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