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Putting words in their mouths
Screenwriters deserve props at the Oscars

"Did you hear about the dim-bulb actress who was up for a part? She slept with the scriptwriter."

Yeah, it's an old joke, but I needed a lead, and they don't pay me extra for original material. Besides, is there a better way to describe the scriptwriter's place in the Hollywood food chain - well fed, often, but a very weak link when it comes to anything resembling actual influence? Jack Warner, back in the studio era, famously referred to scriptwriters as "schmucks with Underwoods," and about the only thing that's changed since then are the Underwoods.

You got the sense, during the recent contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, that the producers were holding their noses, lest the stench waft across the moat and into the castle. They were certainly holding their tongues, refusing to even meet with the guild's representatives for weeks at a time. And it was beginning to look like things might drag on at least until June, when the Screen Actors Guild renegotiates its own contract. But there was still one teensy-weensy thing that might bring the network and studio heads to the negotiating table....

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 80th annual Academy Awards, brought to you by a television network (ABC, Feb. 24) that's surely breathing a heavy sigh of relief, hosted by a comedian/journalist (Jon Stewart) who will surely breathe his own heavy sigh of relief if he gets all the way through the night without being called a scab, and featuring extremely lame, albeit scripted, one-liners that will leave one billion people worldwide wondering whether the producers didn't get the raw end of the deal.

That's right, folks, the show must go on, if only because it's a free ad that Hollywood couldn't afford to pass up. In fact, ABC actually pays the studios to hawk their Oscar-nominated wares. And so, while you're sitting there, tabulating your ballots and waiting for the next wardrobe malfunction, keep in mind that you're being sold a bill of goods, a bill of goods that wouldn't be possible without - wait for it - the writers.

Let me run some names past you: George Axelrod, Howard Koch, Ben Hecht, Ernest Lehman, Dalton Trumbo. Ever heard of them? How about Robert Riskin? Charles Brackett? Hint: They were all successful screenwriters back when that still didn't mean very much. Axelrod wrote The Seven-Year Itch, Bus Stop, Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Manchurian Candidate. Riskin arguably had as much to do with Frank Capra's success as Capra did. But movies just aren't considered a writer's medium, despite the fact that they used to be called "the talkies," and despite the fact that someone has to put all those words in all those mouths.

Part of the problem is what we'll call the multiply-and-conquer strategy. Hollywood just can't get it through its thick head that too many cooks spoil the broth. So the writers tend to come in teams, even armies. A whopping 32 writers worked on The Flintstones, and we all know how that turned out. But over a dozen writers worked on The Wizard of Oz, and that didn't turn out so bad. The writing credit for The Wizard of Oz was shared by only three of those writers, and what the Writers Guild mostly does, when it's not manning the barricades, is settle credit disputes.

They're notoriously difficult to resolve, but a lot's at stake since residual payments only go to those who are assigned credit. Residuals - compensation for a movie or TV show's afterlife on DVDs or, increasingly, the Internet - are what the strike was all about. And the networks and studios' position on the issue was best summed up by Hollywood honcho Lew Wasserman years ago, back when television was the only afterlife that movies aspired to. "My plumber," Wasserman said, "doesn't charge me every time I flush the toilet."

Well, maybe he should have, what with that kind of crappy attitude clogging the drain. In solidarity with my fellow scribes, I've decided to focus on the screenwriting aspects of this year's Oscar race. My theme: Get me rewrite!

Here's what got the nod and what should have.

Who's sorry now

Well, it looked good on paper - specifically, the pages of Ian McEwan's novel about a fine romance poisoned by class, which pulls the rug out from under readers at the end, leaving them both broken-hearted and dazzled. But Joe Wright's movie version of Atonement gets bogged down in World War II on its way to that gotcha moment and has to bring on Vanessa Redgrave to explain everything. Wright, who ran roughshod over Jane Austen in Pride & Prejudice, is at his best early on, when Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are making goo-goo eyes at each other. And he gets excellent use out of a typewriter, which rattles through the halls of a British country house like a machine gun. That alone must endear the movie to scriptwriters. But there's much to atone for here, even that bravura 4½-minute shot of the beach at Dunkirk, which has the weird effect of taking us out of the movie instead of further in.

My left eyelid

Compare that to Julian Schnabel's brilliantly sensitive adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Bauby was the French Elle editor and all-around bon vivant who, as a result of a massive stroke, was left paralyzed from head to toe, except for one eyelid. He nevertheless managed to dictate, by blinking, a memoir that let us know what it felt like in there. And Schnabel, using all the cinematic tools at his disposal, not only lets us know how it feels, he takes us in there with Bauby. He blurs images, shuffles them, scatters them and then arranges them into a coherent vision, Bauby's. But the movie isn't all arty images. Ronald Harwood's script preserves Bauby's writing voice, which we hear in narration. Mathieu Amalric, who does so much with so little, should have been nominated for Best Actor and probably would have been if he weren't speaking French.

High plains grifter

This may be the Coen brothers' year, and I don't really have a problem with that. In adapting Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, a slice of pulp fiction with aspirations to whither-the-world literariness, they've managed to restrain their tendency toward postmod irony. Nothing's in quote marks this time. And yet there's a desert-dry sense of humor that Wile E. Coyote would appreciate. Josh Brolin deserved more recognition for playing a Texan who runs off with $2 million in drug money; he anchors the whole movie. And Javier Bardem deserves all the recognition he's gotten for playing the most delicious serial killer - technically, a hit man - since Hannibal Lecter. The Coens didn't chew up McCarthy's book and spit it back out. They faithfully translated it to the screen and took full advantage of the fact that, as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Dying of northern exposure

More interesting to me, because it delves deeper into the mysteries of human nature, is Sean Penn's sadly overlooked Into the Wild. Based on Jon Krakauer's nonfiction account of an idealistic young man (played by Emile Hirsch) who set off to find himself and wound up losing everything in the Alaskan wilderness, the movie has the kind of aimless structure that I usually hate. And Penn has definitely sanctified the kid a bit, turned him into a 21st-century Thoreau. I might have liked the film more if we'd been left to choose between Holy Innocent and Holy Fool. But the filmmaking itself, from a filmmaker who's never impressed me this way in the past, is quietly stunning. Penn imbues the American West and the Pacific Northwest with a Transcendentalist spirit. Rivers flow, trees sway, mountains are their imperturbable selves. And the snow, when it arrives, whispers sweet nothings in your ear.

Thy will be done

From its theocratic title to its plutocratic source material (Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel, Oil!), There Will Be Blood comes at you like a masterpiece that's going to explain everything about the last 100 years of American history. And if you don't get out of its way, it'll roll right over you. I managed to slide off to the side when Daniel Day-Lewis, as a rapacious California oilman locked in a life-or-death struggle with a Holy Roller preacher-boy (Paul Dano), says "I don't like to explain myself." Yes, and neither does the movie. Director Paul Thomas Anderson adapted the novel himself, taking what he needed from the first 150 pages and making up the rest - not a bad thing, necessarily, but it's all so portentous, as if everything's leading somewhere. But is it? Day-Lewis certainly does his part, digging deeper and deeper (and deeper) into his unconscious. Alas, too little of it bubbles up to the surface.

Toy Story meets WarGames

Forgive the whiplash-inducing segue, but I really liked Transformers, which had to settle for the usual technical-category nominations. Like There Will Be Blood, it wants to roll over you. Okay, it wants to pulverize you, but not before Shia LaBeouf's had a chance to work his average-kid charms. Director Michael Bay (Armageddon, etc.) got some flak for reversing the process by which movies are converted into action figures. And his finger's a little heavy on the trash-compactor button as the Autobots and Decepticons duke it out in their good-versus-evil boxing match. But what can I say, the thing delivers. As did I Am Legend, where Will Smith, carrying the weight of the world (not to mention the movie) on his shoulders, played the last man on the island of Manhattan. Smith's ability to sustain entire scenes with only a dog to play with is right up there with Tom Hanks' work with a volleyball.

Mr. Fix-It

George Clooney does something very impressive in Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy's legal thriller about a corporate lawyer who's tired of cleaning up after everybody's messes. He empties himself out, turns off the charm, lets his face sag. And he holds something in reserve, so that when his big moment finally does arrive - "I don't give a shit!" Clayton tells a colleague who's lost his marbles in a $3 billion class-action suit - there's something there to draw on. Hand him an Oscar already. And don't overlook writer-director Gilroy, who has fashioned an admirably complex plot structure that includes subtle time shifts. Too complex, perhaps. I had to see the movie twice to tie up all the loose ends. But the script's a wonderful piece of work, blending legalese and corporatese into what sounds like the way people in Manhattan's cathedrals of commerce must talk. They're selling the best justice money can buy.

The family jewels

As much as I liked Michael Clayton, I liked Before the Devil Knows You're Dead even more. It's somehow more elemental, peeling away the emotional layers that bind families together and rip them apart. Director Sidney Lumet, three years after winning a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, has delivered a kaleidoscopic look at the days surrounding the tragically botched robbery of a mini-mall jewelry store. And that it's a pair of brothers robbing their own mom and dad turns everything into a Freudian nightmare. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are perfectly cast as the Cain and Abel of petty crime. (I would have nominated Hoffman for this, not his snappy line readings in Charlie Wilson's War.) And the script, by Kelly Masterson, plays mesmerizing games with time, returning over and over again to the scene of the crime. Still, it was Lumet who decided to make Hoffman and Hawke brothers, which proves all over again that the director is ultimately the author of a film.

Coming to term with abortion

Knocked Up, Waitress, Juno - not getting an abortion was definitely "in" this year. In fact, getting one - in a movie, anyway - seems about as likely as the Supreme Court opening up a branch of Planned Parenthood. I wasn't a big fan of Knocked Up, and I loathed Waitress - both on grounds of quality, mind you. And Juno, where Ellen Page sends one-liners sailing over the much-too-close right-field fence, left me wanting more - a comedy that takes teen pregnancy a little more seriously. I know it's supposed to be a fairy tale of sorts, with Juno as both Cinderella and Prince Charming, but why is everybody so glib? Diablo Cody's script contains such immortal lines as "Your eggo's preggo, no doubt about it." Is that really how kids talk these days? If so, God help them. I admit that Juno settles down after a while, summons up some actual emotion. But it's little more than this year's Little Miss Sunshine, a "dark" movie full of sweetness and light.

In a family way

Nobody's pregnant in Margot at the Wedding, but Nicole Kidman's Margo, a short-story writer who treats her family just as badly on the page as off, makes the case for retroactive abortion. She's a terror, whom Kidman, to her credit, does very little to make palatable. "You used to be so gorgeous," she tells her stumbling-toward-puberty son, both realizing and not quite realizing what she's saying. And writer-director Noah Baumbach drops her into one of those Bergmanesque country-house comedies where everybody feeds on one another's long-buried resentments. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the sister whom Margo can't help but one-up, and the two of them are like oil and water, then oil and vinegar, then oil and water again. I wasn't an admirer of The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach's last film, but here he beautifully captures the ability of mere words to maim and kill. Margot, in particular, is so goddamn articulate that the nicest thing she could possibly do is shut up for a while.

Musical chairs

It was a very good year for musicals, from the gotta-sing, gotta-dance exuberance of Hairspray to the gotta-slit-throats luridness of Sweeney Todd, plus that pair of phantasmagorical tributes to '60s icons, Across the Universe and I'm Not There. But the one that won my heart, while also finding a way around that whole let's-put-on-a-show thing, was John Carney's Once, a love story set on the streets of Dublin. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, real-life musicians with next to no acting experience, play a singer-songwriter and a singer-keyboardist who drift into each other's orbits, make some beautiful music together, then drift away again. And that's pretty much all there is, story-wise. But the songs - love ballads that Hansard infuses with full-throttle longing - tell a story all their own. And everything's done so naturalistically. These people don't burst into song. Their whole lives are a song.

Pest control

And finally, apropos of nothing, a film that would give Oscar the willies. It gave me the willies, too, and I mean that in a good way. Bug is an example of what critic Manny Farber used to call Termite Art, a movie not meant for polite society that instead burrows underground, insinuating itself into our baser instincts. No wonder it skittered in and out of town, like a cockroach, barely noticed. But this psychic horror/love story, which stars Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as a couple holed up in a fleabag motel room, checking each other for signs of government surveillance, will stick with you long after Sweeney Todd's razor has been rinsed off. Judd is simply amazing as a woman who just needs a bug-free shoulder to lean on. And Shannon is one creepy dude. But the real star of the show is scriptwriter Tracy Letts, who adapted his own play. Like the wiretaps of the future, he knows how to get under our skin.

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