Movie Legends Revealed | Did Robin Williams’ Ad-Libbing Rob ‘Aladdin’ of an Oscar?

Genie

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Robin Williams ad-libbed so much of Aladdin that the film was rejected for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tragically, Robin Williams passed away Monday at the age of 63. With the unexpected death of such a comedy icon, the internet is filled to the brim with tributes to the beloved actor. Along with those tributes have come a number of, for lack of a better term, “lists of interesting facts about Robin Williams.” That’s not surprising, of course, as numbered lists have become incredibly popular. However, I’ve noticed something distressing about them: They use a lot of the same “facts” that don’t appear to be verified at all, instead seemingly going under the theory of “Well, if Site X and Y are reporting it, I guess we can, too.” That’s pretty standard behavior for small independent websites, but I’m talking about The Huffington Post and CBS News.

Honestly, it looks like writers are just pulling items from the Internet Movie Database’s trivia page. The issue, of course, is that those “facts” are user-submitted and are often unsourced, leaving the truth behind them up in the air. One fact I’ve seen repeated a number of times over the past few days is that Williams ad-libbed so much of his dialogue as the Genie in Aladdin (a role that ended up causing him a lot of aggravation, as we covered in an earlier Movie Legends Revealed) that the film was ineligible for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Is that true?

A few common elements make my skeptic radar ping when it comes to “facts” on the internet. The most common one is what I mentioned earlier about lack of sources. If an interesting fact is just tossed out there without anything backing it up, it stands out as suspicious. Another major one is when the same fact is reported in numerous different ways. Here’s how I’ve seen it reported just this week:

  • “Because Robin Williams ad-libbed so many of his lines, the script [for Aladdin] was turned down for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination.”
  • “Again, it is thought that Williams ad-libbed a lot of his lines in Aladdin; so much so that producers ended up with over 16 hours’ worth of material, and the film could not be submitted for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.”
  • “Because Williams ad-libbed so many of his lines, the script didn’t get a nomination for best adapted screenplay at the Oscars.”
  • “So much of Williams’ wild performance was improvised that the Academy turned down the film’s submission in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.” This quote from the Cleveland Plain Dealer was what the Huffington Post used as a citation for the following quote:
  • “Apparently, the Academy Awards rejected the bid for “Aladdin” in the Best Adapted Screenplay category because so much of Williams role ended up being improvised.”
  • “According to reports, the 1992 Disney film was turned down for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination because Williams had ad-libbed so many of his lines as the goofy but loyal Genie.” (Do you know what the “report” was for that last one? The IMDb trivia page for Aladdin!)

When you have that much variety, it’s often because there’s no true original source to go to so, there’s no consistency in how the story is reported.

So in checking to see whether this was true, I first read a number of Williams biographies and books about Aladdin and searched through contemporary news accounts of the time and found no evidence of the Academy denying Aladdin a nomination for the stated reason (I did come across an interesting opinion piece by Phil Rosenthal about how Williams deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the role as the Genie).

Secondly, I considered the question: Was it even odd for Aladdin to not be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay? Not at in the least. In fact, no animated film had ever been nominated for a screenplay Academy Award. Not Snow White, not Bambi, not Dumbo and more importantly, not The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast (Aladdin‘s contemporaries). Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (Aladdin was not) and it still didn’t receive a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (Toy Story became the first animated film to receive a nod in that category). So it was unsurprising that Aladdin was passed over for a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. However, it would’ve been surprising if it had received one.

So without any evidence that it was specifically denied an Oscar nod, and considering no other Disney animated film had been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, it already seems highly unlikely this story is true.

But here’s the kicker: Improvised films are eligible for Best Screenplay! There are a number of examples of films with extensive ad-libbing that later received nominations in that category, including Beverly Hills Cop and Shrek, but the most famous example is 2006′s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay despite the vast majority of the film being improvised (and not just one character’s dialogue).

With all of this factored in, I feel safe in saying that this legend is …

STATUS: False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!

News From Our Partners

Comments

  • donna brazile fan

    Yeah, did anyone really think that through? I mean, Aladdin minus all of Genie’s dialogue is already preeeeeety far from the original Aladdin fairy-tale. Some narrratively-unimportant improvised lines wouldn’t affect anything.

  • ZiggyTheVulture

    Everything is true on the internet or else they couldn’t post it.
    ;-)

  • Trevor Reece

    Could you please post a link to the Phil Rosenthal Op-Ed piece?

  • William Carpenter

    I dunno if it’s appropriate to be posting this so soon…

  • JozefAL

    Actually, I’m not really sure that a film based on a fairy tale is necessarily going to qualify for “Adapted Screenplay.” If the 1951 film, “David and Bathsheba” could qualify for “Original Screenplay” despite its largely being based on the Biblical book of 2 Samuel and a number of biopics (including “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Patton,” and “Gandhi”) and based-on-true-stories (notably, “Chariots of Fire”; interestingly, though, “Apollo 13″ was nominated for “Adapted Screenplay” since it was based on a book co-written by Jim Lovell) have qualified for “Original Screenplay,” I’d think that a “fairy tale”-based film could qualify for “Original Screenplay” as well–if the story has some significant divergence/s from the “traditional” tale (bearing in mind that many fairy tales don’t have a single source or even form).

    But, to suggest that Williams’ ad libbing would disqualify “Aladdin” for an “Adapted Screenplay” is silly.

    The Academy’s current rules regarding the Writing Nominations read very simply:

    1. An award shall be given for the best achievement in each of two categories:

    Adapted Screenplay

    Original Screenplay

    2. A Reminder List of all pictures eligible in each category shall be made available along with nominations ballots to all members of the Writers Branch, who shall vote in the order of their preference for not more than five productions in each category.

    3. The five productions in each category receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Writing awards.

    4. Final voting for the Writing awards shall be restricted to active and life Academy members.

    Nothing in there to determine what qualifies as “Adapted” and what qualifies as “Original.”

    As to “Toy Story,” it was actually nominated for ORIGINAL Screenplay (“Toy Story 3″ was nominated for Adapted Screenplay since the characters were from the prior films) and regarding “Borat”s Adapted Screenplay nomination, that was because the character originated on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show”–it had nothing to do with the scripting or improvisation of the film. Similarly, “Beverly Hills Cop,” being an ORIGINAL story, was nominated for Original Screenplay, despite Murphy’s ad libbed scenes and “Shrek” was nominated for Adapted Screenplay because the character (and base of the film’s plot) came from a 1990 children’s picture book by William Steig.

  • V

    Out of all the Disney Renaissance movies, Aladdin was the most deserving of an Adapted Screenplay nom. The lines and dialogues are simply brilliant!

  • Paul

    Another good way to tell this is false is by the film “M*A*S*H” (adapted from the book, it predates the TV show). Ring Lardner Jr. wrote the screenplay after coming back from being blacklisted by Sen. McCarthy and won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The catch is that the actors were encouraged to ad-lib lines. At one point Lardner confronted Elliot Gould (Trapper John McIntyre) about them ruining his script and how he wanted nothing to do with the film.

  • alex

    I’ve heard Robin Williams was up for the Riddler in Batman Forever. Not really an urban legend, but that’s what I heard. Then I heard he was (again) up for the Riddler for the third Nolan Batman movie.
    In a psych class, there’s a legend that is reported as fact. As a matter of fact, I think they played us the scene where you could here whispering people saying ‘take off your clothes’. Allegedly (sp), a bunch of kids started taking off their clothes in the theater and parents couldn’t figure out why.
    There’s a couple to research.

  • js

    Ad-lib in a cartoon is like the Loch Ness Monster. Every line that makes it into the final product has to be recorded, edited, synced with animation, so on… If the film makers don’t want it in there, it isn’t going in. With this in mind, if all the extra stuff did go into the movie, you can’t fault Williams for it, the final say would go with the editor and director. People just have a way of sensationalizing everything these days. Click Bait is without scruples.

  • Jim

    Actually, it’s very appropriate. The article is correcting a completely false myth. In no way is this article talking about Robin Williams’ death, so your butthurt is showing far too much.