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Victories cap a turbulent year in screenwriting categories

March 24, 2003|Rachel Abramowitz

In a first, a Spanish-language screenplay, "Talk to Her," won the Academy Award for best original screenplay.

"This award is to the Spanish cinema," writer-director Pedro Almodovar said upon winning his first Oscar for the idiosyncratic tale of two men in love with two women who both happen to be in comas. Almodovar was being particularly charitable considering Spain didn't even nominate the film to be its entry for best foreign language picture.

Ron Harwood won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for "The Pianist," his adaptation of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's Holocaust memoir of surviving in the Warsaw ghetto in World War II.

Neither film originated in the United States. Indeed, Almodovar's victory is not only a testament to the originality of his vision but also to the increasing paucity of original screenplays in Hollywood, where studios and producers increasingly prefer to base movies on previously branded material, such as best-selling books or comic strips.

Harwood's and Almodovar's victories cap what has been a turbulent year in the screenwriting categories, filled with a high level of carping as academy members had to discern the blurry differences between original and adapted screenplay.

Martin Scorsese gave dozens of interviews about the fact that the movie "Gangs of New York" was based on the similarly titled Herbert Asbury book, which he stumbled upon one New Year's Day several decades ago. Although the book features such true-life characters as Bill "the Butcher" Poole, the film's plot and other characters were fictional, garnering it a spot in the best original screenplay category.

Alternately, Charlie Kaufman's film "Adaptation" was less an interpretation of Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief" than a meditation on the art of adaptation and the insecurities of the writer's mind; yet it landed in the best adapted screenplay category.

Even "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" drew denouncers, upset that it landed in the best original screenplay category, even though it had roots in screenwriter and star Nia Vardalos' one-woman show, which ran years before the film debuted.

In his acceptance speech, Harwood credited director Roman Polanski, who infused the film of "The Pianist" with many of his childhood memories of World War II. Polanski, who won the best director Oscar, has refused to return to the United States in over 20 years, ever since he fled the country after pleading guilty to statutory rape.

Harwood wished he could say that he deserved his award. "I can't," he noted. "Roman Polanski deserves this."

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