February 2005

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Best Adapted Screenplay

Maybe I'm just getting older, but each year, as I see more great, challenging films get ignored by the Academy in favor of more crowd-pleasing fare, it gets a little harder to care about the Oscars. But this year seems to be a hangover year, movie-goers and Academy voters alike staggering back from the grandiose epics of years past, and thus the 2005 nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay celebrate oenophiles, sunset afternoons, and communists -- always a pleasing combination. Behold, the contestants in a race very few people are excited about -- except for us adaptation nerds. But we're silly like that.

Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett

My last column covered this film pretty heavily, but I'll just say this about its chances -- good. Much like the 1995 awards, when the eclectic nature of the nominees meant that the major awards were distributed fairly equally between all nominated films, the Academy may choose to honor Sideways in this category alone. And while it'll certainly feel a bit like a consolation prize, I'm still excited for the chance to see Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor being recognized. It won't make up for any number of past wrongs (yeah, I may still be a little bitter about Akiva Goldsman). But it'll still be nice.

Before Sunset
Screenplay by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, story by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan. Based on characters created by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan.

A fun fact for you, gentle reader: the Academy used to refer to this category as either "Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium" or "Screenplay Adapted From Other Material" until 1991, when the name changed to "Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published," shortened to "Adapted Screenplay" in 2002. Fascinating, huh? But you'd better believe that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are very interested in this information, because how do you categorize a sequel to an original screenplay?

Richard Linklater did write a novel adaptation of the 1995 Before Sunrise but that's not why Before Sunset ends up in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Hollywood's propensity for playing musical chairs with its writers has made the Writer's Guild of America a lean, mean, credit-arbitrating machine, and the careful determination of which writer came up with which idea has become something of an art form, a delicate dance of intellectual property. Hence, "based on characters created by." And believe me, Kim Krizan cares about that too.

I haven't yet seen the Before films, though I do really look forward to sitting down with them soon. Because I'm impressed. After scanning through the past Best Adapted Screenplay nominees I can see why there has been some confusion about why it ended up in this category: Before Sunset may be the first sequel to an original film ever nominated for a screenwriting award. And I'm always impressed by things that have never been done before.

Finding Neverland
Written by David Magee, based on the play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" by Allan Knee

I take a fair amount of pride in being able to find out information about pretty much anything online, but Allan Knee is gonna be my Waterloo. Not that it's necessarily my fault: The Man Who Was Peter Pan, produced in 1998, appears never to have been published, or performed for that matter. Allan Knee appears to be a reasonably successful playwright, writing the books for productions like Little Women; his only previous screen credit is for the 1974 British miniseries adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. He seems a good sort. I have no quarrel with him. I just can't talk about his work in any reputable fashion at this juncture.

So let's talk about this vanilla milkshake of a movie -- albeit in a limited fashion, because nothing about Finding Neverland really inspires me to break into heated analysis. It's a nice little all-ages fable that's too often heavy on the syrup, the blame for which can be split equally between Magee's screenplay (replete with lines like "By believing Peter -- just believe") and Marc Forster's direction. But the ending manages to be more bitter than sweet, striking just the right chord; if the ending were a fraction different, I don't think it'd have been nominated at all.

This is more a courtesy nod than anything; its chances at winning, at least in this category, aren't great. Sure, I teared up more than once, but I'm a soft touch. And just because I like a vanilla milkshake every now and then doesn't mean I'll drive out of my way to get one.

Million Dollar Baby
Screenplay by Paul Haggis, based upon stories from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole

If you'd asked me halfway through Million Dollar Baby what I thought about it, I'd have run your ear off about how much I liked it. The writing, acting, and directing were all top-notch, I was really engaged in the story and the characters, and the boxing was eight kinds of awesome. Women boxing movies, I felt sure, were the movies for me. I was having a great time.

And then the third act happened. And kept on happening. And happening...

It's not just the turn the story takes in the third act that ended up rankling me, but the length. The short story that forms the framework of the movie, "Million $$$ Baby," reads like a treatment for the film -- every scene expanded for the scene with careful attention, really bringing out the moments of conflict and change. Which is great for the first part of the movie, but in the end Toole's approach to the conclusion is short, brusque, and subtle in its sentimentality; qualities I deeply wish the film had shared.

So I'm not saying Million Dollar Baby fails. There's an awful lot to like about it, and Haggis' touch is quite subtle when it's not delving into Lifetime Movie territory. But I'm not the only one who feels this way about the ending. And we only have to look back to Finding Neverland to see how an ending can make or break a film.

The Motorcycle Diaries
Screenplay by Jose Rivera, based on the books Notas de Viaje by Ernesto Guevara and Con el Che por America Latina by Alberto Granado

I knew Che Guevara's face before I knew his name -- specifically, I knew his face as silkscreened on t-shirts. Despite such fashion-forward notoriety, though, he's always been a historical figure I've approached cautiously, unsure which accounts to trust.

The film, directed by Walter Salles, tracks Guevara and Alberto Granado's 1951 journey across South America, a trip that begins as youthful adventure but soon becomes the formative experience of a future revolutionary. Based on the memoirs of Guevara and Granado (Granado's account written several decades after the fact, Guevara's work a combination of journal and reflection), the source material may be the cause of the movie's only apparent flaw -- specifically, how close it is to the subject matter, the lack of distance clouding the perspective. For Motorcycle Diaries has the luxury of being a story about a young man, his life ahead of him. Blameless for future

Modern cinema isn't done telling Che's story -- Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro are next in line to tackle the adult, the revolutionary, the killer. But maybe by then history will know how to regard the man. Maybe by then the t-shirt will have gone out of fashion.