Guild counts on character

'Gladiator' left out as scribes let the dogs in

Spectacle doesn’t impress members of the Writers Guild of America, but character does. At least according to the WGA’s year 2000 nominations for outstanding achievement in writing for the screen.

“One thing you can count on with writers, is that they’re totally unpredictable. And they certainly were this year and brutally honest,” says Tom O’Neil, Oscars expert and author of “Variety’s Movie Awards.”

On Feb. 7, the Writers Guild of America, West and East, announced their nominees. For screenplay written directly for the screen, the guild nominated “Almost Famous,” by Cameron Crowe; “Best in Show,” by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; “Billy Elliot,” by Lee Hall; “Erin Brockovich,” by Susannah Grant; and “You Can Count on Me,” by Kenneth Lonergan.

Nominated for screenplay based on material previously produced or published are: “Chocolat,” by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by Joanne Harris; “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” by Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung, based on the book by Wang Du Lu; “Traffic,” by Stephen Gaghan, based on the British TV series “Traffik,” created by Simon Moore; and “Wonder Boys,” by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon.

Missing from the nominees list, Golden Globe drama winner “Gladiator.”

“It was snubbed. That was the biggest jaw-dropper of them all,” says O’Neil. “Only twice have movies in recent years won an Oscar for best picture without being nominated for a WGA award and they were ‘Titanic’ and ‘The Sound of Music.’

“It’s an honest reflection of how the guild regards a script, that ‘Gladiator’ was a movie about spectacle and sweep and lots of other things other than writing.”

The “Gladiator” screenplay, however, did receive an Oscar nom, in place of the Guild’s choice of “Best in Show,” although the remainder of the Academy’s nominations for screenplay written directly for the screen matched those of the WGA. For screenplays based on material previously produced or published, again the Guild and the Academy noms match up with one exception; the Academy chose “O Brother, Where Art Thou” over “High Fidelity.”

As for how well the writers guild honors reflect who will take home an Academy Award for best screenplay, O’Neil says that of the 32 screenplay Oscars bestowed, 19 won WGA awards.

“The Academy and the WGA share the same writers, even though there is a vast difference in their numbers,” he says. “For instance there are only 400 writers among the 5,200 Oscar voters, and there are 11,000 members of the WGA who vote on the guild awards. Yet despite this obvious discrepancy, the two are like-minded.”

This year’s WGA Awards ceremony will be held Sunday, March 4, continuing a tradition begun in 1948, when the guild first honored writers for outstanding achievement in screenwriting. Radio and TV writing kudos were added in 1956.

In 1953, the WGA began bestowing the Laurel award for to a guild member who “advanced the literature of the motion picture through the years” and “made outstanding contributions to the profession of the screen writer.” A small-screen version, the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television, was established in 1976.

The WGA East will also host an awards ceremony March 4, to present Tom Fontana (“Oz”) with the Evelyn F. Burkey Award for work that has “brought honor and dignity to writers everywhere,” and Evan Hunter (“The Birds”) will receive the McLellan Hunter award for lifetime achievement.

Back in Beverly Hills, this year’s screen laurel will go to the musical comedy writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“Singin’ in the Rain”), and the TV laurel to David Lloyd (“Taxi”).

Terry Curtis Fox, a WGA, West board member who represents the panel on the Laurel Award Advisory Committee, explains why Lloyd, who wrote the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” classic “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode, will receive this year’s TV kudo.

“Here’s a guy who’s made an entire lifetime of writing the highest-quality series, but he wasn’t a showrunner,” Fox says. “We are recognizing him for a specific kind of achievement, for being a writer who helped to set the voice for a show, or more than one show.”

As for Comden and Green, Fox notes: “Comden and Green are so prominent in their field that it was kind of a shock that they had not received this award yet. I think it might have been the Oscar syndrome of only honoring serious films, because musicals aren’t seen as serious, yet the dramaturgy of these films is as serious as anything anyone’s done.

“This award is not meant to represent the flavor of the moment,” Fox says. “Rather, it offers the possibilities of screenwriting.”