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Screenplay nominees working to give voice to women writers

For "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody, the attention she and three other women are getting for their Academy Award nominations in typically male-dominated screenwriting is "kind of a double-edged sword."

"You don't want to be singled out as a woman," she says. "On the other end, as a feminist, and someone who feels that women are marginalized in this industry, I'm thrilled that women are getting this sort of recognition."

Cody is nominated for her first Oscar in the original screenplay category, along with "The Savages" writer-director Tamara Jenkins and "Lars and the Real Girl" writer Nancy Oliver. "Away From Her" director-writer Sarah Polley is nominated in the adapted screenplay category.

Four nominated screenplays for which women can claim sole writing credit is a record. And added to the recognition, graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi's feisty "Persepolis" snagged a best animated feature nod.

According to a report by the Writers Guild of America-West, women make up 27 percent of TV writers and 19 percent of feature film writers. While income for female TV writers has risen, no gains have been made for female film writers both in terms of pay and employment, and "there is little evidence to suggest the pattern is changing," the report says.

Nonetheless, Jane Fleming, president of the Hollywood-based group Women in Film, said the nominations are inspiring.

"In 2006, the top 250 films only had 10 percent written by women," said Fleming, whose group boasts 10,000 members, "but I think things are getting better."

Fleming also noted that the female-written stories nominated for Oscars this year "are very human, not gender specific, and they resonate with women."

It's not surprising, then, that three of these films have female leads who are up for best actress, and in a diversity of roles. There's the wisecracking, pregnant high schooler played by Ellen Page in "Juno," the high-strung New Yorker played by Laura Linney caring for an elderly parent in "The Savages" and Julie Christie as a wife suffering from Alzheimer's in "Away From Her."

"I don't think it's an accident," Cody says of the actress nominations. "We're given this chance to promote fresh representations of women. For me, my thought is if I wrote a movie, I'm not going to fill my movie with stock girlfriend characters. I'm going to write about a girl who wears hoodies and likes the Stooges (punk band)."

Jenkins wholeheartedly agrees with Cody's assessment of the roles.

"They're not all likable and schmaltzy and perfect and lovely women," she says.

Adds Polley: "There's a more dynamic definition of what it is to be a woman. We are more creative about how we portray ourselves. I think we have a really far way to go, but it is a little bit of progress."

Polley, an actress turned filmmaker, said she's personally noticed a shift in which being a female director and writer is "becoming less and less and less abnormal."

The nominees share a camaraderie and mutual admiration: No stereotypical cattiness, no claws.

Polley says Jenkins' "The Savages" is one her favorite films of the year, and calls Jenkins "a writer I look up to immensely." Cody deems Oliver "awesome," and Oliver says she is "proud" to be among the female nominees. Satrapi, speaking from her home in Paris, called Polley "one hell of an intelligent girl."

"We all feel that a victory for one of us is a victory for all. We don't feel we have that jocular sense of competition that men have ... yet," Cody says.

All the writers lament the lack of women in the directing category, reflecting a dearth of female directors in general; only three women have been nominated for a directing trophy in Oscar history: Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola.

"I think it may finally be changing," said Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director. "Women just haven't been given many chances, and there was a time where women probably didn't aspire to be directors."

When asked why directors Jenkins and Polley weren't nominated for their critically acclaimed films, Davis notes that "clearly they were considered," but that tough competition won out.

Could sexism be considered a factor?

"Call me an idealist, but I don't think so," says Davis, acknowledging that academy voters are mostly men. "To get nominated as a writer and director, you have to impress other writers and directors. These groups — I meet with them all the time — they are about as unprejudiced of a constituency that you can think of."

But discrimination remains a fact for women in Hollywood, from Cody noting that some film critics have criticized her own body in their reviews of "Juno" to Polley bemoaning that women are "still obligated" to sell their sexuality with their careers.

"The way we're raised up, girls are raised in a different way — that they have to be cute and sweet. But you don't have to be cute and sweet," says Satrapi, who once fired a male employee who refused to listen to her.

And, says Cody, "Women tend to be crippled by what they believe is their own incompetence."

"We need to do it like men, charge it like a bull, no matter if it's bad," says the writer, who first gained media attention for penning a book about her stint as a stripper.

"I've gotten an excessive amount of attention because I have that cheesy back story," she says, sighing. "It's really a lot of bells and whistles. We're really all just sedentary geeks, who love to write."