STAGE TO SCREEN: Oscar Nods

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Oscar Nods When I started on this column, I had what appeared to be a perfect take-off point from the Oscar nominations. The assumption was that Ken Lonergan and/or David Mamet would get nominated for Best Original Screenplay (for “You Can Count on Me” and “State & Main,” respectively). Since they are both playwrights who now direct their own scripts, I thought I’d segue from those movies to new films opening in the next two weeks. Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cristofer (The Shadow Box) does double duty on the Antonio Banderas/Angelina Jolie drama “Original Sin,” and Jez Butterworth (Mojo) does the same on the Nicole Kidman drama “Birthday Girl.”

When I started on this column, I had what appeared to be a perfect take-off point from the Oscar nominations. The assumption was that Ken Lonergan and/or David Mamet would get nominated for Best Original Screenplay (for “You Can Count on Me” and “State & Main,” respectively). Since they are both playwrights who now direct their own scripts, I thought I’d segue from those movies to new films opening in the next two weeks. Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cristofer (The Shadow Box) does double duty on the Antonio Banderas/Angelina Jolie drama “Original Sin,” and Jez Butterworth (Mojo) does the same on the Nicole Kidman drama “Birthday Girl.”

As it happens, the Oscars played out pretty much as I’d expected (more on that below). But both new movies are now on hold. First Miramax announced that it was yanking “Birthday Girl” until the end of the year, and then MGM decided to hold “Original Sin” until late summer. The “Original Sin” postponement is much more surprising to me, seeing as their ad campaign has been in full swing for several weeks. But MGM has a huge hit on its hands with “Hannibal,” and a studio rep told me the studio decided not to compete against itself with another dark-themed drama. So it remains to be seen whether Cristofer’s first real top-shelf project — his previous efforts include HBO’s “Gia,” which really put Jolie on the map, and last year’s “Body Shots” — can beat the negative buzz. (By the time it opens, it will have been on the shelf for almost a year.)

I’m not convinced by the “Hannibal” argument. First of all, it’s not exactly a sleeper: People have been predicting huge numbers for this movie for months now. And despite its enormous numbers in the first week ($56 million), it’s going to drop faster than MGM realizes. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, and word of mouth appears to be pretty harsh. The more people that see something and dislike it, the more negative comments you’ll hear at the water cooler the next day. I haven’t heard a single person really get behind this movie yet. So the wait-and-see audiences could steer clear. An opening weekend of almost $60 million almost guarantees a final tally of $200 million, but I think the third- and fourth-weekend audiences are either repeat (read: younger) viewers or pretty out of the loop movie-wise. Either way, they don’t affect “Original Sin” too much.

So let’s assume you want to leave at least a little room for “Hannibal.” Why not open in late March or early April? The summer onslaught is still a few weeks away, and the only real competition for “Original Sin” that I can see for that time are light romances like “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Someone Like You.” MGM has a romantic comedy of its own — “Heartbreakers,” with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt as mother-daughter con artists — but that hardly eats into the “Original Sin” audience the way “Hannibal” does. And you can still use the same ad campaign if you’re only pushing back three weeks or so.

I try not to make this column too “insider,” so let me know if you’d rather not see this sort of number-crunching. I’m just pointing out that a movie with two big names has changed its release date a second time for somewhat dubious reasons — and that’s not promising. *

Back to the Oscars. Lonergan and costar Laura Linney were both nominated for "You Can Count on Me." Unfortunately for Linney, Julia Roberts seems like the only sure thing this year. Everyone in Hollywood seems to pull for Roberts, she's worked with everyone, and she's never won before. "Erin Brockovich" is also a contender for Original Screenplay, but I think Lonergan's chances are a bit better. His competition also includes John Logan (Never the Sinner) and William Nicholson, who cowrote "Gladiator."

The other big surprise was Stephen Daldry's inclusion in the Best Director category for "Billy Elliot." The Academy likes to break up one Best Picture-Best Director tandem almost every year, which never made any sense to me. If Daldry is a real contender, how come his movie isn't even one of the five best of the year? (The reverse can be said about "Chocolat," for which director Lasse Hallstrom was left out in the cold.) For that reason alone, I don't expect Daldry to win. But his stock did just go up quite a bit in Hollywood. If "The Hours" can live up to its pedigree and its star quotient, Britain has created another coveted theatre director.

Side note on Daldry: Has anyone else noticed the cast list of "The Hours"? In addition to Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, the film now boasts Claire Danes, Allison Janney, Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane and John C. Reilly. Great actors all, but am I missing something? There are maybe seven or eight characters in the book besides the three female leads, but half of them are little kids. With the exception of the modern-day poet (Dilane, I would guess), the three leads make up well over 90 percent of the book. Unless these are blink-and-you-miss-them cameos, David Hare has definitely done some revamping on this adaptation.

Okay, back to the Oscars. "Quills" earned nominations for Geoffrey Rush and a few technical categories, but screenwriter Doug Wright was left out. Only four movies based on plays received Adapted Screenplay nominations in the 1990s, compared to 12 in the 1980s — Alfred Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy" was the last one to win, back in 1989 — and the 2000s (man, that's a weird-looking decade) got off to a bad start with the "Quills" snub. I would have chosen it over the book for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (interesting scenes but no structure, and they're calling it an adaptation of "The Odyssey"?!), but that's just me. As I predicted, the Academy decided to honor Joaquin Phoenix for "Gladiator" instead of "Quills" or "The Yards."

What else? Judi Dench could grab her second Supporting Actress trophy in three years for "Chocolat." Agnès Jaoui's "The Taste of Others" was picked for one of the Foreign Film slots. (Rush, Lonergan and Jaoui have all talked to "Stage to Screen" in the past.) "State & Main" was shut out altogether, as was "Hamlet." And as Playbill On-Line pointed out, director Eric Simonson (The Song of Jacob Zulu) was nominated for the documentary short "On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom."

The Beckett project is coming to town! Or is it? In an article about the 19 filmed adaptations of Samuel Beckett's plays, which debuted en masse in Dublin recently, the New York Times briefly alluded to the series coming to Lincoln Center this summer. However, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (which screened "Krapp's Last Tape" and "Not I" from the project during last year's New York Film Festival) says it isn't involved, and the multidisciplinary Lincoln Center Festival (which presented the entire Beckett canon on stage as part of its inaugural 1996 season) won't confirm its schedule until March 19. I haven't heard back from Dublin yet, but I'm guessing the films will, in fact, appear somewhere as part of Lincoln Center's summer shcedule.

*

Cutting-Room Floor: Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of Sam Mendes' several replacement stars in Cabaret, has joined the cast of Mendes' new film, "The Road to Perdition." She joins Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law. ...Rupert Everett and Colin Firth will join Judi Dench in the Oliver Parker "The Importance of Being Earnest." All three appeared together in "Shakespeare in Love."... A very familiar 1980s show tune gets prominent comic placement in "Down to Earth," Chris Rock's new "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"/"Heaven Can Wait" remake. ...Michael Cerveris, J.K. Simmons and former Falsettos kid David Krumholtz are among the costars of "The Mexican," which opens March 2. Other than that, not much is opening in the next few weeks. Go catch up on your Oscar nominees.

*

My Favorite Thought: Aaron commented both on the potential success of a "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" movie and about the deleted "Quills" Web site:

"I can't see 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' playing well in small Midwestern towns, or anywhere other than cities where rock & roll or transsexualism (Hedwig does concern something like this, right? Correct me if I'm wrong) wouldn't stir a hornet's nest of self-righteousness. It's a city property, for places like where I'm writing from, Austin, Texas — as opposed to places like Kilgore, Texas, where a recent production of Angels in America drew heavy fire from conservatives and Bible thumpers. It got so bad that funding for the college where it was being performed was threatened.

"That makes an interesting segue into the issue of censorship pertaining to the Web site for 'Quills,' as the more racy scenes in the production of Angels were also cut. Although it's disappointing that the links and sections of de Sade's writing were removed, I can't say I'm surprised. The movie studios are into show business. Like all other businesses, they can't afford to lose the good graces of too many customers, even the prissy parent ones, for fear of having future projects shunned and costing them $$$. I do find it delicious that de Sade's writings can still stir such controversy. Dr. Royer-Collard may have been proud of the MPAA's actions, but de Sade himself would have been pleased as well, I think."

*

Your Thoughts: Any thoughts on the Oscar nominations? Do Lonergan or Daldry have a shot? Who do you feel was left out? And does Michael Cristofer need to be afraid of “Hannibal”?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.