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Writers Guild Nominees Now Wearing the Smiles

Movies: Four of five original screenplay nods go to comedies. Two of five adapted scripts were played for laughs.

February 09, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comedy is frequently overlooked when prizes are handed out. But when nominations for the 48th annual Writers Guild of America Awards were announced Thursday, the genre was once again king.

In the original screenplay category, the guild honored Aaron Sorkin's "The American President," Amy Heckerling's sleeper hit "Clueless," Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" and P.J. Hogan's bittersweet "Muriel's Wedding"--allotting the fifth slot to Randall Wallace's 13th century epic "Braveheart."

Among the adapted screenplay nominees, George Miller and Chris Noonan ("Babe") and Scott Frank ("Get Shorty") had written films in the humorous vein. The guild also cited William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert for the space drama "Apollo 13," Mike Figgis for the downbeat "Leaving Las Vegas" and Emma Thompson for her adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," which won her a Golden Globe and awards from film critics in New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

The nomination is particularly gratifying, said "Get Shorty's" Frank, since author Elmore Leonard was displeased with previous cinematic adaptations of his books--including "Stick," "52 Pick-Up" and "Valdez Is Coming."

"When I first met Leonard over lunch, he told me how his work had been butchered in the past," recalled Frank, whose screenwriting credits include "Little Man Tate" and "Malice." He is about to plunge into Leonard's soon-to-be-published "Out of Sight"--again with director Barry Sonnenfeld--for Universal Pictures.

"I didn't want to become another 'horror story' at someone else's lunch," Frank said. "Leonard writes characters who are hysterically funny, but don't know it. You have to be dry . . . you can't wink at the audience. The man is an idol of mine, someone from whom I've been stealing for years. 'Get Shorty' gave me a chance to do it legitimately."

"Apollo 13" was Broyles' first feature film script to make it to the screen. He and Reinert, whose Academy Award-nominated moon mission documentary "For All Mankind" helped them land the assignment, have worked together for more than 20 years.

"Al's interviews with the Houston controllers and astronauts provided a framework for this film," said Broyles, co-creator of TV's "China Beach" and a former editor in chief of the Texas Monthly and Newsweek. "The challenge was making the story exciting when the audience knows the crew got back OK. We had to create empathy for the families and Mission Control--characters who didn't know what we do."

Finding an accessible way to present technical material was another hurdle, Reinert added. "Accuracy was a priority--something to which Hollywood normally pays only lip service," he said. "We had to be careful, though, that we didn't lose people along the way. The real story was so strong we would have been fools to tamper with it. That it worked shows you can be dramatic without cheesy conflicts like bad guys and guns."

With "Braveheart," Wallace was trying to put his professional life back on track after a decade as a critically successful but impoverished novelist and four dissatisfying years in TV.

"Everyone warned me that writing a story about a 13th century Scot who gets disemboweled for his courage wasn't a wise career move," he said. "But this was the kind of movie I always wanted to make. 'Braveheart' reminded me of emotionally incisive films such as 'The Man Who Would Be King' and 'A Man for All Seasons.' After seeing them, I felt that, on some deep level, my life would never be exactly the same."

All of those cited are first-time WGA nominees except Miller (who was nominated for 1992's "Lorenzo's Oil") and Allen--a prolific filmmaker who has won four of the 16 times he has been nominated.

Missing from the pack were Richard LaGravenese, whose adaptation of "The Bridges of Madison County" was considered a big improvement over Robert James Waller's novel, and Tim Robbins, whose "Dead Man Walking" was a critical favorite. The highly acclaimed "Toy Story" was ineligible since animation is currently not under WGA jurisdiction. Neither are foreign films unless produced by a guild-affiliated entity, which ruled out Directors Guild Award nominee "The Postman."

The Writers Guild Awards, which have foreshadowed the winners of the screenwriting Oscars about 85% of the time, will be presented at the Beverly Hills Hotel and New York's Tavern on the Green on March 17.

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