By Hillary Atkin, Special to The Envelope
February 19, 2008
"It's a complicated feeling to be singled out because of gender. Sometimes you bristle under the notion of it, as if it's such a unique, strange phenomenon," she said. "I'm really happy to be among all these women who have written great scripts, but it'll be nice when it's not newsworthy."
Of the 10 Academy Award-nominated feature film scripts in the adapted and original screenplay categories, four were written by women: Jenkins, who wrote "The Savages," and also directed it; Nancy Oliver, "Lars and the Real Girl"; Diablo Cody, "Juno"; and Sarah Polley, who adapted and directed "Away From Her."
The 40% showing belies the fact that only about 10% of feature film scripts were penned by women in 2007.
"I really look at long-term trends, and I think it's wonderful for those women to be nominated and honored for their excellent work," said Martha Lauzen, director of San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. "Will it do anything for women writers as a category? I doubt it."
Lauzen issues a yearly report quantifying jobs for women in television and film, and the numbers have been on a downward trend. They show women hold about 15% of below-the-line positions, down from nearly 20% in 2001.
Oscar stats paint a more erratic picture, revealing that only twice in recent years have female screenwriters made such a strong showing. In 2003, six women were among the 17 screenwriters nominated, and three of them took home Oscars: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King " and Sofia Coppola for "Lost in Translation."
In 1991 there were also six female screenwriters nominated, in a field of 14, and Callie Khouri collected an Oscar for "Thelma and Louise." But there were four years in the last 20 in which no female writers were nominated, and in nine of them, only one female scribe got an Oscar nod in the screenwriting categories. Hence the hoopla surrounding this year's nominees.
"These women wrote beautiful, compelling stories about the plight of humanity and got recognized for it. I personally am thrilled to see women highlighted and that their product is succeeding in the marketplace," said Jane Fleming, president of Women in Film. "That's inspiring for other female creators."
Going back through 80 years of Oscar history, Frances Marion was an early trailblazer, winning an Oscar in 1930 for writing "The Big House." She and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are the most lauded female writers in the Academy Award universe. Both were nominated three times, and each won two screenwriting Oscars.
2007's most acclaimed scripts tackled highly emotional subjects, including the toll Alzheimer's disease and dementia take on family members, teen pregnancy and coping with loneliness and despair.
"All these women are in the big leagues now, and it's about time," said Oliver. "None of the movies are chick films. They all tackled big, hairy subjects. I think it's wonderful and something I've been waiting to see for a long time."
For Oliver, Cody and Polley, their nominated screenplays were their first produced feature scripts, and the film gods smiled on them: only minimal rewrites were required.
Polley, a Toronto native known mainly for her work as an actress in several dozen TV shows and films, including "The Sweet Hereafter," "Go" and "The Secret Life of Words," had written five short films and one unproduced original feature before she took on adapting "Away From Her."
"I fell in love with the story by Alice Munro and the examination of marriage and the way we deal with memories and how that affects relationships," Polley said.
"It was such a joy to live inside the story. I learned to meditate on ideas around love and memory. It took seven or eight months to write."
Cody finished her screenplay for "Juno" in a couple of months in 2005 while she worked as an insurance claims adjuster in Minnesota, writing during two 15-minute breaks in the lobby of an office building and at a Starbucks inside a Target in Minnetonka.
"Of all the ideas I had batted about in my head, 'Juno' seemed most like a movie. It's not really cinematic on paper, but it was still the biggest idea I had, and that tells you how small the other ideas were," Cody said. "I had a friend who got pregnant, and I do remember her encountering prejudice and adults judging her the entire time. I was interested in exploring Juno's relationship with the adoptive parents, and having to audition for them, and what an interesting, awkward dynamic that was."
Cody recently picked up WGA and BAFTA awards for "Juno," after acquiring about a dozen critics groups' awards for her script, whose memorable lines include "This is not a food baby, all right? I've taken like three pregnancy tests, and I'm forshizz up the spout" and "Yeah, I'm a legend. You know, they call me the cautionary whale."
Oliver, who along with Cody won the National Board of Review's best original screenplay award, for "Lars and the Real Girl," wrote it in about nine months, just before she was hired as a staff writer on "Six Feet Under." She moved to Los Angeles from Florida, where she wrote and directed theater and, after five years in L.A., was about to bail on the city when she got her big break on the HBO series.
"I've always been interested in essential human loneliness," said Oliver. "Everyone can connect to a guy like Lars who is driven to extremes by emotional deprivation that is not his own fault. I knew from the beginning I wanted it to be about compassion. It's got darkness but it's got meaning, and I wanted to explore the geography of kindness -- without being sentimental."
Jenkins has nabbed several critics groups' awards for "The Savages" and is the most seasoned of the group. She wrote and directed "Slums of Beverly Hills" in 1998 and got Independent Spirit Award nominations for best first feature and best first screenplay at the time.
"My intention was always to be the person to make these movies, not to say it was easy. Plus, it's always good to have the writer on set," Jenkins said, laughing.
The story of "The Savages" -- a brother and sister dealing with putting their father in a nursing home -- is not autobiographical, yet Jenkins had experience with two family members institutionalized with dementia, and she lives near a nursing home in the East Village.
"From an emotional standpoint, I had a connection, and I was interested in writing about grownup siblings," she said. "It's certainly an accumulation of these sorts of obsessions with elder care and issues of mortality right outside my door working on me. Once you spend time in a nursing home, you don't forget it."