In January 1996, Nia Vardalos stepped onstage at an HBO-sponsored free theater "workspace" in Hollywood and made a bit of show business history with a 20-minute monologue about her mixed-up life. It was the first public telling of her now-famous yarn "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which she continued to perform at HBO sessions as the months went by.
A year after that premiere, Vardalos registered a screenplay bearing the same theme and title with the Writers Guild of America. Two months later, the Library of Congress registered the copyright.
At the Oscars this evening, however, the comedian will be in contention as the writer of an original screenplay, not an adaptation of the material she already had performed -- a fact that has troubled some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
In a Feb. 20 letter to the chair of the executive committee of the academy's writers branch, actress Dimitra Arlys -- one of three performers who participated in a first reading of Vardalos' movie script in June 1998 -- said the stage show was clearly the basis for the screenplay.
"That the Executive Committee has chosen to ignore this fact and has bent the rules to accommodate her is very disturbing," Arlys said.
Similar concerns have been voiced this year about "Gangs of New York," which is up for best original screenplay even though it was very loosely based on Herbert Asbury's 1928 book of the same title, which consisted of vignettes of the era rather than a plotline with characters.
Some Hollywood insiders have speculated privately that Vardalos and her producer-mentors at Tom Hanks' Playtone Pictures wanted "Greek Wedding" in the original screenplay category because the competition was not as strong. The nominees for best adapted screenplay are "Chicago," "The Hours," "Adap- tation," "The Pianist" and "About a Boy."
In an interview, Vardalos said the academy placed her screenplay in the proper category because her HBO Workspace performances were for family and friends to see her for free and were not in a professional venue.
"It was like telling a story in a bar," she said. "It wasn't a one-woman show at the Workspace."
However, a promotional flier described the 1996 stage act as just that -- "a one-woman show" -- with a producer, director and a title: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Top officers at the motion picture academy declined to be interviewed for this story.
But in a statement, the organization's president, Frank Pierson, who sits on the committee that annually sorts more than 250 scripts into the "original" and "adapted" categories, said: "The academy is comfortable with its decision."
He said the committee voted unanimously to slot the script as an original after soliciting "clarifying replies" about its origin from Playtone.
Pierson took issue with the notion that the "original" category was easier this year and noted that "Greek Wedding" was nominated as an origi- nal screenplay by the Writers Guild of America for its awards.