas Buyers Club)

That leaves two “comedies,” broadly speaking. Jonze directed a couple of Oscar-nominated scripts by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.); Her is his first original screenplay. The emphasis is on original in this sci-fi love story with only two main characters, one of whom — the computer, voiced by Scarlett Johansson — is never seen. No popular hit ($24 million in two months of release), Her has managed to polarize viewers: as many people hate the movie as love it.

(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of her writer-director Spike Jonze)

But everybody loves Hustle. Closing in on $150 million at the domestic box office, and tied with Gravity for the most Oscar nominations (10), it seems a natural for this category: it’s fast, dense, funny and talky. And except for Dallas Buyers Club, this inside-Abscam tale is the only nominee based — very loosely — on a real story. Singer’s script, then called American Bullshit, was named one of the best unproduced screenplays on the Blacklist; then Russell rewrote it for his stars, especially Jennifer Lawrence. One potential handicap: the actors keep talking about how Russell encouraged them to improv and ad-lib. If they made it up, why give the movie a screenplay award?

In industry awards that serve as harbingers to the Oscars, the Writers Guild chose Her, while the British Film Academy (BAFTA) picked American Hustle. The Gold Derby poll of 30 Oscar journalists ended in a dead heat: 15 votes for each film. As a tie-breaker we might go with the very savvy Guy Lodge of the In Contention awards blog; he thinks Her will win. But we’re sticking with Singer and Russell and American Hustle. If Lupita Nyong’o beats Lawrence for Supporting Actress, this could be the only Oscar to go to a very popular movie that the Academy likes and admires.