(Peter O’Toole in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia after hearing that forty “working writers” failed to cite Robert Bolt among the craft’s greatest practitioners /Columbia Pictures)
The October 2, 2017 issue of New York Magazine just featured a piece (available online at Vulture.com) entitled “The 100 Best Screenwriters of All Time (As chosen by working writers)” and it’s one of the stupidest things ever to appear on the Internet.
Keep in mind that it’s my job to read stupid things. Most of the time I don’t dignify them with a response because they’re too stupid to be worth the energy. But when something veers headlong into the kind of anthropological-level stupidity that characterizes the New York Magazine/Vulture piece, it demands to be called out, dissected and displayed for all the world to participate in an orgy of unfettered mockery.
Precisely where to lay blame is hard to determine. The piece was “edited by” freelance journalist Stacey Wilson Hunt – whose work for a variety of outlets, including The Hollywood Reporter, is not what I would term egregious – suggesting that this was more likely an editorial Frankenstein birthed by the ongoing Internet obsession with clickbait lists. Seventeen people in total “contributed” to the piece… and it shows. As of this writing, Vulture has already had to correct two errors that misidentify Academy Award categories.
Nice fact-checkin’, Tex!
While the list’s methodology is never explained in detail, it says enough to expose the whole thing as a pitiable débâcle of epically amateurish proportions:
Forty “working writers” were polled (precisely how many names each was asked to submit is never stated) from which was created a final list of one-hundred, with the caveat that any ties were, in Wilson Hunt’s words, “broken by us.”
In other words – any ties on a list whose entire raison d’être is to give us a list of “greatest writers” as chosen by “working writers” would be broken by unnamed magazine staffers who aren’t actually screenwriters at all. How many ties were so broken? It doesn’t say. Which ballparks it somewhere between one and a hundred.
Before we even get into the weeds of the details, let’s just consider the mathematical inanity of this methodology. Even without knowing how many names each writer was asked to submit, polling a field of forty in order to yield a final list of one hundred creates a ridiculously low threshold to make the final list. In theory, as few as three to five votes could secure a spot in the top ten (depending on the mood of the tie-breaking fact checkers). By contrast, the most recent Sight & Sound poll of the 50 greatest films of all time polled 846 “critics, programmers, academics and distributors” to arrive at a list which, for more than a half century, has been esteemed in large part because its methodology is sound and the polling group sufficiently large and distinguished to be authoritative.
What most saddens about these kinds of vainglorious abuses, however, isn’t what they say about the sorry state of journalism or Hollywood, but rather the digital spotlight they shine on undeserving choices at the expense of deserving omissions, leaving the latter forever invisible to the algorithmic web crawlers that tell search engines what to tell us is important.
Now let’s get into the weeds. The forty “working writers” who constituted the poll are actually forty-one since the writing team of Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer) are listed as one while Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, one of Hollywood’s more famous writing teams ( Ed Wood and Man on the Moon), are listed separately. Don’t waste time trying to figure that one out – because here’s where it really gets good: eight of the writers polled… also ended up on the final list. Specifically:
Judd Apatow (64.), James L. Brooks (24.), Sofia Coppola (69.), Diablo Cody (94.), Jordan Peele (100.), John Ridley (93.), Gary Ross (76.), Paul Schrader (11.).
This is what happens when you poll forty writers to name the best hundred writers of all time. To break it down in percentages, let this sink in: 8% of the GREATEST SCREENWRITERS OF ALL TIME constituted 20% of those who were actually choosing the GREATEST SCREENWRITWERS OF ALL TIME.
That. Is. Ridiculous.
Now that we’re well into the weeds, let’s get into the mud.
Nobody knows how they actually selected this amazing sample of forty “working writers” whose unimpeachable opinions apparently override anyone else’s, but judging from the apologia at the end of the intro, they appear to have wanted to balance diversity with actual credentials, resulting in a motley mix that includes such distinguished, Oscar-winning talents as the aforementioned Sofia Coppola, James L. Brooks and Paul Schrader as well as head-scratchers like Scot Armstrong (The Hangover Part II), Allison Burnett (Underworld Awakening), Melissa Rosenberg (Step Up) and Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand). That’s not to malign any of these people – they are working writers, which is an achievement all by itself – but merely to point out that their work is insufficiently remarkable to qualify them to participate in a poll presumably identifying the hundred greatest practitioners of their craft OF ALL TIME.
What’s astonishing about the poll results is that they aren’t as catastrophic as one might imagine given the methodological train wreck that produced them. The top eight, in fact, are a modestly respectable blend of past-and-present celebrity screenwriters, starting with Billy Wilder and moving through the Coen Brothers, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, William Goldman, Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen. Whatever one may think of the order, whatever quibbles one may have with two or three individually, it’s still a distinguished bunch with an armful of Academy Awards and hit movies to their credit.
Then we get to number nine. No offense to Nora Ephron, who comes from a distinguished screenwriting family and certainly has her share of hits and popular favorites. But ranking Ephron anywhere near the top hundred writers of all time – much less in the top ten — objectively requires either a total ignorance about movies or a level of self-delusion so extreme that it verges on diagnosable madness.
Along with George Lucas (16.) – who mutilated his own legendary achievement with three Star Wars prequel scripts that are universally derided as anywhere from amateurish to just plain horrendous – Ephron is presumably a better screenwriter than: Preston Sturges, Stanley Kubrick, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Akira Kurosawa, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Mel Brooks, Richard Curtis, Orson Welles, John Huston, Charlie Chaplin, Waldo Salt, Pedro Almodovar, Ingmar Bergman, Ben Hecht, Jane Campion, Horton Foote, Leigh Brackett and John Cassavetes.
There are other egregious inclusions (Nancy Meyers, Chris Columbus, Diablo Cody) as well as at least two dozen who could be deemed superior writers, but hardly “Greatest of All Time” (Scott Frank, Judd Apatow, Richard Linklater). Anyhow, you get the idea. Internet “best” lists are a plague of locusts to begin with, but this is far and away the worst I have ever seen validated by a mainstream outlet.
Occasionally, it can be fun to read even disastrously bad journalism just for the sheer joy of laughing at it. In this instance I can’t recommend such indulgence. Notwithstanding the contributions of some serious and talented film journalists like David Edelstein, my friend and colleague Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the piece is so rife with factual errors and omissions, it borders on fan fiction. The quotes from polled writers presumably justifying their choices are even worse, replete with shameless back-slapping and boot-licking as if participating in the poll was little more than a chance to grease the wheels for their next gig.
What most saddens about these kinds of vainglorious abuses, however, isn’t what they say about the sorry state of journalism or Hollywood, but rather the digital spotlight they shine on undeserving choices at the expense of deserving omissions, leaving the latter forever invisible to the algorithmic web crawlers that tell search engines what to tell us is important.
In fairness, at least half of the writers named in the poll really do deserve to be there. In addition to some of the aforementioned, my own list would include a substantial number of the same writers (although I would order them differently): Ernest Lehman, Paddy Chayefsky, Preston Sturges, Paul Thomas Anderson, Frances Marion, Buck Henry, Lawrence Kasdan, Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bo Goldman, Nicole Holofcener, Mel Brooks, Richard Curtis, Albert Brooks, Elaine May, Frank Pierson, Robert Benton, Cesare Zavattini, Norman Wexler, Waldo Salt, Barry Levinson, Jay Presson Allen, Guillermo Arriaga, Horton Foote, the Monty Python troupe and Charles Lederer. With these and others, I happily concur. My concern is for those whose careers have been slighted by this insipid “poll,” whose contributions will go unacknowledged in the eyes of any casual reader who happens across the piece simply because of the publication that sanctioned it.
To remedy that oversight, here are my very subjective (but far more authoritative and informed) choices for forty of the real GREATEST SCREENWRITERS OF ALL TIME (as chosen by me and overlooked by “working writers”). I’ll leave it to readers to decide which forty on the other list these people should replace:
1. Robert Bolt
Famed for his collaborations with director David Lean, the history professor-turned-playwright-turned-screenwriter was responsible for writing Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons (from his own play) between 1962 and 1966. All three were nominated for Best Picture. Two of them won. The three films took home a total of 18 Oscars (including two for Bolt) and broke box office records across the globe. Bolt’s Lawrence screenplay has been called the greatest screenplay of all time, and deservedly so. It’s the gold standard in screenwriting – and so is Bolt himself. There is no facet of the craft at which his screenplays do not set a new bar. Bolt’s scripts contain some of the smartest dialogue ever written, and wrestle with larger-than-life dilemmas through which their beleaguered protagonists somehow always manage to unearth transcendent truths about the human condition. Ironically, two of his very best – Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and the Cannes Film Festival’s 1986 Palme d’Or winner The Mission – were not especially well received by critics at the time. Recent years have seen them rightfully re-evaluated, especially in light of Bolt’s contributions. When it comes to the craft of screenwriting, Robert Bolt is simply in a class by himself – he isn’t just one of the greatest screenwriters of all time – he’s the greatest.
2. Jean-Claude Carrière
France has produced countless screenwriters of great distinction, but none greater than Carrière who has written more movies (and more classic movies) than many people actually see in a lifetime. That this prodigious output is so consistently exceptional and so incredibly diverse cements his reputation as one of the great masters of his craft. A multilingual genre-chameleon with an uncanny ability to adapt his skills to the demands of many of cinema’s greatest auteurs, Carrière could well be called the ultimate collaborator. Originally known for his work with Luis Buñuel on such masterpieces as Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Belle de Jour (1967), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Carriere would go on to author Volker Schlondorff’s Oscar-winning The Tin Drum (1979) as well as the Gérard Depardieu classics The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), Danton (1983) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Oscar-nominated Cyrano de Bergerac (1990). His English-language achievements are no less distinguished: Milos Forman’s Valmont (1989), Hector Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004) and, of course, Philip Kaufman’s incomparable The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). If he hadn’t also written dozens of other great films too numerous to list, those credits alone would qualify him for a place in the screenwriter’s pantheon. That “working writers” apparently didn’t even think of him probably reflects the fact that even “working writers” don’t much care for foreign-language films – which is really their loss. They could learn a thing or two from the old master who, at age 86, is still active and still very much in demand. And why wouldn’t he be?
3. Alan Jay Lerner
Best known as the librettist/lyricist half of the legendary musical theater team of Lerner & Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot), the hyphenate genius of Alan Jay Lerner often goes unacknowledged. As a lyricist, he remains peerless. As a screenwriter, Lerner inhabits a universe several orders of magnitude higher still. There’s no question that his work adapting George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (both the play and the original movie) into My Fair Lady is one of the few instances in history of improving upon a masterpiece. What’s often forgotten is that 1958’s Gigi – which Lerner and Frederick Loewe created directly for the screen – was the product of a similar, equally successful process of adaptation, transforming French author Colette’s 1944 literary treasure into one of the most successful Academy Award champions of all time, winning all nine of its nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Vincente Minnelli) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lerner. Lerner also holds the distinction of being one of a very élite class of writers to have won Oscars for both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. That original screenplay, of course, was for another Minnelli-directed Best Picture – 1951’s landmark An American in Paris. Add his 1965 adaptation of his own My Fair Lady into the mix and Lerner holds the rare distinction of having written three Best Picture Oscar winners – a record that he shares with none other than Francis Ford Coppola.
4. Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
The great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s untimely death at age 54 in 1996 also tragically terminated one of the greatest writing collaborations in film history, bringing to a close a 12-year chapter during which he and former lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz (who had never so much as dabbled in fiction or drama before meeting Kieslowski) would author the groundbreaking ten-part Dekalog (1989), international award-winner The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and the Three Colors: Blue, White, Red trilogy (1993 – 1994). Just the paradigm-shattering structural audacity of these films is enough to put their collaboration among the greats of all time. Dekalog and Three Colors, in particular, pioneered the once-unthinkable concept of creating a thematic super-narrative across a body of films, where the spiritual connections between otherwise disparate characters are of greater significance than any single storyline. In one sense, cinema’s loss became Poland’s gain. The year after Kieslowski’s passing, Piesiewicz was elected to the Polish senate, where he served for fifteen years until returning to private life and screenwriting in 2012.
5. Jerry Lewis
Say what you will about the goofy, gangly young Catskillian comic who would go on to become the most successful hypnenate since Chaplin, but one thing is certain: everyone has strong opinions about Jerry Lewis. If great writing, impactful writing, meaningful writing is about stirring strong reactions, then the late Lewis is in a class all his own. Despite early success as a comic and actor (he was twenty when he teamed with Dean Martin) Lewis the auteurist filmmaker didn’t emerge until much later. After seventeen films with Dean Martin and seven solo acting efforts during the 1950s, Jerry entered the 1960s with a new profile: writer/director/producer/star. His debut effort, The Bellboy (1960), his first film under a new contract with Paramount Pictures, was 100% his movie. As legend has it, he wrote the script in eight days and shot the movie in four weeks. Critics at the time dismissed it as a gimmicky collection of disconnected sight gags bound together only by Jerry’s bumbling Miami hotel bellboy. What they missed – and what time has validated – is that The Bellboy was a profound work of authorship and self-examination as fully-realized as anything by Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Beyond the gags – which are genuinely and consistently hilarious – there is a pervasive sense of melancholy over the disconnect between celebrity and audience, between show business elites and the general public, between the resort class and the workers who sustain the lifestyle they take for granted. An episode where Lewis appears not just as the Bellboy but as himself, arriving at the hotel surrounded by a doting coterie of press, assistants and handlers, is a biting commentary on the dissonance created by his own celebrity, setting the audience up for the bittersweet truth of the final joke when the Bellboy, queried why he never speaks, simply answers, “Because no one ever asked me.” Not all of Lewis’ subsequent scripts were as successful or as polished – but all of them took risks, enormous risks purchased with the power of his celebrity. The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961) and The Nutty Professor (1963) are perhaps the most respected and best-loved – overtly hilarious, subcutaneously heart-breaking. Even the legendary catastrophe of his unreleased Holocaust comedy, The Day the Clown Cried, speaks to the grit of an artist who would rather fail bravely than succeed safely.
6. Emeric Pressburger
So close was the collaboration between English director Michael Powell and Hungarian-born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger that their body of work is typically attributed equally to both, without delineation. Each undoubtedly deserved to share equally in the other’s glory, but their roles were nevertheless delineated – Powell was a classic English director and Pressburger an uncannily gifted writer with a keen instinct for story, character and structure. Like his American contemporary Billy Wilder, Pressburger began his career in Germany and France but fled to the West following the rise of Nazism and the purge of Jewish talent from UFA Studios. He himself characterized the experience as both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to him, and it’s hard to disagree. His partnership with Powell – which was formalized under the moniker of The Archers in 1942 – produced some of the greatest and most influential films of all time. Their streak of nine consecutive feature films from the 1940s – classics all – is without parallel in all of cinema: Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and the grand masterpiece of The Red Shoes (1948).
7. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin
Of all the omissions from the New York Magazine/Vulture piece, this has to be the most inexcusably embarrassing. Given the extreme lengths to which the editorial staff went in an effort to make sure that women writers were represented in both their poll and on the final list, to have no mention of Ruth Gordon beggars belief. Without Gordon, there would have been no Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers, Elaine May or Nicole Holofcener. Like most others of my generation, I grew up knowing Gordon through her late-life on-screen performances as creepy and eccentric old ladies in such films as Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude. Her greatest and most lasting contribution, however, remains her screenwriting collaboration with her husband of 43 years, Garson Kanin. Their Oscar-nominated 1947 screenplay for George Cukor’s A Double Life helped propel veteran actor Ronald Colman to a career-topping Best Actor statuette, and set the talented duo up as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand teams. Their two other Academy Award-nominated screenplays – for the Cukor-directed Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn romantic comedies Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) – not only defined the Tracy/Hepburn partnership, but quite literally invented a genre of battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy that thrives to this day. At the time, of course, such movies were revolutionary and forward-thinking, with Gordon and Kanin channeling the dynamics of their own relationship into the broader culture and Gordon, in particular, helping forge an altogether new image of professional, independent and liberated women on which future generations would build.
8. Paul Mazursky
Once a workaday actor (his first role was in Stanley Kubrick’s debut film, Fear and Desire), Brooklyn-born Paul Mazursky segued into writing for television in the 1960s, eventually co-creating The Monkees before moving into features first as a screenwriter – 1968’s I Love You Alice B. Toklas, starring Peter Sellers – and then as a writer/director with 1969’s taboo-busting Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Though he worked both solo and with a variety of writing partners throughout his career (Larry Tucker, Josh Greenfeld, Leon Capetanos and Roger L. Simon), there was never any mistaking the Paul Mazursky touch – screenplays defined by an acrobatic ability to shift tone from comedy to tragedy and back again, always deeply humanistic and always anchored to relevant societal and cultural currents. The best of them are among the best loved movies of their day – Harry and Tonto (1974), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and his acclaimed adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story (1989). My personal favorite – 1982’s Tempest, a loosely modernized interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – is the exception that proves the rule, a misunderstood film in its day that many now consider among the most vibrant and thoughtful of Shakespearean re-interpretations.
9. Michael Wilson
Like other blacklisted writers of the era, Michael Wilson’s work is often overshadowed by the sensationalism surrounding his politics and the blacklist. Attempts by the Writers Guild of America to remedy the injustices of the blacklist era and restore rightfully earned credits have, unfortunately, too often also awarded undeserved credit. Despite the protestations of David Lean and Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson was eventually awarded a co-writing credit on Lawrence of Arabia after both Lean and Bolt had passed and could no longer object. That incredibly tacky move, however, should no more tarnish Wilson’s career than his politics. His very deserved credit – also posthumously awarded – for Lean’s earlier Oscar-winner The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is enough to qualify him for this list all by itself. Add in A Place in the Sun (1951), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and Planet of the Apes (1968) – on which he shared credit with no less than Rod Serling – and there’s no denying Wilson his place among Hollywood’s very best studio era writers.
10. George Seaton
A one-time gag writer, Seaton broke into screenwriting after hooking up with the Marx Brothers, script doctoring 1935’s A Night at the Opera before receiving proper writing credit for A Day at the Races the following year. He would eventually land at 20th Century Fox as one of their most reliable writer/directors, delivering such memorable favorites as Anything Can Happen (1952), the popular Bing Crosby tearjerker Little Boy Lost (1953), the 1954 adaptation of Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl (which would win Grace Kelly a Best Actress Oscar) and the 1970 all-star blockbuster thriller Airport. Like the man himself, Seaton’s screenplays were never ostentatious or showy – they just worked. The film for which he will forever be best known, and for which he won his sole Academy Award – 1947’s Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street – remains a perennial favorite for that very reason. Twice remade and adapted once for Broadway, it remains among the finest examples of studio-era screenwriting.
11. Francois Truffaut
While it’s almost impossible to separate Truffaut’s writing from his directing, the patron saint of the French New Wave nevertheless has to be included in any list of screenwriting greats simply by virtue of the audacity and the breadth of the efforts. From his semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows (1959), which effectively launched the New Wave, to Jules and Jim (1962), The Bride Wore Black (1968), The Wild Child (1970), Day for Night (1973) and The Last Metro (1980) among countless others, Truffaut – nearly always working with co-writers –consistently pushed the boundaries of what others expected of him and what he expected of himself. To watch a Truffaut film is to forget that one is watching a film – which is as close to screenwriting nirvana as any writer can ever hope to achieve.
12. Julius and Philip Epstein
Pick up any book on screenwriting and you’re likely to find a passage (or a chapter) lionizing Casablanca (1942) as the end-all, be-all screenplay-to-end-all-screenplays. Had the Epstein twins – who adapted Casablanca from an unproduced stage play with Howard Koch – written nothing else in their lives, that enduring achievement alone would qualify them for this list. That they are absent from the New York Magazine/Vulture piece is yet another indicator of what an appalling mess it is. For those who’ve never actually read Casablanca, it is available online and is well worth the read. It’s a veritable clinic in every aspect of good screenwriting (from that primitive era when such things had to be done on typewriters, no less), from structure to dialogue to character development. The film would go on to win three top Academy Awards – Picture, Director (for Michael Curtiz) and, of course, Adapted Screenplay. Though the Epsteins would never again equal the notoriety of Casablanca – as studio contract writers, they were generally at the mercy of the system to furnish their opportunities – the remainder of their career is nothing to dismiss. Their 1944 adaptation of Joseph Kesselring’s play Arsenic and Old Lace for director Frank Capra and star Cary Grant is still an enduring classic, as is the Bette Davis vehicle of the same year, Mr. Skeffington, which also marked their first effort as producers. Other noteworthy films include the 1954 star-studded romantic comedy The Last Time I Saw Paris, which was released after Philip Epstein’s passing in 1952. Julius would continue to work in the decades following his brother’s death, earning a solo Oscar nomination for his final produced screenplay, Reuben, Reuben (1983).
13. Richard Matheson
It’s impossible to understate the impact that Richard Matheson had on 20th Century popular culture. As a novelist, television writer and screenwriter, his work came to embody a singular approach to science fiction and genre storytelling that casts a shadow on every aspect of television and cinema today. Though known primarily for his prolific television work, especially on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Matheson’s feature screenwriting had a more outsized impact than is generally acknowledged. The four years from 1960 to 1963 saw him burst into feature screenwriting with six landmark films for Roger Corman, all of them starring Vincent Price: Master of the World (1961), adapted from two Jules Verne novels; the four Edgar Allan Poe films – House of Usher (1960) — also known as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum (1960), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963); and the Jacques Tourneur-directed The Comedy of Terrors (1963). The association with Price carried over to an Italian-American co-production the following year, Last Man on Earth, pseudonymously adapted by Matheson from his novel I Am Legend, and with decidedly mixed results. Though Matheson was unhappy with the final film, particularly the casting of Price, subsequent remakes with Charlton Heston – Omega Man (1971) – and Will Smith – I Am Legend (2007) – have offered enduring proof of concept. Matheson can also lay claim to some portion of Steven Spielberg’s success as screenwriter of his legendary television movie Duel (1971). Ironically, the film for which he’s likely to be best remembered is his lone romance – the unconventional time travel love story Somewhere in Time (1980), adapted from his novel Bid Time Return. Starring the late Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, it is routinely ranked among the best loved screen romances of all time. To declare Matheson the most influential American writer of the 20th Century isn’t a stretch – it’s just the truth.
14. Rod Serling
Like his friend and fellow Twilight Zone and Night Gallery veteran Matheson, the legendary Serling is primarily a television talent. A World War II veteran who first broke into radio dramas in the 1940s before transitioning into the emerging medium of television, Serling quickly established himself as one of the most prolific and dominant writers the small screen has ever known. As a writer, producer and personality – largely popularized by his iconic Twilight Zone introductions – he became and remained a household name virtually his entire career. Though he never really pursued a commensurate career in feature films, feature films did pursue Serling, and for good reason – the discipline of churning out hundreds of hours of radio and television had equipped him with a writer’s skillset most feature writers could scarcely comprehend. In addition to his Planet of the Apes (1968) writing credit, which he shared with Michael Wilson, Serling’s feature work includes the powerful Patterns (1956), the chillingly prescient John Frankenheimer-directed political thriller Seven Days in May (1968), and his powerfully prophetic 1972 adaptation of Irving Wallace’s novel The Man for director Joseph Sargent, starring James Earl Jones as the nation’s first black president. Serling’s greatest legacy, however, is in the influence that his work has wielded over generations of writers and directors weaned on such short-form anthology series as Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Serling didn’t invent the format, but he perfected it and, in the process, forever changed how mainstream feature films are written, paced and structured.
15. Satyajit Ray
Among the most personal of international filmmakers, the great Bengali auteur shares much with his contemporary and fellow humanist Francois Truffaut, including an approach to cinematic storytelling that makes it difficult to know where the writer leaves off and the director begins. The son of an acclaimed poet, Ray discovered an early love for movies and filmmaking after working on Jean Renoir’s The River. Renoir encouraged him to pursue his dreams and so began the years-long odyssey to make his debut film: Pather Panchali (1955). Capturing the attention of audiences and festivals across the globe, it established Ray as a distinctive cinematic voice and launched an internationally-acclaimed career that would span five decades and dozens of movies. Ray’s approach to filmmaking and writing is detailed in his 1976 book Our Films, Their Films, an anthology of essays that help illuminate precisely why his screenplays are so profoundly unique and moving. On the surface, films like Pather Panchali and its two followups – Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959) – would appear to spin uniquely Indian stories about uniquely Indian societal concerns. But there is a deeper, more universal current in Ray’s work that transcends their cultural trappings without necessarily trivializing or undermining them. Films like Devi (1960), Charulata (1964), Nayak (1966), Seemabaddha (1970) and The Chess Players (1977) could fundamentally be described as medieval morality plays reconfigured for a modern audience. That no two of his films ever traffic in the same themes or concerns speaks both to the breadth of Ray’s connection to basic human experience and his ability as a writer to translate the truth of those experiences into a narrative context. What most writers aspire to achieve even once, Ray achieved routinely.
16. I.A.L. Diamond
Declaring Billy Wilder the greatest screenwriter of all time is easy. Giving at least partial credit to his collaborators ought to be just as easy. Romanian by birth, Itec Domnici emigrated to the United States at age nine, showing tremendous academic promise which would propel him first into journalism – where he adopted the moniker I.A.L. Diamond – and then into contract screenwriting in Hollywood. As a contract writer he contributed to such hits as Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952) and That Certain Feeling (1956) before undertaking his first collaboration with Wilder on the 1957 romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper. The film was a hit and Diamond and Wilder clicked. Together, they would write another ten films, including Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), Irma La Douce (1963), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and the 1974 remake of Ben Hecht’s The Front Page with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon. If you’re going to give late-career Billy Wilder credit as one of the Greatest Screenwriters of All Time, you had damn well better share that title with “Iz” Diamond.
17. Charles Brackett
Likewise, if you’re going to give mid-career Billy Wilder credit as one of the Greatest Screenwriters of All Time, you had damn well better share that title with Charles Brackett. The son of a New York banker and politician, Brackett was already a successful essayist, drama critic, novelist and screenwriter by the time he teamed up with Billy Wilder. Their collaboration on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1938 comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, starring Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper, was such a resounding success that Lubitsch enlisted them again for the even more successful Ninotchka the following year. With Midnight (1939) and Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941), starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, they honed the Lubitsch experience into something altogether different, effectively inventing a new genre that would become known as the “screwball comedy.” With 1942’s The Major and the Minor, Wilder himself was in the director’s chair and he and Brackett were officially on a roll. By the end of their fourteen-year collaboration, they had written thirteen movies, including the 1945 Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend and their immortal, legendary 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. Wilder and Brackett would take home writing Oscars for both. Nonetheless, Brackett’s career was not tethered to Wilder’s. After their partnership ended in 1950, Brackett moved on to write and produce a number of popular hits at 20th Century Fox, overseeing such films as The King and I (1956), Niagara (1953) and Titanic (1953) for which he would win his third screenwriting Oscar. Those three Oscars from seven nominations are enough to place him third among Oscar-honored writers, right behind Wilder (three wins, twelve nominations) and Woody Allen (three wins, sixteen nominations).
18. Tom Stoppard
Officially Sir Tom Stoppard since 1997, the distinguished British playwright and screenwriter is widely regarded as one of the most original and inventive dramatic voices of his generation. His offbeat, sideways approach to established characters, stories and themes has invigorated not only the English stage – where his penchant for surrealism and absurdism has earned him comparisons to Thomas Beckett – but Hollywood movies where his talents have frequently been sought to perform uncredited script doctoring. His credited screenplays, however, are still more than enough to inspire awe. It was Stoppard, in fact, whom Terry Gilliam credits with introducing the Buttle/Tuttle mixup that is the central instigating event in Gilliam’s groundbreaking 1985 film BraziI. The screenplay – originally written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown and rewritten by Stoppard – would earn all three men an Oscar nomination. Two years later, Stoppard was enlisted by no less than Steven Spielberg to adapt J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical World War II memoir Empire of the Sun, a film that was once set to be directed by David Lean. Stoppard’s stirringly existential take on Ballard’s tale was evocative not only of Ballard’s experience, but of his own as a young refugee from his native Czechoslovakia during the same period. It remains among the best written screenplays for any Spielberg film. In 1990, Stoppard finally tried his hand at directing, adapting his own breakthrough stage play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in the process. Eight years later, in 1998, the coup de grâce – an Academy Award, shared with Marc Norman, for that year’s Best Picture winner, Shakespeare in Love. To quantify what Stoppard brings to a screenplay is virtually impossible – those who have worked with him say that he simply sees things differently. It’s communicating that vision on the page that makes him one of the Greatest Screenwriters of All Time.
19. Federico Fellini
Fellini’s renown as an auteur from a period dominated by European auteurs tends to overshadow his work as a writer. What’s not commonly known is that Fellini’s eight Academy Award writing nominations – spread across four decades – tie him with John Huston for third among most-nominated writers, right behind Woody Allen (16) and Billy Wilder (12). More noteworthy is that all of those nominations are for Italian-language films. As to the scripts themselves – six original, two adapted – they quite literally run the gamut from realist to surrealist, drama to comedy, personal to austere. What is consistent is that Fellini always worked as part of a team – usually two, often more. Before striking out on his own as a filmmaker, he contributed to the Oscar-nominated screenplays for the first two films of Roberto Rosselini’s famed “War Trilogy,” Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), both firmly in the postwar “neorealist” tradition. With his own I Vitelloni (1953), La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8½ (1963) and Amarcord (1973), Fellini and his collaborators pushed the boundaries of acceptable screen narrative almost to the breaking point, mixing and matching genres, experimenting with emotional trajectories and violating cardinal rules of traditional writing with audacious impunity. Before Charlie Kaufman, before Wes Anderson, before David Lynch – there was Federico Fellini.
20. Peter Morgan
Not since Robert Bolt has a British screenwriter exhibited such breathtaking skill at shaping and dramatizing factual and historical material. Arguably the pre-eminent British screenwriter of his generation, Morgan had worked primarily in television prior to his breakthrough year in 2006 which saw both the première of his acclaimed Frost/Nixon stage play and the release of Stephen Frears’ The Queen, for which he would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. That same year he also received co-credit for writing director Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland. When Forest Whitaker picked up that year’s Best Actor for his performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and Helen Mirren received Best Actress for The Queen, Morgan became the first – and to date the only – writer ever to author two Oscar-winning parts in the same ceremony for two different scripts. With the further success of his Netflix series The Crown, attention remains focused on Morgan’s gift for dramatizing the lives and experiences of famous political figures and leaders. Two lesser-known but equally impressive fact-based scripts, however, reveal his skills to be equally resplendent when dealing with earthier material: The Damned United (2009) and Rush (2013), which center respectively on legendary moments in the history of professional soccer and auto racing, are textbook examples of how to extract the human story from larger-than-life events and give that story shape and meaning. It seems almost facile to say that Peter Morgan knows how to make history fun – which he does – but the greater gift is that he knows how to make history relevant and dramatic while making its central figures accessible. In that, he is unmatched by any other living writer.
21. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
By the time Rainer Werner Fassbinder died of a drug overdose at age 37, he had made dozens of movies, created and directed several television series, authored some twenty-four stage plays and cemented a reputation as the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema movement that also included the likes of Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff. Fassbinder is also one of few European auteurs whose screenplays have been published commercially in English – and taught as literature. Unlike most screenplays, even the best of which can sometimes feel mechanical and threadbare, a Fassbinder screenplay is an altogether different experience, an almost visceral rush – as if you’ve been escorted into the passionate, turbulent psyche of the man himself. While the films made from them often evoke more obvious themes typically associated with his work – sexuality, racism, sexism, social alienation – the scripts themselves reveal a vulnerability that tends to fade away in the execution. What Fassbinder the writer was able to extract from his soul, Fassbinder the director ruthlessly disciplined. Whether it was a crime film like his two 1970 gangster pictures Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier, a period melodrama like Effi Briest (1974) or The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), or a grand epic like his 1980 magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), the underlying tension is the same – Fassbinder wrestling with himself. Few screenwriters in history have wrought so much from the written page.
22. Jacques Demy
Like others of the era, Jacques Demy’s reputation typically revolves around his strengths as a director – a dizzying, colorful visual style and almost impossibly elegant camerawork – all of which would be for naught without Demy’s gift for constructing unconventional stories. Demy’s unique gifts are immediately evident in his debut film, Lola (1961), in which Anouk Aimée’s postwar cabaret dancer serves as the hub around which Demy builds a melancholy web of bittersweet relationships. It’s a rich tapestry of characters torn between fate, the shadow of World War II and the indefatigable hope of Demy himself, a structure he later refines with even greater emotional resonance in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg which captured the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. One of the most beloved musicals of all time, Umbrellas – in which every line is sung to Michel Legrand’s memorable music – is something of an anti-musical, a tribute to Hollywood musicals that rejects Hollywood conventions. Demy’s more conventional musical followup – The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) – takes fewer risks, in some ways prefiguring his 1970 fairy tale adaptation Donkeyskin, but the skillfull reconciliation of so many disparate elements remains deeply woven into each and every narrative. The risks did not always pan out; 1969’s Model Shop – his first English-language film – attempts to create a kind of super-narrative tying together his first three films proved a bust with audiences. Nevertheless, it was the kind of fearless, pioneering effort that qualifies Demy as one of Greatest Screenwriters of All Time.
23. Terry Southern
Hunter S. Thompson may have been the shaggy, unkempt, laconic face of the “New Journalism” of the 1960s, but Terry Southern was both its originator and most adept practitioner. Among the greatest satirists of the 20th Century, Southern was among the few Beat Generation figures who managed to define the era without being consumed by it. Remarkably, screenwriting was never part of the plan until Stanley Kubrick invited him to work on the screenplay of his 1964 masterwork, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Soon, what Kubrick had intended as a straight thriller had turned into the razor-sharp black comedy we all know and revere – because of Southern. His subsequent screenwriting endeavors never really equaled the aplomb of Strangelove, but they remain noteworthy just the same: Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), adapted from an Evelyn Waugh novel, is still one of the more audacious comedies of the period, while The Magic Christian (1969), based on his own novel, unleashes Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr in a hilariously merciless skewering of consumer culture that feels even more biting and relevant today than it did in 1969 (the same year, by the way, that Southern co-wrote Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper). So the next time anyone lobs a quote from Strangelove or Easy Rider, tell ‘em to give Terry Southern a nod.
24. Terence Malick
The knock on late-stage Malick – at least since his 1998 comeback with The Thin Red Line – is that his twenty-year hiatus from filmmaking turned him into a flabby, undisciplined and self-indulgent “auteur” as opposed to the artful, poetic thinker responsible for such seminal 1970s films as Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). For those of us who continue to defend even his more recent improvisational work, the two are one and the same. The real objection seems to be that Malick refuses to be corralled and won’t obey the rules – though it was precisely that approach that originally won him work as an uncredited script doctor on such films as Dirty Harry (1971), and a credited writer-for-hire on popular star vehicles like Pocket Money (1972) and the cult classic Gravy Train (1974). Over time, Malick has both refined and experimented with his writing philosophy to the point where “screenwriting” begins to mean something altogether different. What’s written on the page rarely, if ever, resembles what ends up on screen – pages change at a moment’s notice, some scenes are never even written and entire plots and subplots can wind up upended, re-conceptualized or excised during editing. Still, if screenwriting is a blueprint to be judged by how well it facilitates a given product, Malick has to be ranked among the craft’s very best. If the 1964 version of The Thin Red Line hewed closer to the text of James Jones’ brutal WWII novel, Malick’s freeform reinterpretation captured its spiritual essence. His even more ambitious The New World (2005) – a gritty retelling of the John Smith/Pocahontas story and the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 – is nothing short of a revelation, a familiar slice of history somehow rendered exhilarating and fresh.
25. Gérard Brach
Over the course of his remarkable 42-year career , the brilliant French scénariste Gérard Brach worked primarily – though not exclusively – with two directors: Roman Polanski and Jean-Jacques Annaud. A deeply private man, he began collaborating with Polanski on the chiller Repulsion (1965) – his first feature screenplay credit – going on to co-author many of the director’s most famous films in a wide variety of genres: Cul-de-Sac (1966), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Tenant (1976), Tess (1979), Frantic (1988) and Bitter Moon (1992). His relationship with Annaud began on a similarly explosive note: 1981’s Quest for Fire, a daring prehistoric odyssey entirely devoid of spoken dialogue. The film’s simple, primal tale of primitive man’s desperate search for the life-giving power of fire struck a chord, however, becoming an international hit and cementing his relationship with yet another top tier director. Subsequent efforts with Annaud – The Bear (1988) and The Lover (1992), brilliantly adapted from the Marguerite Duras novel – were equally successful. Other noteworthy directors to seek out his skills include Andrei Konchalovsky (1984’s Maria’s Lovers), Dario Argento (1998’s The Phantom of the Opera) and, most significantly, the great Claude Berri. Two decades after co-authoring Berri’s acclaimed 1967 debut film The Two of Us, Berri and Brach would reunite to script the epic 1986 two-part adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s beloved novel Manon des Sources (previously adapted by Pagnol himself for his original 1953 film). Seven months in the making, the resulting two films – Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring – would become the most expensive French production in history, earning the adulation of audiences and critics the world over. At the 1987 BAFTA Awards, Jean de Florette captured Best Film and Berri and Brach were honored with Best Adapted Screenplay – the only time the British Academy has ever so honored a non-English language screenplay adaptation.
26. Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh “workshops” his movies. That’s often misconstrued as meaning that they are largely or substantially improvised BY his actors. What it actually means is that Leigh develops his scripts based on workshops WITH his actors, using their instincts and interactions to inform his writing process. It’s an approach that is uniquely Mike Leigh’s, and which his career successes have validated many times over. Like most great British screenwriters, Leigh honed his skills first in theater, then in television and finally in feature films. He’s been at it since the 1960s and is showing no signs of slowing down. That Leigh belongs firmly among the Greatest Screenwriters of All Time is a no-brainer – his screenplays have received five Oscar nominations (1996’s Secrets & Lies, 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, 2004’s Vera Drake, 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky and 2011’s Another Year), won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or (for Secrets & Lies) and collected more accolades from critics’ groups than almost any other filmmaker alive or dead. That’s not to say that Mike Leigh’s approach to writing is replicable – it’s not. That’s precisely why he is one of the Greatest Screenwriters of All Time.
27. Eleanor Perry
Novelist, playwright, screenwriter and feminist activist, Eleanor Perry was already a Broadway success when she married her second husband, film director Frank Perry. Two years later, their partnership – personal and professional – yielded one of the most powerful and acclaimed films of the decade: David and Lisa (1962). Surgically adapted from a novel by Theodor Isaac Rubin, the story of a romance between two mentally ill young people, played with exceeding sensitivity by Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin, earned Perry her first and only Oscar nomination as well as a Best Director nod for her husband. She would go on to win two Emmy Awards outright – including one for adapting Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory (1963) – while continuing to work with her husband, most notably on 1968’s The Swimmer, an allegorical Burt Lancaster vehicle adapted from a 1964 John Cheever short story. A mythical odyssey set in contemporary Connecticut in which a man literally swims his way home through a series of backyard swimming pools, increasingly disconnecting himself from reality and the people he meets along the way, The Swimmer was not well received at the time, so radical was its departure from what movies were “supposed” to be. But Perry was a maverick storyteller who drew extensively on her background in psychiatric social work to create unusual, marginal characters, daring to examine the fraying edges of human experience which other writers typically eschewed. Had Perry been male, her writing would have simply been regarded as odd. As a woman – even during the “liberated” 60s – she was seen as a stubborn contrarian. There’s little doubt that gender hampered her career, a fact she openly discussed and later incorporated into her 1979 novel Blue Pages. Between 1961 and 1973, not including her television work, Perry authored only nine produced feature screenplays – a staggeringly anemic output for a writer of her credentials and caliber. The scripts, however, are among the best and most courageous ever produced in Hollywood. Four of them – Ladybug Ladybug (1963), Last Summer (1969), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and the controversial Trilogy (1968), co-written with Truman Capote – were in collaboration with her husband. The other three – The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970) for Anatole Litvak, The Deadly Trap (1971) for French director René Clement, and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973) for Richard Sarafian – afforded her less creative freedom to do what she did best, but the Perry touch remains unmistakable.
28. Christopher Hampton
Like his countrymen Peter Morgan and Robert Bolt, Hampton’s genius as a screenwriter is an outgrowth of his disciplined work as a playwright particularly with respect to historical material. His Oscar-winning screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), based on his own stage adaptation of 18th Century French novel Les liaisons dangereuses, is the achievement for which he will always be remembered, but that shouldn’t obfuscate the consistent quality of his output. Hampton’s first stab at screenwriting was nothing less than an adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1973) when he was still in his 20s. The film, which starred a young Anthony Hopkins and Claire Bloom, confirmed what the theatre world already knew, which is that Christopher Hampton was a prodigious talent. By 1995, Hampton had moved into the director’s chair with Carrington, a devilishly clever adaptation of Michael Holroyd’s book Lytton Strachey, recounting the peculiar yet passionate relationship between painter Dora Carrington and writer Lytton Strachey. Hampton’s treatment of the material was anything but faithful (as the title suggests). In shifting Carrington to the center of the story, Hampton re-conceptualized the relationship as a commentary on Edwardian era sexual and gender politics. It worked. Praise for stars Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce was effusive. Over the course of the next decade, Hampton would take a similar approach to adapting a range of very different but no less difficult novels by Joseph Conrad, Graham Geene, Ian McEwan and Colette. The resulting films – The Secret Agent (1996), The Quiet American (2002), Atonement (2007) and Chéri (2009) – merely reaffirmed his genius for reshaping and giving new life to familiar material.
29. Neil Simon
Of the many renowned writers who launched their careers under the television tutelage of Sid Caesar, the New York Magazine/Vulture list includes two – Woody Allen and Mel Brooks – and conspicuously omits one: Neil Simon. Granted, Simon – who just turned 90 – has been effectively retired from writing for well over a decade. The preceding half-century, however, was his backyard. The first writer in history to receive a possessory above-the-title credit on a movie, Simon’s work for stage, television and movies was definitive for so many successive generations, you could sit in a roomful of people of all ages and walks of life sharing their favorite Neil Simon moments and never once hear the same one repeated. Simon’s gift was observational – painful or awkward everyday human situations that ordinary people eschewed, he embraced, mining them for the kind of cathartic, humorous release that would enable those same people to go back and stare life in the face empowered by his marvelous words and memorable characters. They were sitcoms writ large and broad, oftentimes drawn from his own life experiences, but never without a bittersweet poignancy to underline the laughter. Sure, most of his best screenplays were adaptations of his own best plays – The Odd Couple (1968), Sweet Charity (1969), The Sunshine Boys (1972), California Suite (1978), Chapter Two (1979), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) and Lost in Yonkers (1993). But the exceptions also prove the rule. Few Simon screenplays are as beloved as The Goodbye Girl (1977), an original work which won Richard Dreyfuss a very deserving Oscar during an incredibly competitive year. Sixteen years later, The Goodbye Girl became a Broadway musical with Simon writing the book. Nothing quite underlines Simon’s cultural relevance, however, like The Odd Couple – a hit play that would go on to spawn a movie, a sequel, another stage play written specifically for women, three live-action television series – including one with a black cast – and an animated series featuring a dog and cat. Any list of the Greatest Screenwriters of All Time that does not include one of the greatest chroniclers of human nature of all time… isn’t much of a list.
30. Francis Veber
That the nation responsible for Molière has been unable to successfully export its rich tradition of cinematic comedy speaks to the general difficulty that most comedy has in transcending borders and cultures. Francis Veber, however, is an exception. Perhaps the greatest validation of Veber’s talent came from no less than Billy Wilder himself whose final film, 1981’s Buddy Buddy, was adapted from Veber’s 1971 play Le Contrat and his own screenplay adaptation of the play two years later, L’emmerdeur. In a bittersweet changing-of-the-guard moment, 1981 also marked the release of Veber’s second film as a director: La Chèvre. The first of three Veber films to pair Pierre Richard and Gérard Depardieu, it was a rousing success, setting the stage for followups Les Compères (1983) and Les Fugitifs (1986), two of which would be remade as big-budget Hollywood comedies: Pure Luck (1991), which Veber co-wrote, and Three Fugitives (1989), which Veber both wrote and directed. One of Veber’s most charming hallmarks, however, is his use of recurring characters played by different actors, as in Le Jaguar (1996), in which Jean Reno and Patrick Bruel assume the roles originated by Depardieu and Richard. Veber’s most beloved character in this respect is that of lovable bumbler François Pignon, first popularized in his stage play and subsequent 1998 movie The Dinner Game. Pignon, always played by different actors, has recurred in The Closet (2001), The Valet (2006) and L’emmerdeur (2008), his own remake of the movie (adapted from his play) that started it all. In addition to his own directing efforts, Veber’s name is all over some of the greatest French-language comedies of all time, including The Tall Blond Man with One Shoe (1972) and La Cages aux Folles (1978), both of which also received Hollywood remakes. That Veber has had a hand in more hit French comedies than any other screenwriter in history, and has been responsible for more Hollywood remakes of French comedies than any other writer or director in history more than qualifies him for this list.
31. Andrew Niccol
The New Zealand-born Niccol has had his share of both success and disappointment in Hollywood – from his acclaimed writing/directing debut Gattaca (1997) and his breakthrough Oscar-nominated screenplay for Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) to the disappointment of risky, underrated disappointments like Simone (2002) and In Time (2011). It’s the through-line in Niccol’s work, however, that distinguishes it – a fiercely independent way of looking at the human condition and daring to ask the kinds of challenging, outside-the-box questions that rarely find their way into mainstream Hollywood movies. His two films tackling the greater moral questions of the modern military state – Lord of War (2005) and Good Kill (2014) – aren’t just among the best of the genre… they practically are the genre. Though his risks haven’t always panned out, the mere fact that Andrew Niccol takes risks – and takes such bold risks – easily earns him a spot among the Greatest Screenwriters of All Time.
32. Dennis Potter
Maybe the only person who went into show business because politics didn’t work out (for health reasons), Dennis Potter is primarily known for his stage and television work, namely the famed British television serials Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986). Those singular achievements alone should qualify him for this list, but his feature adaptations of his own television and stage work are distinguished in their own right. Despite mixed reviews and a decidedly different take on the material, the feature adaptation of Pennies from Heaven (1981), with Steve Martin stepping in for Bob Hoskins, did earn Potter an Oscar nomination for adapting his own original material. Likewise, his feature adaptation of his controversial 1976 television play, Brimstone and Treacle (1982), further proved his ability to boldly reshape and re-conceive his own material for a different medium. Potter’s brief but noteworthy feature film moment in the ‘80s included adapting Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Gorky Park (1983) for director Michael Apted as well as the original screenplay Dreamchild (1985), a re-imagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland for director Gavin Millar. While Gorky was not especially well-received, Dreamchild was widely applauded. That Potter essentially abandoned screenwriting at that point, continuing to work mainly in television until his premature death at age 59 in 1994, speaks as much to his own independent streak as to the enigmatic style of his stories, themes and characters. Potter was and remains one of the most unique and influential of English dramatists and screenwriters.
33. William Nicholson
Have difficult material that needs to be wrestled into screenplay shape? Call William Nicholson. Everyone else does. As of this writing his name is on Breathe (2017), the directing debut of mo-cap acting legend Andy Sirkis. The story of polio victim Robin Cavendish and his wife Diana and their heroic efforts toward improving the lives of polio sufferers the world over, Breathe is an especially difficult story to fit into a feature film box, but Nicholson adeptly does what he’s been doing ever since his Oscar-nominated screenplay adaptation of his own play for Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands (1993) first put him on the map. Other noteworthy stage-to-screen work includes co-adapting such difficult musicals as Sarafina! (1992) and Les Misèrables (2012). While it’s sometimes difficult to tell where Nicholson’s writing picks up from that of other writers on projects like Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (2014), where he shares credit with the Coen Brothers and Richard LaGravanese, Everest (2015), where he shares credit with Simon Beaufoy, or the Oscar-winning Gladiator (2000), where he shares credit (and received his second Oscar-nomination) with John Logan, the mere fact that his talents were commissioned to help burnish the work of other esteemed writers speaks volumes about the value that filmmakers place on his abilities. To really appreciate Nicholson’s genius, however, the original work is where he shines. His enormously underrated period romance/melodrama Firelight (1997), which marked his feature directing debut and remains his only feature directorial effort, is an old-fashioned tearjerker par excellence.
34. Ronald Harwood
A distinguished novelist, playwright and screenwriter for the better part of a half-century, Sir Ronald Harwood is one of the UK’s greatest living writers, period. His three Oscar nominations speak to the breadth and quality of his work as well as his longevity: The Dresser in 1983, adapted from his own landmark play (based on his experiences as a dresser for Sir Donald Wolfit of the RSC) followed thirty years later by his Oscar-winning screenplay for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2003), after which he was again nominated for adapting the otherwise un-adaptable The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). Though his 1994 adaptation of The Browning Version, starring Albert Finney, is generally considered the lesser of the two screen versions of the play (next to the original 1951 Anthony Asquith film adapted by original playwright Terence Rattigan), it is nonetheless viewed as a respectable interpretation of one great artist by another. On the other hand, Harwood’s script for the 1995 adaptation of the novel Cry, the Beloved Country is deemed vastly superior to the original 1951 Zoltan Korda film. Other noteworthy efforts include Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia (2004) – an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Theatre starring Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons – as well as Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005) and Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera (2007), based on the novel by Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In 2012, he was also notably tapped by Dustin Hoffman to adapt his own play Quartet for Hoffman’s directing debut.
35. Julian Fellowes
Any list that includes such a disproportionate number of distinguished British novelists, playwrights and screenwriters wouldn’t be complete without the tireless and unbelievably prolific Julian Fellowes. While Fellowes will almost certainly be remembered most for creating and writing every solitary word of television’s Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015), his big screen achievements are where his best work is to be found. There would have been no Downton Abbey, it’s worth noting, if not for Fellowes’ Oscar-winning screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002). Though underrated, his 2005 directing debut Separate Lies – which he also wrote, adapting from Nigel Balchin’s novel – is a powerful drama, featuring incendiary performances from Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. His original screenplay for The Young Victoria (2009), starring Emily Blunt as the young monarch, is one of the best “legacy” films of the past several decades, foreshadowing the current television trend of such shows as The Crown and Victoria.
36. Jacques Prévert
Though principally revered in France as a poet, Jacques Prévert made his mark on cinema with several screenplays for director Marcel Carné that rank among the best pieces of film writing in history. His collaboration with Carné began with the charming comedy Drôle de Drame in 1937, followed the next year by Carné’s even more famous Port of Shadows, starring Jean Gabin. Another Gabin vehicle – Le Jour se Lève – followed in 1939 after which the intrusion of World War II forever changed the course of the Carné/Prévert collaboration. The 1942 film Les Visiteurs du Soir, which starred popular actress Arletty, was shot amid much difficulty in Vichy “Free” France, the “unoccupied” collaborationist part of France carved out by the occupying Nazis. That experience, in turn, inspired 1945’s The Children of Paradise, a subversive, almost impossible epic that managed to overcome an avalanche of hurdles – practical, legal, political, financial, social – to reach completion. Starring Arletty, Pierre Brasseur and Jean-Louis Barrault, the fact-based story of four men who fall into the tragic orbit and charms of a female stage performer during the July Monarchy period of the 1830s and ‘40s is at once a stirring melodrama and a razor-sharp allegory – evoking both its own history and the actual human history being shaped at the time it was made. So masterful is the storytelling, so genius the writing in The Children of Paradise that even if Prévert were not a revered poet, this list would require his inclusion.
37. Edward Tang
Screenwriters of great martial arts films rarely get the credit they deserve for the very obvious and understandable reason that action films –especially martial arts action films – aren’t typically noteworthy for their writing. Combine that with the history of “screenwriting” in Hong Kong cinema, where improvisation and on-set rewriting by armies of meddlers can make it nearly impossible to evaluate who contributed what – and it’s no wonder the likes of Edward Tang haven’t been elevated to their proper place. Since most readers here have probably never heard of Tang, let’s be perfectly clear: Edward Tang is a genius. After first scripting a pair of classic Sammo Hung vehicles – Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Two Toothless Tigers (1980) – he eventually connected with Sammo’s “little brother” and best friend, Jackie Chan. Tang would go on to script all of Chan’s most legendary films from the 1980s and into the early 1990s: Project A (1983), Project A 2 (1987), Police Story (1985), Police Story 2 (1988), Police Story 3: Supercop (1992), 1989’s Miracles (adapted from Frank Capra’s 1933 classic Lady for a Day), Armour of God (1986), Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (1991), Drunken Master II (1994) and the film that resurrected Jackie Chan’s international career, Rumble in the Bronx (1995). During the fifteen year period from 1982 to 1997, Edward Tang scripted an average of a film a year, only three of which were not Jackie Chan vehicles (one was his own ill-fated directing debut). After 1997’s Mr. Nice Guy, Tang went notably AWOL from the movie business until his name reappeared on the 2012 resurrection of the Armour of God series, Chinese Zodiac. While Tang’s name usually appears alongside other writers – including Jackie himself – it’s an open secret that Tang does the heavy lifting to create the narrative framework within which to build some of the greatest action set pieces ever conceived. Tang’s best work, however, is often seen in moments that have nothing to do with martial arts or action. In one such example, from Project A 2, Maggie Cheung juggles a swelling array of visitors to her apartment, all of whom must be hidden without the knowledge of the others – easily one of the best examples of classic farce ever written.
38. Tom Shulman
After some modest work in television, Tom Shulman hit it big with his first produced feature screenplay, the semi-autobiographical Dead Poets Society (1989). Though nominated for four Oscars – including Best Picture, Best Director for Peter Weir and Best Actor for Robin Williams – the film’s lone statuette would go to newcomer Shulman for Best Original Screenplay. Shulman’s career since has been spotty, though the combination of Dead Poets and his one other standout from the era – the Frank Oz-directed Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss comedy What About Bob? (1991) – more than justifies his inclusion in élite company. Few films of the period are as moving as Dead Poets Society, and few are as uproariously hilarious as What About Bob?. If you have a pulse, you’ve probably quoted from them both numerous times. For that, you may credit Tom Shulman.
39. Ed Neumeier
For a writer of Neumeier’s caliber, his filmography is curiously threadbare. Still, like Shulman, he’s responsible for two films of such iconic stature that he demands recognition on a list like this. When Neumeier first broke through in 1987, he was already on a fast-track to top tier executive status at Universal Studios. Fortunately for us, he deemed Robocop (1987) more important. Written with Michael Miner, it remains one of the most beloved screenplays of the 1980s, that rarest of genre films that also succeeds as biting satire and pointed social commentary. Despite the successful collaboration with Paul Verhoeven, none of them would return for the misbegotten sequels – which is just as well. In 1997, Neumeier and Verhoeven did finally reconnect for another – and some would say even better – tentpole-satire-social commentary with an adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Similarly loaded with witty, self-referential barbs and satirical jabs, Starship Troopers would become Neumeier’s defining franchise. To date, he has written only seven screenplays, five of which are Starship Troopers films. The only two that aren’t are Robocop and a rewriting credit on 2004’s Anacondas: The Hunt for Blood Orchid, a sequel to the original 1997 Anaconda. Even if Neumeier never again authors anything as bold and definitive as the original Robocop and Starship Troopers, his place in screenwriting history is secure.
40. Larry Gelbart
Last but definitely far from least, the great Larry Gelbart is among the most legendary writers ever produced in America. It’s impossible to do him justice in this short frame, but I’ll give it a shot. Cutting his teeth as a teenage writer for Danny Thomas’ radio show, Gelbart would later graduate from joke writer extraordinaire to television tutelage under Sid Caesar (like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon) before launching headlong into a career in television, stage and film that remains the envy of anyone who’s ever put words on a page. Adapting Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H for television is the achievement for which Gelbart will forever be best known, though his stage work – which includes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and City of Angels – has been no less acclaimed. His feature screenplays have typically been collaborations with other A-list writers – Blame it on Rio (1984) with Charlie Peters, Movie Movie (1978) with Sheldon Keller, The Wrong Box (1966) with Burt Shevelove – though his first Oscar nomination in 1977, for adapting Oh, God!, was a solo effort. The film that won him his second Oscar nomination, however, is the screenplay that most defines the Gelbart approach to comedy: 1982’s Tootsie. The award-winning hit film, directed by Sidney Pollack and starring Dustin Hoffman, was more than a little inspired by Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot from which it borrows substantial chunks of its story. Nevertheless, Gelbart – who receives co-writing credit with Murray Schisgal – is widely viewed as the brains behind one of the most clever and satisfying screenplays of the past 50 years.