Oscar Watch: Writer

Sizing up the scribes' race for Oscar glory

After 2008's unexpected bounty of female nominees (four of them), the Academy has reverted to its standard level of inclusiveness by placing just one woman screenwriter on the list ("Frozen River's" Courtney Hunt, though Robin Swicord shares story credit on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").

Also noteworthy is that, aside from Dustin Lance Black's screenplay for "Milk," the Academy picked a completely different litter of honorees than the WGA, which chose "Burn After Reading," "The Visitor," "The Wrestler" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" for original screenplay. ("WALL-E" wasn't eligible.) It was much more in sync with the WGA when it came to adaptations: Only "The Reader" was not nominted by the WGA, which opted for "The Dark Knight" instead.

Among the omissions, Woody Allen is perhaps the most surprising: "Barcelona" charmed many people as a return to form, yet it failed to secure his 15th writing nom. Then again, Allen already has won two screenplay Oscars ("Annie Hall," "Hannah and Her Sisters"), and in all likelihood would have continued his tradition of not showing up if his name had been called.

No matter. On to the 10 original and adapted screenplay contenders that will be vying for the gold.

Original Screenplay

Click here for a breakdown of original screenplay contenders

"WALL-E" by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon; story by Stanton and Pete Docter
Stanton, who also directed, is a maverick in the screenwriting community for elevating animation, a medium that rarely gets the respect it deserves. Voters might reward Stanton and Reardon for composing the most believable and entertaining romance of the year despite having primarily bleeps and whirs for dialogue. Then again, it is animation, and while scripts for "Ratatouille," "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo" (also co-written by Stanton) were nominated in the past few years, they all walked away empty-handed.

"In Bruges" by Martin McDonagh
McDonagh's script is packed with the kind of dialogue actors love to say and writers love to provide. Despite its moderate boxoffice earnings, the film racked up a Golden Globe win for actor Colin Farrell and two other noms, including one for best picture -- comedy or musical. "In Bruges" could be just the oddball favorite to sneak in and pinch the gold.

"Milk" by Dustin Lance Black
Black's deeply researched treatment is the young "Big Love" writer's first major produced screenplay, which worked wonders for Alan Ball ("American Beauty"), Diablo Cody ("Juno") and Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine"), who all walked away with the statuette. But it just might not be funky enough for voters who like to reward idiosyncrasy in the original category ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Talk to Her," "Gosford Park").

"Happy-Go-Lucky" by Mike Leigh
Leigh has been up for three previous writing Oscars ("Vera Drake," "Topsy-Turvy," "Secrets & Lies") without a win. Voters love his storytelling because it's true-to-life, yet he remains a long shot precisely because of the way he arrives at that naturalism, often in lengthy improvisational workshops with his actors.

"Frozen River" by Courtney Hunt
A festival favorite that earned the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, "Frozen River" is a dark horse in the screenplay race because most voters have probably not seen the film. Then again, the fact that it was included over such favorites as "Barcelona" and Robert D. Siegel's "The Wrestler" bodes well.

Adapted Screenplay

Click here for a breakdown of adapted screenplay contenders

"Slumdog Millionaire" by Simon Beaufoy
Beaufoy walked away with the Golden Globe last month, though this doesn't signal much with Oscar beacuse the Globes have only one writing award and do not divide contenders into adapted and original categories. Still, members love to vote for a quirky, feel-good script, even if it's less weighty than other contenders -- witness "Juno," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Lost in Translation."

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by Eric Roth; story by Roth and Robin Swicord
Roth previously won for "Forrest Gump," has since received two other nominations ("Munich," "The Insider") and is one of the most respected scripters in the business. Despite its profundity, the film's emotional coolness -- amplified by director David Fincher's devotion to technical advancements -- might take something away for voters looking to reward vitality. (See "Slumdog.")

"Frost/Nixon" by Peter Morgan
Morgan gets tremendous respect for making a popular play out of a footnote in political history -- and then doing it again with an engaging film. But given the story's staid conventions, David Frost and Richard Nixon might not quite have the sass of the street kids from Mumbai.

"Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley
As director of his own script, which he adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Shanley managed to get a core of great thespians, with all four leads scoring nominations. But, while the story has contemporary relevance, it's the type of writing that gets wonderful recognition as a theater piece, and mainly just admiration when translated to film.

"The Reader" by David Hare
Hare was nominated in 2003 for his adaptation of Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," another award-winning historical novel, but this type of material gets overlooked ("Atonement," "Little Children") as often as it's chosen ("Brokeback Mountain," "Sideways"). The most telling signpost is that Hare's script wasn't nominated for a WGA Award (the Nolan brothers' "Dark Knight" script was), thus making its Oscar chances extremely slim.
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