Written on the wind

There's a happy ending out there in Oscarland for some talented, lucky scribe -- but it'll take a major plot twist to figure out which one.

When actress Salma Hayek and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Sid Ganis rattled off the nominees for best adapted and original screenplay early Jan. 23, only three of the 20 hopefuls could have felt a sense of deja vu. That's because with the exception of two-time writer nominees Alfonso Cuaron and Todd Field and thrice-nominated scribe Paul Haggis (the winner of last year's original screenplay honors for "Crash"), each remaining scribe is new to Academy voters.

So, is the usually staid Academy ready to anoint some fresh faces with the craft's highest honor, perhaps even tapping the five newcomers who penned Fox's completely unconventional mockumentary "Borat"? Or will the 5,830 voters instead single out a more familiar face like Universal's "Children of Men" scribe Cuaron, whose original screenplay for "Y Tu Mama Tambien" lost out to Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her" at the 2003 Oscars?

Although no front-runner has emerged in the adapted category -- which also includes William Monahan for Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," Field & Tom Perrotta for New Line's "Little Children" and Patrick Marber for Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal" -- many insiders already are boiling down the race to "Borat" and "Children of Men" because neither film nabbed one of the five best picture slots, yet both were deemed worthy of the distinction. The Academy often bestows its best screenplay awards as a consolation prize, as was the case with Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" in 2004 and Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in 2005. Sometimes, the Academy wants to give a distinctive movie something, and "Borat" and "Children of Men" could profit from that sentiment.

Like "Borat," the sci-fi dystopian drama "Children of Men" credits five writers: Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby. If either "Borat" or "Children of Men" wins, it would mark an Academy first, as no story/screenplay with more than four credited scribes has ever won an Oscar. But if "Borat's" Sacha Baron Cohen joins collaborators Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips at the podium for their hilariously offensive comedy, many might wonder, "What screenplay?" Despite the film's improvisational quality, Cohen insists the film was based on a 60-page outline that accounted for their subjects' anticipated reactions.

Also hindering "Borat's" chances is the film's lewd, graphic subject matter, which could alienate some of the Academy's older members. While feces at a dinner table has drawn belly laughs at for-your-consideration screenings throughout awards season, the humor might be lost on Oscar's sizable geriatric set. Additionally, the Academy favors drama over comedy -- and the heavier the better. Even when Oscar selects a comedy -- as was the case with 2003's "Lost in Translation" and 2004's "Sideways" -- the tone is more bittersweet than farcical. This year's nominees also reflect an aversion to the comic genre as two awards-season favorites, Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" and Searchlight's "Thank You for Smoking," were shut out by the Academy in the adapted screenplay race.

Meanwhile, "Children of Men" was hurt by its failure to land a WGA Award nomination (the ceremony is set to take place Sunday). WGA winners often serve as Oscar bellwethers, as was the case when last year's WGA Award recipients, "Crash" and "Brokeback Mountain," mirrored the Academy's picks for best original and adapted screenplays, respectively.

Monahan's screenplay for "Departed," based on 2004's "Infernal Affairs," written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, offers a more traditional narrative that explores such voter-friendly themes as corruption, justice and tangled loyalties. "Little Children," which is based on Perrotta's acclaimed novel, also explores motifs popular with the Academy, including infidelity and suburban angst. Both stories fit into the Oscar mold better than "Borat" or "Children of Men," but neither film has generated the kind of love-it-or-hate-it buzz that often earns a writer a gold statuette. Marber's U.K.-set "Notes on a Scandal," which is based on Zoe Heller's novel and examines the ramifications of a student-teacher affair, appears to be the category's long shot. Nevertheless, the Academy's significant British contingent might push the highly charged drama past its rivals in what is proving to be a tight race.

Likewise, the original screenplay category, equally as littered with newcomers, is no easier to predict. Four of the five films featured -- Paramount Vantage's "Babel," Warners' "Letters From Iwo Jima," Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" and Miramax's "The Queen" -- also made the cut in the best picture race. And the fifth choice, Guillermo del Toro's mind-bending period tale "Pan's Labyrinth" from Picturehouse, clearly impressed Academy voters, as it nabbed six Oscar nominations. Only "Babel" and Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" received more, with seven and eight mentions, respectively.

In this category, the battle for the prize appears to come down to two very disparate projects: Guillermo Arriaga's heart-wrenching drama "Babel" and Michael Arndt's dark comedy "Little Miss Sunshine." Both films have gained momentum during awards season, with "Babel" taking best picture drama honors at the Golden Globes and "Sunshine" nabbing the PGA's top award. The films' awards-season success only improves the chances for Arriaga and Arndt, both Academy newcomers. But in the end, "Babel" gains the edge for tackling heavier material, and author-screenwriter Arriaga appears overdue for Hollywood recognition after penning such acclaimed films as 2001's "Amores Perros" and 2003's "21 Grams."

But don't count out the category's one Cinderella story, "Letters From Iwo Jima." Scribe Iris Yamashita penned the screenplay based on a story she wrote with Haggis that draws from a trove of letters written by the Japanese commanding general, Tadamichi Kuribayashi.

Initially, "Iwo Jima" was conceived as a short to appear on the DVD of Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers," but the screenplay -- written in English and converted by three translators -- turned out to be the Missouri-born, Hawaii-reared writer's first produced screenplay. Since Yamashita speaks only conversational Japanese, the film's Ken Watanabe became involved in ensuring that the dialogue sounded natural and accurate for the time period. Yamashita represents the sole female nominee in either category, and according to the Academy, only 17 women have won Oscars in writing. But she benefits from Haggis' Oscar pedigree: In addition to his win for "Crash," the writer-director also was nominated in 2005 for the boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" and this year earned plaudits for his contribution to Sony's "Casino Royale." (Then again, Haggis' script for "Flags" failed to land a nomination at all.)

Still, much of the overall Oscar buzz has centered around the hive that is "The Queen." Helen Mirren is considered a sure thing for best actress, and screenwriter Peter Morgan had a hand in another awards-season player, Searchlight's "Last King of Scotland." He's racked up several impressive awards so far this year -- including the best screenplay Golden Globe (for "Queen") -- with his sensitive, literary look behind the Buckingham Palace gates following the death of Princess Diana. Although the film takes place in 1997, much of its subject matter still resonates in today's political climate, giving his script a touchstone quality, not just in the context of one of the more newsworthy events of the 1990s but in the present day.

With no script -- adapted or original -- clearly waiting to claim the Oscar, the Feb. 25 ceremony should prove a real pencil-biter for the writers waiting in the wings. In this case, the only sure thing is that two writers will win their first Oscars ... and everything else has yet to be written.