Best Original Screenplay, 2000
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)


Nominee
Almost Famous,
Cameron Crowe


3:1
Pluses

Easily the film most often cited (though not by me!) as unfairly left off the Best Picture line-up—and left without box-office glory—the Academy has a shot here to make amends to Cameron Crowe and pretend America didn't totally ignore his pet project of over a decade. Crowe is a popular, humble, congenial fellow who's been a nominee before for Jerry Maguire, and he's popular with actors, who tend to be shown to great advantage in his nonetheless writerly films. Without any overwhelming incentive to vote for the other nominees, voters could rally behind Almost Famous on reputation alone. (This is how Gods and Monsters won Adapted Screenplay over a weak field in 1998.)
Minuses

Rather than break the string of bad luck for Almost Famous, the Academy could opt instead to continue it—as the Writers Guild recently did by anointing You Can Count on Me instead (see below). Though few seem to share my sense that Almost Famous was thin and unpersuasive, too affectionate for its own good, many people hold an opinion (which I don't share) that Crowe is generally too "light" a filmmaker to warrant heavy-duty awards attention. And frankly, that airplane sequence should be an automatic disqualifier.
Billy Elliot,
Lee Hall


5:1
A low-key British charmer that has touched the hearts, emphatically, of millions around the world, Full Monty-style. Again, since none of the nominees have major momentum in the big races (or, in Gladiator's case, none in this particular category), voters may exercise the tendency to pick a feel-good underdog. Almost Famous and You Can Count on Me will certainly have their advocates, but the rags-to-toeshoes appeal of this film may trounce them both.
Billy Elliot's once surefire hopes in the Best Picture and Best Actor races dwindled to nothing, a strong signal that the film's popularity is on the wane. Besides, the high-concept aspect of Hall's script may seem paltry next to the extended craft, wit, and ideas in the Crowe and Lonergan screenplays, or even in Erin Brockovich; once you get past the premise of this one, there isn't much "there" there.
Erin Brockovich,
Susannah Grant


6:1
Another diamond-in-the-rough crowd-pleaser that used a real-life triumph as the basis for a $100 million blockbuster star vehicle, with slots in the Best Picture, Director, and Acting categories. Clearly, Erin Brockovich was one of the year's most popular movies, and popularity can count for a lot in a race where the pure standard of quality doesn't run as high as in other years.
Erin Brockovich still strikes a goodly number of disbelievers as TV-movie stuff. Even more damaging to Susannah Grant's chances is the unanimous belief that the four people who really made Erin Brockovich work are Julia Roberts, Steven Soderbergh, Julia Roberts, and Julia Roberts. While this opinion may not be fair, and everyone relishes a tart one-liner, Erin isn't seen as an emblem of the authorial craft. (Jules herself has even suggested that Grant's draft was not all it could have been.)
Gladiator,
David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson


7:1
The biggest juggernaut in this year's Oscars, with such an unexpectedly potent hold on voters' hearts and imaginations that it scored this nod for a screenplay that is hardly the film's finest attribute. Even Titanic, with its record-tying 14 nominations in '97, couldn't trick people into buying its tin-ear dialogue; if Gladiator has already managed that trick, there's no telling the limits of voter self-deception. Plus, that "Are you not entertained?" speech seems to have caught on, and no other nominees have a tagline (unless you count, "Bite my ass, Krispy Kreme!").
If we assume that a) even Gladiator's fans acknowledge that its primary achievements lay elsewhere, and b) that many of those achievements will be awarded in gold elsewhere in the Oscar ceremony, there's no reason to bilk actual writers for this trio of "collaborators" who barely met, and who mostly got paid in series to iron out their predecessors' mistakes. Clearly, for all that quality control, some stinkers still got through.
You Can Count on Me,
Kenneth Lonergan


4:1
As the Writers Guild of America and virtually all of the critics groups acknowledged, Kenneth Lonergan's career as a playwright resulted in an articulate, witty, warm, and hugely likeable script that allowed its actors to flourish. What we have here is the reverse case of Gladiator: rather than a film whose Achilles heel is weak writing, You Can Count on Me is credited as a high-water mark in screenwriting even by those viewers—indeed, fairly few people—who don't respond to the more "filmic" aspects of the material. A vote here might be a statement that indie film is still alive and well, despite the evidence of recent festivals and box-office.
Even if Lonergan's résumé has more high-art credibility than Crowe's, his film will have been seen by fewer people, and his name recognition is far lower: no one's hired him yet to direct Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in a love story. In fact, his history on the off-Broadway boards could turn against him; perversely, Hollywood enjoys it when playwrights raise the verbal level of their material, but tend to resent the prospect of stage types making off with their trophies (Judi Dench excepted).

WHO WILL WIN: A fuzzy thing to predict, since this category is usually approached as a venue for laureling a difficult, eccentric, but popular film whose chances of succeeding higher up are questionable: The Crying Game, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Fargo all lived out this principle. Lacking such a contender, showy plot twists (The Usual Suspects), self-conscious badinage (Shakespeare in Love), or political controversy (Thelma & Louise) are all useful assets. None of this year's contenders fit any of those molds, so, perhaps optimistically, I'm narrowing the race to the two films with the richest, most emotionally invested scripts: Almost Famous and You Can Count on Me, with the studio backing and name-recognition of the Crowe film giving it the edge.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Maybe the best solution would be to award Being John Malkovich the award in retrospect—had it been released three months later than it was, it would have coasted to victory in this derby. Then again, I mean to take nothing away from You Can Count on Me, which is a gem of nuance, humor, and feeling. Nothing else in this group comes close to equalling it.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: I don't feel like defending myself from the obvious, predictable hate messages if I suggested that either The Cell or Bring It On, both of them resolutely commercial late-summer entertainments, found exactly the right dialogic registers and deceptively sophisticated structures to tell their stories (whose primary interests, admittedly, lay elsewhere). But what about Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which is Malkovich-level original, poetic, funny, warm, sad, and the work of a recognized talent, Jim Jarmusch? Is there a conspiracy in Hollywood to pretend that this guy, and particularly this film, don't exist? I'd also go for the breezy, surprisingly risky Dr T & the Women and its celebration of a range of women over Erin Brockovich's lionization of one.



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