Was 1974 the Greatest Year for Screenwriting Ever?

The Script Lab’s contributor Martin Keady explores one of the greatest years in screenwriting history. Links to free screenplay downloads included below:

1939 is usually cited as the greatest year for Hollywood film-making, the high-point of the original Golden Age of American (and other English language) cinema, as demonstrated by the list of films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, or “Outstanding Production” as it was then called, the following year. Ultimately, Gone With The Wind won in 1940, ahead of such other undisputed classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz,  Love Affair and the original screen versions of Goodbye Mr Chips, Wuthering Heights and Of Mice and Men. Even allowing for the fact that more than five films could be nominated at that time, it is hard, if not impossible, to think of a better single year for truly outstanding films in the history of either American cinema or the Oscars. But is there an equivalent year, or high-water mark, for screenwriting – the one year that ranks above all others for the quality of the scripts (both original and adapted) produced in that 12-month period? Well, if there is, it surely has to be 1974.

In 1975 (so, the year in which 1974’s greatest screenplays were actually recognised), the two winners of the Writing Oscars were Chinatown by Robert Towne for Best Original Screenplay, and The Godfather Part II by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo for Best Screenplay Adapted From Other Material (namely Puzo’s original novel, The Godfather). Both screenplays are universally acknowledged as masterpieces and so the best possible bases for the great films that were made from them. And the fact that they were both hailed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the same year arguably marks the high-point of the so-called “New Hollywood” that had emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, which roughly lasts from the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 right through to the arrival of JAWS and the subsequent emergence of the Blockbuster Era in 1975.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the screenwriting success of both Chinatown and The Godfather Part II is that they were not isolated efforts by their screenwriters, as was the case, for example, with Bonnie and Clyde, whose co-writers, David Newman and Robert Benton, never really equalled the scale and majesty (and of course violence) of their debut in their subsequent scripts, either individually or collectively. Instead, both Chinatown and The Godfather Part II represented the twin peaks of the incredible screenwriting careers of both Robert Towne and Francis Ford Coppola (who, of course, was also the director of both parts of The Godfather).

Extraordinarily, Towne had really begun his career as a major screenwriter by working uncredited on the first part of The Godfather in 1972. As with all uncredited rewrites, it is ultimately impossible to determine the exact nature and magnitude of Towne’s contribution to the final, filmed draft of The Godfather. Nevertheless, the fact that he contributed at all to the screenplay that won the Best Adapted Screenplay in 1973 confirmed that, after more than a decade spent largely writing for TV on series such as The Outer Limits and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he had finally arrived in Hollywood proper (that is in cinema, not TV) as a writer for the big screen. And he followed up that original, uncredited role on the original The Godfather with a truly imperial phase of screenwriting that, in addition to Chinatown, included The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975), both of which were nominated for Writing Oscars, as well as yet another uncredited role on one of the classic Watergate-era thrillers, The Parallax View (1974).

If anything, however, Francis Ford Coppola’s achievements as a screenwriter in the first half of the 1970s outstripped even those of Towne. He began the decade by winning the Best Adapted Screenplay for Patton (sharing it with his co-writer Edmund H. North); then, as writer-director, he completely oversaw from conception to fruition the two Godfather films, again winning Best Adapted Screenplays for each of them, which he shared with Mario Puzo; and for good measure, in between the two Godfather films he somehow found the time to write and direct The Conversation (1974), whose script was also nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay in 1975, in one of the very rare examples of a writer having two scripts nominated in the same category in the same year. And all of that is without even mentioning the truly brilliant (perhaps even definitive) screenplay he wrote for Jack Clayton’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby (also 1974), a marvellous film of a classic novel that is only overshadowed cinematically by the other marvels of this Second Golden Age of Hollywood and which should really be regarded as a masterpiece in its own right.

And yet, for all their other genuinely stellar achievements in the early to mid-1970s, for both Towne and Coppola their screenplays for Chinatown and The Godfather II respectively were the absolute gold standard of their career, which arguably neither man has come close to matching – but, as they would no doubt be quick to point out, neither has anyone else.

Chinatown’s status as a screenplay is such that it is often cited as the “perfect” screenplay, if such a thing could ever be said to exist, because of its remarkable and remarkably intricate depiction of a seemingly ordinary case of marital deception that soon mushrooms into an extraordinary case of grand larceny (arguably the grandest larceny of all – stealing water), at the heart of which is a truly diabolical case of incest. Perhaps it is the element of incest, with its echoes of the original Greek Tragedies, particularly Oedipus Rex, that almost immediately elevated Chinatown to classic status. However, that is only one element in a densely plotted examination of the original era of the Private Detective (the 1930s Los Angeles of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) at some 40 years’ remove, when it was finally possible to deal with the kind of genuinely “adult” themes (such as incest, but also including legislative and police corruption) that could not really be dealt with on screen in that earlier, supposedly more innocent period.

Indeed, it is fascinating to consider how The Godfather Part II is also a period film (albeit a period film that has another period film within it). That is because, exactly like Chinatown, it was able to look at the relatively recent past (it begins in the late 1950s, before the story moves both forwards and backwards in time) but subject it to a degree of on-screen scrutiny that would have been impossible in the era in which it is set. If Chinatown considers incest as the original sin that sets in motion all the other sins depicted in the film, then The Godfather Part II suggests that Kay’s abortion of Michael Corleone’s baby is the final sin that can be committed by a Corleone, one that will completely end Kay and Michael’s marriage but which will also prevent Kay from ever really seeing her surviving children again.

However, even though both Chinatown and The Godfather Part II are nominally “period” or even “historical” dramas, their real power lies in the fact that they are truly timeless dramas, investigating crimes (such as incest and murder, which of course some people still regard abortion as) that have gone on since time immemorial and will probably go on for time eternal. That, as much as anything, is the source of their status as instant classics that have none the less endured in the popular cultural and cinematic imagination in a way that few films have ever done. That can be evidenced in any number of ways, from The Guardian newspaper naming Chinatown as the best film ever made in 2010 to the seemingly endless references to The Godfather (both parts I and II) in almost all subsequent films and TV series, not least The Sopranos, in which Tony Soprano’s crew need only refer to “One” or “Two” to indicate which film they are discussing or mimicking at any point. Indeed, both Chinatown and The Godfather (Parts I and II) are due to have movies made about them in the near future, which is probably the ultimate accolade for any film to receive.

Nevertheless, for all their similarities as “period crime dramas”, it is also instructive to consider the numerous differences between Chinatown and The Godfather Part II. The most obvious one is that the former is a detective story, whose linear structure is relatively conventional (it begins as just another “Private Dick” story, before spiraling into something much more than that). By contrast, the latter is a gangster film, whose structure soon becomes quite remarkable and even remarkably strange, as the so-called “sequel” to Part I (in which Michael’s rule of the Corleone crime family is examined) also becomes a “prequel” to it (in which the start of the criminal career of Michael’s father, Vito, at the start of the 20th century is shown with steadily accumulating detail, culminating in his first ever murder, of an existing crime boss). In a way, therefore, Chinatown is a more orthodox, even classically constructed screenplay, whereas The Godfather Part II is far more unorthodox, even at times post-modern in its interweaving of different parts of the history of the Corleone family. And, of course, perhaps most importantly of all, Chinatown is a stand-alone original (Towne’s much later sequel, The Two Jakes, was not in the same class), whereas The Godfather Part II is not only a sequel (that also becomes a prequel) but also adapts existing material, although the fact is that so much of The Godfather Part II is entirely original screenwriting and not actually based on anything in Mario Puzo’s supposed “source” story.

For all their individual attributes, though, it is fascinatingly instructive to consider these two screenplays collectively, because the fact that they were both written and filmed in the same year (1974) makes that year undeniably the greatest ever for screenwriting, at least in American and other English language cinema. Indeed, one could even go so far as to say that a novice screenwriter starting out could do a lot worse than just studying these two screenplays in detail and considering how their remarkable combination of timeless storytelling and period-specific detailing – not to mention their actual dialogue, so much of which has passed into the universal vernacular, from the last line of Chinatown to so many lines from The Godfather Part II – made them not only enormous hits, both critically and commercially, in their own time but even more importantly enduring classics. And both screenplays are, of course, available to read for free in The Script Lab Screenplay Library – https://thescriptlab.com/screenplays/

There have undoubtedly been other great years for screenwriting, both before and since 1974. For example, a recent Twitter debate on the subject that I participated in prompted alternative suggestions: for example, 1969, in which two very different “Cowboy” movies – Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy – won Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively; and 2013, in which a revisionist period drama, 12 Years A Slave, and a bizarre sci-fi love story, Her, won the original and adapted screenplay awards respectively. However, even those Tweeters championing those other years ultimately had to concede that not even those wonderful pairings of screenplays could quite match either the initial impact or the enduring legacy of Chinatown and The Godfather Part II. It is their same appearance in the same calendar year, like twin comets announcing the arrival of a new era, which ultimately turned out to be the end of the Second Golden Age of Hollywood and the arrival of the Blockbuster Era (which in turn may now be coming to an end with the pandemic’s closure of so many cinemas), that surely make 1974 the greatest year for screenwriting ever.