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The Best Hollywood Screenwriters of All-Time

January 5, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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Happy National Screenwriters Day! Observed annually on January 5th, this day honors the often unnoticed and under-appreciated task force behind all those thrilling, adventurous, romantic TV or movie masterpieces.

To show my appreciation for the people that build movies from nothing and make them into something special, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best screenwriters in cinematic history. This list will only look at writers who are not directors, so people like Paul Thomas Anderson, Woody Allen, or Spike Lee will not be featured. Some of the writers listed have directed films, but for the most part, they are not known for it, and mainly stick to writing scripts.

And before you type in the comments about the omission of Charlie Kaufman or Aaron Sorkin, I have not included them because they have shown their intention to direct their own scripts for the foreseeable future. Plus, they’re probably featured on numerous other lists, so I’d like to give spots to other people that are less known. I will also not list anyone who is a frequent writing partner with a director, such as I.A.L Diamond or Charles Brackett, as the majority of their work was with Billy Wilder.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into this list featuring some of the biggest wordsmiths of the cinematic art form.

Robert Towne

Widely regarded as the greatest script doctor in Hollywood history, Robert Towne’s fingerprints are on several of the best films of all time, whether you know it or not. Francis Ford Coppola thanked Towne during his Oscar acceptance speech for his uncredited assistance on The Godfather, and he kicked off the New Hollywood movement with his (also uncredited) work on Bonnie and Clyde. Towne did receive formal recognition in the form of an Oscar nomination for The Last Detail, and a win for Chinatown the following year. He would direct a few of his screenplays to vary success, with Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits being warmly regarded. And he would become Tom Cruise’s go-to writer for a few years, lending his pen to Days of Thunder, The Firm, and the first two installments of the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Eric Roth

As the recipient of six Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, including a win for Forrest Gump, Eric Roth towers over all in modern Hollywood when turning preexisting material into cinematic classics. He’s often been trusted by top directors to bring their biggest projects into the light: Michael Mann (The Insider, Ali), Steven Spielberg (Munich), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Denis Villeneuve (Dune). He’s adding Martin Scorsese to that venerable list with the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, so a second Oscar may be on the horizon.

Paddy Chayefsky

At three wins from four nominations, Chayefsky is tied with Woody Allen and Billy Wilder as the most-winning screenwriter in Oscar history. His winning percentage is even more impressive when you factor in that it took Allen 16 nominations and Wilder 12 nominations to reach that win total. Chayefsky initially started in television in the 1950s with director Sidney Lumet, a partnership that would reach its apex with the scathing satire in 1976’s Network. Director Delbert Mann was another figure that Chayefsky frequently worked with during his television days, and they each picked up Oscars for their work in 1955’s Marty, which would also be awarded the prize for Best Motion Picture.

Leigh Brackett

Brackett was a trailblazer in Hollywood, repeatedly destroying the misconception that women could only write “feminine” dramas. She had no problem working across several genres, from 1940s noir (The Big Sleep), westerns (Rio Bravo), to 1970s new crime (The Long Goodbye). Even for all her genre-hopping, she always called science fiction her home. She would mentor Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury, and be personally hired by George Lucas to write the script for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to see her work on that film come to fruition, as she passed away in 1978 just after she handed in her script. But her work still lives on and remains an inspiration for anyone that wants to push boundaries.

Steven Zaillian

Along with Eric Roth, Zaillian is usually the first person studios call when they need someone to adapt existing material. He received an Oscar nomination for his second screenplay, 1990’s Awakenings. That was only the first of many large dominoes, as he won the Oscar for Schindler’s List, and would be nominated again for Gangs of New York, Moneyball, and The Irishman. Like Robert Towne, he’s also a go-to script doctor for many top directors. He’s done uncredited rewrites and polishes on films such as Crimson Tide, Patriot Games, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, and Road to Perdition.

William Goldman

As the author behind several best-selling books on the art of screenplay writing, it’s easy to see why Goldman is seen as one of the greatest writers ever. His critics would claim that he wrote for the director’s vision, and not for his own original ideas. But that would always be his biggest strength, as he could adapt to any genre between westerns (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), political thrillers (All the President’s Men), and nerve-wracking crime dramas (Marathon Man). He would eventually become the most sought-after adapter of Stephen King’s work, with Misery, Hearts in Atlantis, and Dreamcatcher. And to top it all off, he even adapted his own novel, The Princess Bride, for the screen.

John Logan

Don’t let Logan’s directorial debut failure with They/Them last year fool you into thinking he isn’t one of the most lauded screenwriters working today. Whether he’s working with Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, Hugo), Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien: Covenant), or Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Spectre), Logan loves to work in pairs with leading auteurs. He’s also dabbled in animation (Rango), musicals (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Shakespeare (Coriolanus), and even television (Penny Dreadful).

Robert Bolt

Between his works with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter, there probably isn’t anyone who writes bigger than Robert Bolt. His first notice would come before all that when he wrote the play A Man for All Seasons in 1954. He would adapt it for the screen himself, winning another Oscar just one year after he won for Doctor Zhivago. 1986’s The Mission, starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, would be his next, and final, brush with awards success, with the film winning the Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival along with several Oscar nominations.

Ernest Lehman

The only thing consistent about Ernest Lehman’s output is the excellence of its quality. One of his first scripts would be the 1954 romantic-comedy Sabrina for Billy Wilder. He would jump over to mystery thrillers with Northwest by Northwest for Alfred Hitchcock. Then came a brief settlement into musicals, as he adapted both the Best Picture-winning West Side Story and The Sound of Music from the stage to the screen. Another slight pivot came in the form of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and finally ending with a return to Hitchcock for 1979’s Family Plot.

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