Where it all starts

"Best screenplay" is one of the most important categories in the Academy Award competition. Aside from the visual style of the director, no other element is so important in determinging the effect, and the effectiveness, of a movie. The screenplay is the first foundation of a film, containing the basic ingredients of story, character, and dialogue. A bad screenplay can be transcended by a great director, but most successful movies have solid roots in the typewriter -- roots from which the rest of the picture can grow and blossom.

The screenplay competition is divided into two parts -- for scripts written directly for the screen, and those based on material from another medium. This year, both provinces contain estimable material. And a bit of junk, as well.

Among the "original" screenplays, written directly for the screen, the smaller ones tend to be the most substantial. "Breaking Away," a sleeper that's also nominated in the "best picture" category, has a warm and affectionate script by Steve Tesich, who seems to know exactly what it's like to grow up reluctantly in the Midwest. Woody Allen's "Manhattan," with its story and screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Allen, is about more "sophisticated" New Yorkers who find their own kinds of self-imposed misery in the throes of "sexual freedom" and intellectual insecurity. Yet the film has a humor, and a deep affection for its setting, that make it a propable front-runner among the Academy voters.

"The China Syndrome" was written by Mike Gray, T. S. Cook, and director James Bridges, who deserve extra credit for fortelling -- with surprising accuracy -- the kind of nuclear problem that "came true" soon afterward at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The other muckracker in the race, ". . . And Justice For All," is a lot less subtle in its presentation, which deals with abuses in the American legal system as perceived by writters Valerie Curtin and Barry Levison. The final contender is "All That Jazz," written by Robert Alan Arthur and Bob Fosse. It is apparently based on Fosse's own tribulations in the worlds of medicine and show business, and gives Fosse -- as director of the film -- maximum opportunity to do his Fellini imitation.

Among screenplays based on material from another medium, the most portentous offering is "Apocalypse Now," which screenwriters John Milius and Francis Coppola have loosely based on "Heart of Darkness." Though Coppola is a director by trade, he has been reported to feel that screenwriting is the most "creative" part of the filmaking process; unfortunately, the "Apocalypse" script falls way short of the Conrad classic that inspired it, though the movie itself offers a massive and sometimes powerful vision of the Vietnam war.

On a more modest scale, excellent scripts are at the heart of "Kramer vs. Kramer," (written by director Robert Benton) and "Normae Rae," (written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.). These are genuinely human movies about real and recognizable people, and one of them is likely to walk away with the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, and possibly best pictures as well.

Somehow, Allan Burn's script for "A Little Romance" has gotten into the race, despite the dreariness of the finished film about a boy and girl who run away together, helped by kindly old Laurence Olivier. I don't give it much chance, though it may outstrip the other contender, "La Cage aux Folles," -- a forgettable film about comical transvestites that has become (incredibly) a surprise hit. It was scripted by Francis Veber, Marchello Danon, Jean Poiret, and director Eduardo Molinaro.

As a group, the contestants for the "best screenplay" Oscars show no evidence of new trends or even new ideas. After all, the idea behind "Apocalypse Now" dates now to Joseph Conrad and many of the "Kramer" troubles were suffered by Marlene Dietrich et al in "Blonde Venus" back in 1932.

Still, if the more modest, more human pictures walk with away with the prizes , it will be good news from Hollywood. And at this point, it looks as if exactly that could happen. Then we could see a trend back toward the old tradition of people pictures -- not unlike "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Breaking Away" -- that used to be Hollywood's bread and butter. We'll find out on April 14.

Next week -- best foreign language film.m

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