(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.

How reas­sur­ing.

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 Missionwere 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 oppor­tu­ni­tiesthe 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), (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 Lèvefol­lowed 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.


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