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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 03, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Screenplay Awards, Antwone Fisher, and The Good Girl

I'm not a member of the Motion Picture Academy, and so I cast no vote in the Oscar race -- except at our annual Oscar party.

But as a member of the writers' union, I did get to cast a ballot for the 55th annual screenplay awards.

Since the screenplay is the foundation of a movie, and no movie is ever better than its script (though many are worse), this is a best-movie-of-the-year award -- but seen through the eyes of writers.

Though of course it must be pointed out that writers are often no better than actors when it comes to seeing the difference between excellence and puffery.

Still, last year's winners were Julian Fellowes for the brilliantly original Gosford Park and Akiva Goldsman for the equally brilliant adaptation A Beautiful Mind.

So just in case anyone cares what I thought of this year's scripts, here's how I voted on the nominating ballot (I could choose five in each category).

Original Screenplay. If these are screenplays based on no outside material, why is there a "story by" credit for each of them?

Because of the way the Writers Guild awards credit for writing. The original writer of the screenplay (or of a detailed scenario) sells his script to a producer or studio, but then the producer brings in an additional writer (or writers) to do additional drafts.

The screenplay credit thus consists of all the writers who contributed substantially to the writing of the script as filmed; the "story by" credit is usually the person who first thought it up.

But it's still an "original" screenplay because every draft was intended for the screen and had not appeared before the public in any form.

I nominated:

Barbershop by Mark Brown, Don D. Scott, and Marshall Todd; story by Brown. The owner of a barbershop is determined to "make it" instead of being stuck in this neighborhood, so he sells the shop to a local crime lord; only then does he realize how vital the shop is to the community, and how vital the community is to him.

Drumline by Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps; story by Schepps. A hotshot high school band drummer from New York gets a scholarship to study and play at a black college in Georgia, only to discover that he still has some things to learn.

Maid in Manhattan by Kevin Wade; story by Edmond Dantes. Another Cinderella story: a single mother raising a precocious son while working as a hotel maid tries on a guest's gown and is seen by the "prince," a rich playboy political candidate, who promptly falls in love with her.

Reign of Fire by Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg; story by Chabot & Peterka. A film about dragons awakening from under London and devastating the earth, and the people who struggle, not just to survive, but to destroy the dragons.

Sweet Home Alabama by C. Jay Cox; story by Douglas J. Eboch. A funny but passionate story of a smalltown girl who made it in the big city but can't get her smalltown husband to divorce her so she can marry the scion of a wealthy and politically influential family.

Adapted Screenplay. These scripts can be based on books, earlier films, tv shows, magazine pieces, albums -- anything that was already before the public.

Because it's easier to get funding for something that somebody else already published, this category is often larger than the other one. And because producers and studios usually hire established screenwriters to adapt material they've optioned, this category usually has a greater number of excellent contenders. Of course, it also has some of the worst.

Catch Me If You Can by Jeff Nathanson; from the book by Frank W. Abagnale with Stan Redding. A kid tries to find success and happiness by lying his way through life -- and finds that if you lie boldly enough, people believe you because, heck, who would like about that?

Chicago by Bill Condon; from the musical play, book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, and from the original non-musical play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. The movie musical lives again -- thanks to this script.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson, from the book by J.R.R. Tolkien. A bold and brilliant achievement, just like the first one. Because no one film stands alone, these writers will probably never win in competition with self-contained movies, but in fact it is hard to imagine a more difficult and more successful adaptation, ever.

Mr. Deeds by Tim Herlihy, from the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town by Robert Riskin, from the story "Opera Hat" by Clarence Budington Kelland. What, an Adam Sandler film? But, as with the update of Sabrina a few years ago, this movie is better than the first version, and since we're still quoting lines from this script months after seeing the film, it earned its place on my list.

Road to Perdition by David Self, from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner. A dark tale of a mafia hit man who tries to save his family from the consequences of serving his master all too well.

In each case, I voted, not for the performances of actors, and not for the cleverness of a director, but for the quality of the underlying script -- as best I could discern it.

This has been a good year for good scripts, and there were a lot of runners up. For instance, Peter Hedges' and Christ Weitz & Paul Weitz's witty and honest script for About a Boy; Steve Kloves's adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, David Koepp's sharp script for Spider-Man, the charming Stuart Little 2 by Bruce Joel Rubin, John Logan's inventively convoluted The Time Machine, Jeffrey Lieber's and James V. Hart's wise adaptation of Tuck Everlasting, and Randall Wallace's powerful We Were Soldiers.

And what about Adaptation? Since it's probably going to win, how could I leave it out?

Precisely because, while it's a good movie, it's truly lousy adaptation. That part of the screenplay wasn't made up. Charlie Kaufman's script, while clever as a self-story by a frustrated writer, is faithless to the original book, and just because it makes fun of that faithlessness doesn't change the nature of the crime.

The choices were easier in the Original Screenplay category because there were fewer truly excellent contenders. But my honorable mentions have to include Mike Rich's script for The Rookie, which became far more than a mere baseball movie; Christopher Kyle's script (on a story by Louis Nowra) for the gripping K-19: The Widowmaker, and the charming and clever teen fantasy Clockstoppers by Rob Hedden, J. David Stem, and David N. Weiss (story by them plus Andy Hedden).

That's my view of the year in film writing. Of course, I didn't see everything, so I may regret not having voted for Eight Legged Freaks or Bowling for Columbine. But I doubt it.

*

A special mention needs to be made of the script of Antwone Fisher. I didn't vote for it, because it has some writing flaws and didn't solve all its problems. But I wanted to vote for it because by the end of the film you like the character of Antwone Fisher so much that you want to give the real Antwone Fisher a prize.

It's kind of like the embarrassing Oscar given to the truly second-rate, obvious, beginnery script of Good Will Hunting written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. It wasn't an awful movie. Well, no, in retrospect it kind of was. The climactic scene was stolen straight from Ordinary People, and the character played by Minnie Driver was the kind of woman written by the kind of men who think that the coolest woman is one who is exactly like a guy.

Obviously, they got the Oscar because people liked the story of how they wrote it. Only they didn't originally write it. They wrote a thriller about a genius kid who creates and cracks codes. Then producers or studio executives nursed them through the process of turning it into something completely different.

In other words, they are Oscar-worthy writers the way that Tatum O'Neill is an Oscar-worthy actress.

It's not that actors can't be real writers. Emma Thompson's Oscar for Sense and Sensibility was absolutely earned -- it is the best feature-length adaptation of any Jane Austen novel, ever -- and it's not Austen's strongest story in the first place. Unlike the cheap climax of Good Will Hunting, the climax of Sense and Sensibility is one of the greatest moments in film, ever.

And Antwone Fisher's script for Antwone Fisher is the opposite of Good Will Hunting. Where GWH was false in every way, Antwone Fisher feels true to the core.

And the comparison is not inapt. Both of them feature angry young men who have to work out terrible problems from their childhood with the help of a shrink.

The difference is that Antwone Fisher knew what he was talking about. He wrote about real people, and even where he invented characters they were like real people.

And Denzel Washington had a delicate touch, both as director and as actor. Few directors who play a major role in their own movie can resist the temptation to give their own character the best of everything. (One thinks of Barbra Streisand's butchery of The Prince of Tides.)

Instead, Washington made sure that Derek Luke, the marvelous young actor who played Fisher, absolutely owned this film. Almost to a fault, he kept his own character from taking over -- indeed, one of the script's flaws was that the revelation and resolution of the shrink's problems are relegated to a speech at the end.

But the truth is, most audience members aren't going to notice any flaws at all. They're just going to sit there like I did and fall in love with this guy and feel their hearts break for him and cry when he gets it all together in the end.

And please, don't think that this is a "black film." It's a human film. If you're human, you're qualified to watch it with full understanding.

*

The Good Girl gives Jennifer Aniston a chance to show what she can do when she isn't using her ain't-I-cute-and-snippy chops from Friends. And as a vehicle for actors, it's a terrific film.

Unfortunately, it's also pretty bleak. The "good girl" is, of course, pretty desperately bad, but doesn't realize it -- ever. Oh, she knows she's in trouble, and the trouble gets deeper and deeper, but it never crosses her mind just to tell the truth, 'fess up to what she done wrong, face the music, pay the piper. No, whatever other people have to suffer in order to make things all right for her, that's just the way it's gotta be.

And so at the end of this film, though I admired the performances and I I was entertained all the way through -- it's certainly well written and well filmed -- I also was kind of appalled. Because evil always appalls me. And that's what The Good Girl is -- an exploration of how somebody discovers that they can be evil and still live with themselves.


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