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10 of the Best Scripts Written by Women

By Martin Keady · March 20, 2023

10 of the Best Scripts Written by Women_feature

The hashtag #oscarssowhite has become ubiquitous in recent years, highlighting the continuing dominance of the world’s most prestigious movie awards by Caucasians. A similar, if more cumbersome, hashtag #oscarswritingsomale could be used to emphasize the ongoing male domination of the two writing Oscars, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. However, recent years have seen an increase in the recognition and celebration of movies written by women, with films such as “Promising Young Woman” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” receiving nominations in the writing categories.

In nearly a century of the Oscars, nearly 200 writing awards have been given out, but only 18, or less than 10%, have been won by women. For half the world’s population to be so meagrely represented is yet another stain on the Oscars in particular and on the film industry in general. 

Thankfully, things are finally changing. Last year, Sight and Sound acknowledged that perhaps the finest screenplay ever written was written by a woman when its 10-yearly global poll of film-makers and critics determined that the finest film ever made is Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Chantal Akerman’s intimate epic about a widow driven to sex work, which Akerman both wrote and directed.

Let’s discover ten more movies written by women, all of which demonstrate the uniquely female gaze and wisdom that women bring to screenwriting.

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Scripts from this Article

Cabaret (1972)

Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, based on the 1966 musical of the same name by Joe Masteroff; I Am a Camera, the 1951 play by John Van Druten; and Goodbye to Berlin, the original 1939 story by Christopher Isherwood

The screenplay by Jay Presson Allen for Cabaret was virtually a palimpsest of earlier writing, as suggested by the lengthy set of credits above, which cover three different iterations, written over more than thirty years, of the original source story by Christopher Isherwood. 

Over 50 years after the release of the film Cabaret, the story continues to exert an almost gravitational pull on global culture. That is evidenced by the success of the recent revival of Joe Masteroff’s musical in London and the genius of the 2021 German-language television drama Ka De We (Our Time Is Now), which is almost a rebooting (or “re-stiletto-ing”) of Cabaret for the 21st century. 

All of this shows that the modern world, with its triple obsessions of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or other forms of music), was not just created in the 1960s by The Beatles and other luminaries of that decade but in the 1920s Berlin by Brecht, Isherwood, and other icons. Presson Allen’s sensual, supple, and subtle screenplay for Cabaret has been central to the endurance of the Cabaret myth.

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A Room With a View (1985)

Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster

In 1993, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a great German-Indian-American screenwriter who was the third member of the Merchant-Ivory film-making partnership (but sadly unnamed), won two Oscars for screenwriting. Her adaptation of Howard’s End (1992) won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, making her the first woman in 60 years to win two Oscars for screenwriting. Seven years prior, she had won the same award for her adaptation of another E.M. Forster novel, A Room With A View (1985).

The only other woman to win two Oscars for writing was the equally great Frances Marion, who won two Original Screenplay Oscars for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1932) almost immediately after the coming of sound. The fact that it took more than 50 years for another woman to achieve what Marion did speaks volumes about the negligence, whether intentional or unintentional, towards many other exceptional female screenwriters during the 20th century.

A Room With A View was the first Merchant-Ivory-Prawer Jhabvala co-production to reach a mass audience and win an Oscar. Prawer Jhabvala’s deft translation of Forster’s often dense prose to the screen is a major reason why.

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Thelma and Louise (1991)

Screenplay by Callie Khouri

Over thirty years after its release, Thelma and Louise might remain the most famous “all-female film” (or, at least, a film with two female leads) ever made. So much of its success was down to the brilliance of Callie Khouri’s screenplay, which remains one of the all-time greatest screenwriting debuts and deservedly won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

Like many of the greatest screenplays, Thelma and Louise were inspired by the writer’s experience and then turbocharged by their imagination. Like Susan Sarandon’s Thelma, Khouri had worked as a waitress while trying to progress in the film industry, enduring the seemingly ceaseless sexism that persists to this day, especially in America’s South, where her “feminist road movie” is set. 

The most famous scene in Thelma and Louise is its ending, which reminds us of the importance of a screenplay ending on a high (even if that “high” is actually a descent). And it also disproves the myth that great Hollywood movies need a “happy ending.” From Gone With The Wind to Casablanca to Thelma and Louise, many of the most memorable endings of films are anything but happy. Instead, they are as complex, painful, and truthful as life itself, which only has one inevitable ending.

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Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Screenplay by Emma Thompson, based on the novel of the same name by Jane Austen

There are many great Jane Austen screen (both big and small) adaptations, notably Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC TV adaptation, which launched the career of Colin Firth (who played Mr. Darcy) and led to the creation of Bridget Jones (who idealized Darcy and sought a modern-day equivalent). It’s worth noting the exceptional “screenplay” co-written or penned solely by Jane Austen almost a century before the creation of cinema. That is Miss Austen Regrets, the 2007 TV biopic written by Gwyneth Hughes, who had the great sense to use much of Austen’s correspondence and other personal writing as the basis for her script. 

Nevertheless, arguably the finest screen adaptation and certainly the finest cinematic adaptation of Austen is Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson’s sublime adaptation of the first of Austen’s novels to be published. Like almost all successful screenplays based on great novels, Thompson necessarily amended her source story, notably omitting Willoughby’s final attempt to see Marianne when she is gravely ill. However, if that omission perhaps makes Willoughby less sympathetic on screen than he is in the novel, that is offset by the increased emphasis on the relationship between the two sisters, which is always the most important relationship in any Jane Austen novel, as it was in her own life.

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Lost in Translation (2003)

Screenplay by Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s career shows the difficulties that even the best-connected women – indeed, even the daughter of one of the greatest filmmakers ever, Francis Ford Coppola – can experience in the film industry. Initially an actress, she was pilloried for her performance in The Godfather Part III (1990), when in truth, the whole film was awful, at least in comparison with the first two Godfather films.

Over the next decade, Sofia Coppola reinvented herself as a writer-director, culminating in Lost In Translation, her unlikely “buddy movie” about a fading film star and an unhappily married young woman who meet in Tokyo. It is impossible not to regard the age and gender divide between the two characters as being based, at least in part, on Coppola’s struggle to emerge from the film-making shadow cast by her father. However, even without that autobiographical “backstory,” Lost In Translation is simultaneously witty and tender and a cinematic love letter to the Japanese capital.

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Read More: Pioneering Women in Screenwriting

Juno (2007)

Screenplay by Diablo Cody

Like Thelma and Louise, Juno’s stellar screenwriting debut secured its author, Diablo Cody, the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It also represents the reinvention of a genre. However, whereas Thelma and Louise’s creation of the all-female road movie was obviously radical, Cody’s rewriting of the teen movie genre was quieter and subtler but no less affecting. 

Juno’s screenplay is ironically successful because it portrays a mature perspective, despite being a movie about a teenage girl’s decision to give up her baby for adoption. Every character is delineated so precisely that they are plausible in a way that most characters in teen movies just aren’t. It can be argued that Juno and Paulie’s relationship in the movie represents an unusual example, where they begin with a sexual encounter and later realize their similarities while grappling with the decision to give up their child. Eventually, they establish a supportive relationship.

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Bridesmaids (2011)

Screenplay by Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig

Bridesmaids is a rare example of a successful all-female screenwriting partnership or team. Although numerous examples of successful all-male screenwriting partnerships or teams exist, female equivalents are far less common. Women screenwriters have typically worked solo or with male collaborators, often their spouses. However, Mumulo and Wiig have emerged as one of the most successful female screenwriting partnerships, as demonstrated by their Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids.

Given the subject matter, it was perhaps necessary for two women to write Bridesmaids. Ostensibly, it is about a middle-aged woman (Annie, played by Wiig) being asked to be her best friend’s maid of honor, only to find herself facing competition for her friend’s attention and affection from another bridesmaid, the snobbish, status-obsessed wife of the bridegroom’s boss. In reality, however, Bridesmaids, like so many other scripts in this collection, is about the unique nature of female friendship and how it can differ dramatically (and comedically) from male friendship. 

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Carol (2015)

Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Carol is not just the greatest LGBT love story told on screen but one of the greatest love stories ever told on screen. Its tale of a tragic love affair between two very different women, a wealthy socialite (the titular Carol) and a younger photographer (Therese), at the start of the 1950s, is beautifully written, showing the prejudice against same-sex relationships that have existed throughout human history in almost all societies, and perhaps no more so than in McCarthy-era America.

Carol also represents a love story involving its two writers, Highsmith and Nagy. Highsmith was one of the most successful female writers of the 20th century, particularly with her oft-filmed series of novels about serial killer Tom Ripley. However, even at the height of her fame, she felt unable to expose her true sexual identity, and consequently, Carol was published under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. More than half a century later, one of the finest female playwrights and screenwriters of the 20th century, Phyllis Nagy, a proudly “out lesbian,” was finally able to tell Highsmith’s remarkable love story on screen. The only shame is that Highsmith herself never lived to see it.

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Lady Bird (2017)

Screenplay by Greta Gerwig

If Noah Baumbach is the 21st-century Woody Allen, then Greta Gerwig, his on-screen muse and off-screen partner, is his Diane Keaton. Unlike Keaton, however, Gerwig has become a successful writer-director in her own right. 

Gerwig has only written and directed two films, but her screenplays have been Oscar-nominated. The second, the latest of many adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, secured a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. And the first, Lady Bird, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, making Gerwig one of the few women to be nominated for an Oscar in both writing categories. 

Lady Bird exemplifies how so many of the best scripts by women are about those relationships that are little understood or ignored by men. The central relationship is between a teenage girl and her mother, who tries to disabuse her daughter of what she regards as impossible dreams, such as attending a prestigious East Coast university. Although the acting is superb, with Saoirse Ronan embodying all the recklessness of youth (as when she jumps out of a moving car) and Lindsay Metcalfe adding another stand-out performance to a career full of them, Gerwig’s writing is the basis for it. Based on her experience of being a teenager but not limited by it, Lady Bird truly takes flight.

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Women Talking (2022)

Screenplay by Sarah Polley, based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews

The final script in this collection is the most recent, Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, which was based on real-life revelations about a Mennonite (extreme Christian) community in South America over a decade ago. The screenplay has been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Oscars, but regardless of whether or not it wins, Women Talking is a truly superb script. 

The subtitle, if there was one, of Women Talking would surely be About How Men Hurt Them, as the Mennonite women gradually admit the truth, first to themselves and then each other, about the violence perpetrated against them by the supposedly “Godly” men in their lives. Consequently, Women Talking is not just a portrait of a seemingly anachronistic way of life but a universal story about the degradation that so many women worldwide still experience daily.

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Read More: A World of Worth: Celebrating Today’s Greatest Women Screenwriters

Scripts from this Article