A ray in a dark field

Times Staff Writers

So how do you like your America -- as a mildly flawed Mayberry or a seething pit of lies, corruption and greed?

That’s the battle shaping up at the 2008 Oscars, as films as brutal as “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Michael Clayton” line up against the sunny upstart “Juno” for the top prize. The entirely British but equally dark “Atonement” is the final film battling for the best picture spot.

Putting aside “Atonement” for a moment, the best picture nominees are quintessentially American stories, and all but “Juno” can perhaps best be analyzed on a bleakness scale of 1 to 10.


On the dystopian end of the spectrum are Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” whose random violence is echoed in the harsh landscape and ill winds that howl through its desert Texas landscape.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” also focuses on brute, animalistic greed, albeit against the backdrop of legal capitalism -- specifically, early 20th century oil wildcatting.

And then there’s “Michael Clayton” -- a throwback to such anti-corporate Hollywood polemics as “Silkwood” and “Erin Brockovich” -- starring George Clooney as a morally defeated law firm fixer who must bring down the outsized evil he’s spent decades enabling.

The most redemptive is “Atonement,” the World War II romantic drama in which a young girl’s accusation leads to tragic results. But at least there is peace at the end.

Against all this tide of despair is the little lifeboat “Juno,” about a pregnant teenager, which takes an upsetting subject and turns it in a wry and ultimately hopeful look at the American family.

"[Studios] thought it was a dicey thing to do, to have a comedy dealing with such a serious subject, about a minor, about a girl who doesn’t regret having sex with her boyfriend and calls it ‘magnificent,’ ” said “Juno” producer Lianne Halfon.

The movie’s explosion as a mainstream entertainment invariably helped its evolution from small indie to Oscar contender alongside films with more rarefied pedigrees.

“Juno” was made for $7.5 million and has already earned $85 million at the box office, becoming the top-grossing movie of all time at Fox Searchlight.

For the last few years, the Oscars have reflected the globalization of the film business, with attention-grabbing nominees such as “Babel” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” This year, the only nominally global movie is “Atonement,” a Hollywood-funded, all-Brit production. Based on Ian McEwan’s novel, the movie is this year’s lush, period WWII nominee, the kind of nod that feels safer, in its way, than the others.

Around the virtual Hollywood water cooler (no doubt supplied by Fiji), talk will focus on the auterish square-off between the venerable Coen brothers and the legend-in-waiting Anderson. But their films are so male-centric and violent that they’re liable to split the vote -- possibly creating an opening for “Juno.”

The film’s nomination alone represented a generational torch being passed -- from Ivan Reitman, director of “Ghostbusters,” to his 30-year-old son, Jason, the now-Oscar-nominated director of “Juno.” “Juno’s” whole team is young: The film’s stripper turned screenwriter, Diablo Cody, is 29, and its star, Ellen Page, is 20.

Contemplating his film’s out-of-left field success, Reitman Jr. said, “Right now, there is a lot of really rough dramatic films that deal with things we don’t know much about. Most of us haven’t gone to war in Iraq, but most of us are in a family. Most of us understand about growing up. We live in a time where 16-year-old girls grow up too fast and 35-year-old guys don’t grow up at all. Diablo [Cody] portrayed three generations perfectly, and there is something to relate to no matter who you are.”

For the record, “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” both landed the most nominations, with eight each.

Producer Scott Rudin hit the same resonance theme talking about his “No Country” that Reitman did talking about “Juno.” To Rudin, the film works as a metaphor for people who feel unsafe in an unsafe world.

“It deals with what people are feeling right now,” he said.

“Michael Clayton’s” Tom Wilkinson, nominated in the supporting actor category for his role as a high-profile litigator whose meltdown begins to reveal a complex conspiracy, added, “Things are rather kind of bleak at the moment, aren’t they, with that wretched war and downturn in the economy. I think people aren’t feeling as upbeat as they might want to. Perhaps they feel their movies should reflect a sobriety of the times.”

In the lead actor category, Daniel Day-Lewis (“There Will Be Blood”) will vie against Clooney (“Michael Clayton”), a singing Johnny Depp (“Sweeney Todd”), a mournful Tommy Lee Jones (“In the Valley of Elah”) and a famously naked Viggo Mortensen, who plays a Russian gangster in “Eastern Promises.”

In the lead actress category, Page was nominated alongside Julie Christie, who played an Alzheimer’s patient in “Away From Her”; Marion Cotillard, who inhabited Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”; as well as Oscar darlings Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) and Laura Linney (“The Savages”).

At the moment, this year’s Oscar ceremony remains imperiled by the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, which rendered the Golden Globes into a shabby news conference. While optimism is running high in Hollywood that the strike will be settled by the Feb. 24 broadcast of the Academy Awards, this year’s nominations underscore the power of the screenplay.

Unlike past years, when nominees such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Lord of the Rings” seemed powered by directorial visions, six of 10 nominations for screenplay belong to writer-directors such as the Coen brothers, Tamara Jenkins and “Ratatouille’s” Brad Bird.

“I think you’re seeing singular visions. People who have final cut,” says “Michael Clayton” writer-director Tony Gilroy, who was nominated for both hats. “They’re very personal [films]. In the Directors Guild nominations, four out of five are writer-directors.”

The crop of nominees for adapted screenplay runs counter to the Hollywood adage that good books make bad screenplays. This year’s movies are based on exquisitely rendered interpretations from such worthy tomes as McEwan’s “Atonement,” Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” and former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which Bauby blinked out with one eye after he was left paralyzed.

Furthermore, four women were nominated for screenplay in one year, a stunning record when one considers that only a handful of women -- including Callie Khouri and Sofia Coppola -- has ever even won the award.

While much of Hollywood has rushed headlong to embrace comic books and other properties that can be branded and turned into toys and towels, these nervy women opted for personal screenplays and are being rewarded by Oscar this year.

The one who’s garnered the most press has been “Juno’s” Cody, both for her edgy humor and her equally edgy past. Others nominated include Sarah Polley, who translated an Alice Munro short story for “Away From Her”; writer-director Tamara Jenkins, who created a vivid portrait of siblings coping with their dying father and their failed dreams in “The Savages”; and Nancy Oliver, for her offbeat boy-loves-blowup doll story “Lars and the Real Girl.”

Given the unease bred by months of a writers strike, many nominees declined to give interviews or sounded cautious when discussing their good news.

At least Page, in London promoting “Juno,” provided some youthful exuberance. “I’m extremely lucky to be in the film in the first place. This is just ridiculous icing on some ridiculously delicious dark chocolate cake.”