The write stuff

Academy picks predictable clutch of pix

In Hollywood, where more of any one thing is declared a trend, the 10 screenplay nominees for this year’s Academy Awards include two about small towns, two that became colorful epics about warriors of past centuries, two about modern fights for high-cost justice and two, coincidentally enough, about writers.

Steve Kloves adapted Michael Chabon’s novel “Wonder Boys,” about a 50-year-old Pittsburgh novelist who’s terrified of finishing his bulky book, and Cameron Crowe wrote and directed “Almost Famous,” a semiautobiographical account of his experiences covering a rock band as a teenage scribe for Rolling Stone.

Kloves’ adapted screenplay competition comes from Robert Nelson Jacobs for “Chocolat”; Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; Ethan Coen and Joel Coen for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”; and Stephen Gaghan for “Traffic.”

Crowe is up against Lee Hall for “Billy Elliot”; Susannah Grant for “Erin Brockovich”; David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson for “Gladiator”; and Kenneth Lonergan for “You Can Count on Me.”

“One could posit that writers are traditionally a more discerning bunch, who go more for substance than the flash and dazzle that perhaps other branches of the Academy might like more,” says Leonard Maltin, the “Entertainment Tonight” mainstay and Playboy film critic. “In a year that almost everyone agrees was poor, it’s at least heartening that they could find 10 screenplays to nominate.

“I was delighted to see that ‘You Can Count on Me’ got a screenplay nomination. It has a very good chance of winning,” Maltin adds. “‘Chocolat’ charmed a lot of people. When I went to see that, I saw the audience fall in love with that movie, but I didn’t.”

“Chocolat,” about a town candy store where the title product magically improves libidos, is the year’s feel-good confection. Jacobs maintained its upbeat tenor when found out about his nomination on rainy Feb. 13.

“It may be raining buckets, but feels like sunshine to me” was his comment. He also said he’s thinking about trading in his high school-era tuxedo for a newer model to wear to the Oscars.

The word “charm” has been tossed about quite a bit in critical appraisals of the movie year, from considerations of Cannes winner “Dancer in the Dark” to the Capraesque “Pay It Forward,” and it has found several purchases in the writing nominations.

The flying warriors and dazzling look of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were deemed charming, as was the Irish boy’s taking a cotton to ballet in “Billy Elliot.” The Coen brothers’ melding of Homer’s “The Odyssey” with three chain-gang escapees traveling a hard-scrabble road in Depression-era Mississippi in “O Brother” had a cracked charm all its own. The blowzier charms inherent in “Erin Brockovich” came through Grant’s downscale dialogue and Julia Roberts’ brass.

Schamus is happy that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters’ goodwill got spread so widely among his co-workers (the pic earned 10 noms including for picture).

“The world may look at the best picture category as the plum of the Oscars, but I am thrilled by all of our nominations and for all of our collaborators around the globe from Beijing, Taiwan and Hong Kong to New York,” he says.

Traditionally, the screenwriting categories have seemed like the places to reward films that otherwise might fall through Oscar’s cracks. Directors such as Woody Allen and Spike Lee have received nominations multiple times as writers but not directors. “Almost Famous,” “The Wonder Boys” and “O Brother” conform to the writer-reward theory this year.

Sometimes, writers are used to no reward at all. Nominated “Traffic” scripter Steve Gaghan identifies with this. He said he awoke an hour before the nominations were unveiled from a dream in which “Traffic” had garnered 14 nominations.

“I thought it had already happened, so I was confused,” he says. “Actually, I am still confused. This is so new to me. I thought screenplays never get made. It is a fresher feeling for me to slave over a script, work my heart out and have that script eventually be shoved in a drawer.

“Before this, nobody had ever written a kind word about me and my writing.”

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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