Is The 1990 Best Original Screenplay Race The Most Competitive Oscars Category Of All Time? An Investigation

(Welcome to Did They Get It Right?, a series where we take a look at an Oscars category from yesteryear and examine whether the Academy's winner stands the test of time.)

One of the most notorious controversies in the Oscars' history came in 1990 when "Driving Miss Daisy" won Best Picture while Spike Lee's groundbreaking "Do the Right Thing" wasn't even nominated. While it's no surprise that the Academy would award a safe, milquetoast film, it's the two films' stark difference in their approach to race in America that makes it so egregious. For as searing and ferocious as "Do the Right Thing" is, "Driving Miss Daisy" is equally complacent in retrograde ideas of race.

It would be one thing if "Do the Right Thing" simply lost the award. It's another that it wasn't even in the running. In the end, the film only received two nominations that year, with the only recognition for Lee coming with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. "Driving Miss Daisy" winning is something we all understand to be less than ideal. However, that film didn't compete in the Original Screenplay category. Instead, "Do the Right Thing" fell to "Dead Poets Society," the boarding school drama starring Robin Williams. Unlike the Best Picture winner, Peter Weir's film has a far better reputation today, though still not as sterling as Lee's. Obviously "Do the Right Thing" should have won that award too, right? Well ... that category happens to be one of the most stacked of all time, featuring films that revolutionized the business and defined genres. Along with those two, it featured "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Sex, Lies, & Videotape," and "When Harry Met Sally ... " With a category this competitive, did the Academy land on something that makes sense all these years later?

Why Dead Poets Society won

For as robust as that Best Original Category slate is, the only film in that list to receive a Best Picture nomination was "Dead Poets Society." Compare that to four crossovers with the Best Adapted Screenplay. Original Screenplay has always been the area where the Academy has found ways to recognize films that don't fit into the traditional Oscars mold, be it because of genre or subject matter. When it comes time to actually make one the winner, they tend to go for the project that strives to be like the prestigious literary works in the other category.

"Dead Poets Society," among these five, easily fits into that mold. Its setting of this upper-class prep school thrives on discussions of theatre, literature, and, as the title suggests, poetry. The film is bluntly emotional to the point of pure sentimentality at its highest points. That emotional state fits very well with a fellow Best Picture nominee like the baseball drama "Field of Dreams," infamous for its ability to make dads everywhere weep. Because it so plainly puts its emotion on its sleeve, that makes it catnip for many Oscar voters who aren't as keen on responding to bigger swings that are more radical. "Dead Poets Society" makes for a nice consensus, hence why it's the one film here that also got the nomination in Best Picture.

The case for Crimes and Misdemeanors

Woody Allen was an Oscars staple at this point. "Crimes and Misdemeanors" marked his eighth nomination, and he had already won the award twice. He would go on to get eight more, including another win, in the 15 years following this movie. We obviously know what a controversial and allegedly abusive figure he is now, but you cannot deny that there is a tremendous history between Allen and the Academy. He also happens to have made some movies that really connect with people, be it "Annie Hall," "Hannah and Her Sisters," or "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Some would even consider this film his finest achievement.

In many ways, "Crimes and Misdemeanors" crystallizes so much of what Allen has been exploring throughout his work: sex, marriage, Judaism, existential dread, jealousy, and ego. It's all packaged in these dual stories of an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) and a documentary filmmaker (Allen), each of whom is embroiled in their own, very different stories of infidelity. The film plays far more seriously than much of Allen's work, especially the ones starring the man himself, and the film ends up burrowing into you far more than you expect it to. The sequences featuring Landau, giving an Oscar-nominated performance, are particularly stark, as he delves into the horrors humans will commit and how they can go on living having done those things. "Crimes and Misdemeanors" may not be revelatory work from Woody Allen, but it is one of the most finely crafted pieces he ever made.

The case for Do the Right Thing

I do not know how much of a case I need to make for "Do the Right Thing." Spike Lee's portrait of a blisteringly hot day in Bed-Stuy that fuels the racial tensions in the neighborhood remains one of the most vital pieces of American cinema. Not just since the film was made, mind you. Of all time. When Lee eventually passes away many years from now, "Do the Right Thing" will be in the headline of every single obituary.

Its political and social commentary, the importance of which cannot be understated in its impact on society, isn't what makes "Do the Right Thing" a masterpiece though. It's also just an incredibly entertaining picture, filled with a cavalcade of specific, engaging characters that you could fit into any combination and create a fascinating scene. Danny Aiello ended up being the only actor nominated for their work in the film — a rather absurd notion that only a white actor gets nominated for it — but every single face you see on screen clearly has a fully realized life. That isn't just great casting on Lee's part. That is all on the page too.

"Do the Right Thing" was a shot in the arm to both cinema and America as a whole. I'm not going to be able to say anything novel about the picture that hasn't been said already (and, let's face it, you don't want some white guy to be the one saying it either), so I'm not going to try. What I will say is that this paradigm-shifting film was always going to be a tough sell for the Academy. They aren't big on paradigm shifts. They play it safe, and "Do the Right Thing" is anything but safe.

The case for Sex, Lies, and Videotape

It didn't have the societal impact that "Do the Right Thing" had, but in terms of American moviemaking, I feel like we don't fully recognize just how big "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" was. Obviously, there has always been independent filmmaking in the United States, but these films rarely found an audience outside of niche circle of cineasts. In the 1980s, in particular, indie filmmaking really found trouble finding a hold with the explosion of blockbuster studio filmmaking after the end of the New Hollywood in the 1970s. Then there was Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," which won the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival.

This was a tiny movie that basically only featured four actors and dealt with sexual desire in such a frank and complicated manner that even today it feels ahead of the game. The movie was raw, character-focused, and took chances that you weren't really seeing in the comfort and safety of Reagan-era studio filmmaking. Soderbergh's film was instrumental in the rise of Miramax and the indie filmmaking boom in America in the 1990s. The movie ended up making nearly $25 million domestically, around the same gross as "Do the Right Thing" and the Civil War epic "Glory." It showed that there was an audience out there hungry for movies that challenged them and eschewed the sheen of Hollywood. "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" was exactly what they wanted, and it remains one of the best films of that indie explosion and one of Soderbergh's best, which is really saying something considering his stellar filmography. It may have been too racy for the Academy, but the industry as a whole knew this is where things were headed.

The case for When Harry Met Sally ...

We can trace the '90s independent film movement back to "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," and I think we can also trace the boom of romantic comedies in the same decade to Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally ..." (can't forget that ellipsis). Written by Nora Ephron, who'd go on to be one of the figureheads of the '90s rom-com, this film is one of those movies that countless others aspire to be — but hasn't been bested. The structure of two people, played by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, who go from reluctant acquaintances to friends to romantic partners over the course of 10+ years truly is bulletproof. You always understand where both of them are coming from at any given moment and how they needed all that time to finally come together at the end.

On top of that, this is just one of the funniest films ever made. Full stop. The consistency with which every joke lands is staggering and something very few comedies pull off. And each character gets their time to shine comedically. I think of a movie like "Defending Your Life," which is a brilliant picture by Albert Brooks, but the rom-com section of that movie is a lot of Brooks making jokes and Meryl Streep laughing at them. In "When Harry Met Sally ...," both titular characters are comedic forces, and neither one delivers a joker that it feels like the other one should have made. That extends out to their respective best friends, brilliantly played by Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby.

For a straight-up comedy, getting an Oscar nomination is a feat in and of itself. Obviously, the Academy didn't know the laundry list of impersonators to come, but it'd have been cool to award the source.

If I picked the winner

Deep in my heart, I know that my favorite film of this bunch is "When Harry Met Sally ..." The romantic comedy is one of my favorite genres, and that film is arguably the greatest example of it. That being said, I am no fool. Obviously, this award — like Best Picture — should have gone to "Do the Right Thing." I know that the members of the Academy are often the last people to recognize when a cultural shift has been made, but even they should have known how not giving this film its proper flowers would look at the time.

Best Original Screenplay, perhaps even more than Best Picture, should be the place where the Academy gets to experiment and award a film for trying something new. The word "original" is even in the category name. That may technically refer to these scripts not being based on prior source material, but you should also take that word to mean unique. "Do the Right Thing" is a total original in every way, and Spike Lee should have walked away with that trophy. While it looks bad anyway, the Academy made it look even worse when they neglected to give Lee an Oscar at all until 29 years later, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for "BlacKkKlansman."

Losing to "Driving Miss Daisy" may be how we talk about the Oscar history of "Do the Right Thing" in the macro, but on a more micro level, I find this to be the more egregious loss, as it was actually up for the award. The voters had to actively choose another movie here.