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A little ray of sunshine for writers of film comedies

January 24, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

THERE were 306 feature screenplays eligible for an Oscar this year -- including innovative gems such as "Poseidon" and "Snakes on a Plane" -- but ultimately the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences largely steered clear of comedies when announcing its nominations for best screenplays.

There were two exceptions -- "Little Miss Sunshine," the family road trip movie written by Michael Arndt, and "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the gleefully vulgar mockumentary written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer, from a story by Baron Cohen, Baynham, Hines and Todd Phillips.

In addition to "Little Miss Sunshine," the nominees for best original screenplay are "Babel," written by Guillermo Arriaga; "Letters From Iwo Jima," written by Iris Yamashita, from a story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis; "Pan's Labyrinth," written by Guillermo del Toro; and "The Queen," written by Peter Morgan.

Filling out the adapted screenplay category alongside "Borat" are "Children of Men," written by Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby; "The Departed," written by William Monahan; "Little Children," written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta; and "Notes on a Scandal," written by Patrick Marber.

Where the Writers Guild of America spotlighted a greater number of comedic screenplays ("The Devil Wears Prada," "Thank You for Smoking") in their nominations this year, the writers branch of the academy -- typically an older voting demographic -- clearly favored more serious fare such as "Scandal," "Labyrinth" and "Iwo Jima," the latter also being the academy's sole nod to a female screenwriter. (In 14 of the last 20 years, the number of women nominated in these combined categories has been, at most, a total of one.)

"There's long been this feeling that the Oscars were not that receptive to comedies," says Perrotta. "Which is one of the interesting things about 'Little Miss Sunshine' being so celebrated this year. And 'Borat.' I'm sure there's going to be a lot of discussion about that."

The academy's "Borat" nomination seems to recognize not only an outrageously funny entertainment but also a unique screenplay design built on a new kind of "planned improvisation" that expanded the format's possibilities. (It is also leaves voters susceptible to the juicy temptation of providing Baron Cohen with a huge public forum for another anatomically fixated acceptance speech.)

But dramatic intensity was the norm, and if you wrote a solemn screenplay in a foreign language, 2006 was your year. "It certainly shows some kind of global awareness, some yearning for embracing or somehow reconciling global differences," says Ron Yerxa, who with Albert Berger produced both "Little Children" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

Only four of the nominated screenplays take place in the United States. Between them, "Iwo Jima," "Babel" and "Pan's Labyrinth" mainly consist of dialogue spoken in Spanish, Japanese, French, Berber, Arabic and Japanese sign language. (OK, let's even throw in the Kazakh-ish dialogue in "Borat.")

"I'm definitely excited and happy and gratified and surprised, especially since the movie is in a foreign language," Yamashita says of her nomination for "Iwo Jima." "I'm really glad that people were able to get the movie and to have the movie affect them in some way despite the language and cultural barriers."

The academy may be reluctant to welcome comedies, but voters are gaining tolerance for "messier storytelling," says Cathy Schulman, a producer of "The Illusionist" (nominated this year for a best screenplay Spirit Award) and "Crash," which won an original screenplay Oscar last year.

"I look at this group of amazing screenplays and ... it's like this beautiful united colorful purpose, and it just shows the very positive evolution of embracing differences and originality."


Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail

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