History proves Oscar voters prefer sweet scripts

Over some 81 years, the Academy Writers Branch has nominated a distinguished roster of disturbing, dark screenplays, most of which have gone down to defeat at the hands of safer, sunnier competition.

Buffs would surely assign pantheon status to the likes of “The Grapes of Wrath,” “High Noon,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Truman Show.” Each was nominated and so chosen one of its year’s best. Each also dared to discomfit, and the statuette was awarded instead to a more reassuring or norm-reinforcing tale (“The Philadelphia Story,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Becket,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Shakespeare in Love,” respectively).

Oscar’s habit of passing over scripts designed to shake up the complacent is of more than passing interest in 2009, a year in which the top contenders have forthrightly taken on such issues as war’s tragic legacy, racism, sexual abuse and politicians’ stupidity.

It also casts a spotlight on Academy balloting’s single most salient fact: The practitioners nominate, while the voters at large select. How better to explain 1959’s original screenplay race, in which Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” were bypassed in favor of “Pillow Talk”? The writers hailed the greatness, while the Academy favored fun.

If the Hudson-Day heyday seems like ancient history, fast forward 30 years, as the now-iconic “Do the Right Thing,” “sex, lies and videotape” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” all finished out of the money behind “Dead Poets Society,” while a year later, “Goodfellas” fell to “Dances With Wolves.”

None of this is to denigrate any winners, simply to note that stories that challenge the audience have a tougher row to hoe to earn Oscar gold.

To Pedro Almodovar, in this year’s hunt for “Broken Embraces,” “Films that provide a measure of novelty, that are seminal and will go down in history, take time to be acknowledged.” He notes all awards organizations’ essential conservatism as they “play it safe and go for commercial success.

“‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ are today considered to be among the 50 greatest films in cinema history, but it took some time for them to be appreciated. Certainly not by the Academy when it made its assessments.” (Neither of those screenplays was nominated, as it happens.)

A “Chinatown” or “No Country for Old Men” will occasionally bag a trophy as a reminder of bitter truth’s power to touch a wider public. Almodovar’s own “Talk to Her” — in which a psychotic caregiver rapes and impregnates a comatose patient — was named 2002’s best original screenplay. “My case was extremely unusual, a real exception on the part of Hollywood. Even though I think it’s perhaps my best film, it’s a tough, risky film, and it strikes at the heart of political correctness.” He’s sincerely grateful in calling the reception for his work “a miracle.”

Some of 2009’s button-pushing writing contenders, musing on audience reactions, identify factors that could soon lead to more “Oscar miracles.”

“The Hurt Locker,” says scribe Mark Boal, “shines light on a messy and horrible situation in the Iraq War, so you’re dealing with tough material from the beginning.” Yet he’s been struck by how differently it has played before different audiences. “People with a personal connection — soldiers, veterans and their families — tend to appreciate any recognition of what they’ve gone through, while civilians whose connection to the war is more conceptual and abstract are more cognitive, not as emotional. They’ll come up to me and say, ‘I had no idea it was like that, I am kind of surprised.'”

Appeal across demographics could bode well for “The Hurt Locker’s” awards chances. “Some people find it sad and disturbing, while others find it exhilarating and disturbing. And I’m proud of that. Art should be rich enough and complex enough to contain more than one idea.”

Geoffrey Fletcher combined several ideas in his determination to preserve the gritty realism of Sapphire’s “Push” in its transformation into “Precious.” “If I had to pick one side or the other, I’d have to come out on the side that shakes people up,” he says. But he adds, “I thought it was very important to make it funny, and uplifting as well. It challenges you, there’s despair, but we tried to pack as much hope into it as possible.”

Fletcher takes a broader view in response to recent allegations of racial stereotyping: “She wants the exact same things that we all want: to love, to be loved and to contribute. There are few things more universal than that. Regardless of someone’s personal politics, at the end of the day, I hope everyone can carry away the idea that there are very few differences between us. It’s just slightly different magnification. So many people have come up to me, people who look nothing like her, and said that they are Precious.”

Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” detailing the run-up to the Iraq invasion as seen by a team of minor Brit bureaucrats, takes no prisoners: “It sucks you in, doesn’t it? There’s no room to breathe.” Yet the helmer/co-author borrowed from such popular models as “This Is Spinal Tap.” The pic’s riotous final 20 minutes are set in an actual U.N. lounge called the “Meditation Room,” harking back not only to “Dr. Strangelove” (“You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”) but also to “A Night at the Opera’s” stateroom scene.

“Fundamentally it’s a screwball comedy — fast-talking, plot spiraling out of control  — with the comedy in the forefront but the details very, very convincing. I think there’s an appetite there for substance and dialogue. I’m glad we didn’t make it easy.”

Many of this year’s contenders are far from easy: “The Road,” a postapocalyptic journey of horror; “Brothers,” bringing the war back home to accen­tuate family divides; “Bright Star,” an elegiac two-year, never-consummated romance; and “Broken Embraces,” a complex saga of lost love and lost cinema sprawling over 14 years. Even “Up,” this year’s Pixar feel-good smash, starts with a spouse’s death and the survivor’s recognition of his life’s emptiness.

“A movie can make you say, ‘Whoa, my life is richer, deeper, broader than my brain allows me to think of.’?” Almodovar weighs in with a similar if darker credo: “If I shock somebody, well, it’s perfectly welcome. If there’s a catharsis, so much the better. And if I can help people reflect upon themselves, even better.”

But suppose the viewers — or Academy voters — simply don’t get it? Almodovar is adamant: “Fortunately, cinema survives us. Films live longer than their authors and audiences.” And, he might have added, their accolades.

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