Meet Melisa Wallack, the Only Female Oscar Nominee for Best Original Screenplay

(Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)Two days before this year’s screenwriting Oscar nominees were announced, a report on women in film was a stark reminder of what’s missing from major motion pictures: female writers. This year’s Oscar nominations further confirmed that fact. Melisa Wallack, co-writer of "Dallas Buyers Club" is the only woman up for best original screenplay.

See the complete list of Oscar Nominations

And thank god for that. Wallack has had the kind of career trajectory that will restore your faith in those four little words: “We can do it."

In 1991, decades before Matthew McConaughey signed on to play Texas-based AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, Wallack, a graduate of Skidmore College, was working in her hometown of Minneapolis, launching a data discovery company with her sister, Andrea.

"We founded NightOwl Discovery in 1991 and for years worked incredibly hard to build something meaningful in a very high-stakes, high-stress environment," Andrea told Yahoo Shine. "Melisa moved to Los Angeles in 1995 to head our West Coast operations but never ceased to write which was her true passion."

While in California, Wallack naturally gravitated from businesswoman to networking with writers (though she remains a partner at NightOwl).  “I started meeting a lot of writers,” Wallack told Variety in a 2005 article naming her one of the top 10 screenwriters to watch. “Then, about six years ago, I decided to give it a try myself.”

That’s when she linked up with a burgeoning screen-writer named Craig Borten. He had read an article about Texas-based Aids Activist Ron Woodroof and spent several hours recording interviews with the pharmaceutical renegade who smuggled unapproved, life-saving drugs a month before his death in 1992. After reviewing Borten's taped interviews, Wallack was convinced Woodroof’s personal story of illness and rebellion was the starting point for her first major writing endeavor. Twenty years and a few stars later (Brad Pitt was originally attached to the picture), "Dallas Buyers Club" debuted on the big screen to critical acclaim.

But getting to that point required commitment and a bit of faith. Neither Borten, nor Wallack had an agent when they started writing, so their chance of selling the movie was slim. Wallack described their process as “sitting in a room writing eight hours a day. ... We did so much research," according to Screenwriting U. "I think I spent six months just reading, trying to understand placebos, double-blind studies … the protocols, the laws. You have to be an expert in these kinds of things. You just have to know everything about the industry in general before you start writing.”

Wallack's experience handling large amounts of tedious paperwork in her former life was no doubt beneficial. So was her upbringing. 

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"Our parents inspired us early on to follow our dreams and taught us to believe we could accomplish anything we set our minds to, that we were not limited in any way by gender," said Andrea, Wallack's sister. "It was only later as adults that we understood the limits of gender and have worked relentlessly to differentiate ourselves in male-dominated fields."

Wallack also credits her parents for her success. "I grew up in an idyllic town outside Minneapolis with my parents and five siblings,” she told the Los Angeles Times.  "We had dinner together almost every night … My father would listen to us recount what we had learned at school that day. One of my most vivid memories of this nightly ritual was my father's insistence that we tell him how we knew something was true. Who said it? Where did we read it? How did we know it was, in fact, true? It wasn't until many years later that I understood what my father was doing.”

She explained the truth in Woodroof’s story: "Ron’s struggle to survive, and unwillingness to listen to those in authority who told him he would not." It was, she said, "a wake-up call."

Though "Buyers Club" would not land in theaters until several years after it was conceived, Wallack used the experience to launch a career in scriptwriting. She wrote a draft of "Mirror, Mirror" and wrote and directed the over-looked indie film "Meet Bill," starring Aaron Eckhart.  She’s recently completed a draft of the film version of "Emily the Strange," based on the haunting, popular children’s books.

But it’s "Buyers Club" that’s placed her in a club of her own: Oscar-nominated female writer.

In a joint statement to the media, Wallack and co-writer Borten said, “We are stunned and honored. What a perfect culmination to such an amazing 20-year journey. Thank you, members of the academy.”

The last banner year for female writers at the Oscars was in 2008, when "Juno's" Diablo Cody joined fellow nominees Tamara Jenkins ("The Savages") and Nancy Oliver ("Lars and the Real Girl") in the category of best original screenplay.

"You don't want to be singled out as a woman,” Cody told the CBSNews of the honor. "On the other end, as a feminist, and someone who feels that women are marginalized in this industry, I'm thrilled that women are getting this sort of recognition.”

That was six years ago, and although there have been other female nominees for best original screenplay, women haven't outnumbered men in the category since then. On Tuesday, the Celluloid Ceiling Report released a statistic that proves more recognition is needed. Only 16 percent of major motion pictures feature women in writing, producing, editing, shooting and directing roles. That’s a 1 percent drop from 15 years ago. Of course, the talent is there, as Wallack has proven, but more women are needed to kick open the doors of the tightly locked industry.

In an interview, Wallack offered some advice to those who want to join her trailblazing path. “Write what you know,” she said. “Write every day.”


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