films deserve to be considered automatic Oscar contenders, but, as of today, John Patrick Shanley’s big-screen adaptation of his 2005 Tony Award winning Doubt can pretty much be placed at the front of the 2008 class. That’s what happens when you cast Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the leads in an explosive pedophile priest melodrama. It also helps when you’ve got Hollywood’s top purveyor of prestige projects, Scott Rudin, producing and Miramax distributing (after The Queen, the Disney-owned boutique is once again an awards campaigning power).

Of course, the film could still pull an Ironweed or a Family Business or an At Play in the Fields of the Lord or an Elizabethtown or a Jarhead or… you get the picture. Called shots rarely find the bleachers in this business. But that doesn’t mean Oscar watchers won’t accord due respect to the dream team Doubt just assembled; until the finished product turns up at Toronto for in September ’08, it’ll be considered a frontrunner based on pedigree alone.

Now, if you’re looking for a hole in the lineup, you’ll want to start with Shanley, the brilliant American playwright who successfully transitioned to A-list scribe with Moonstruck (for which he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) before quickly squandering his Hollywood cachet with his directorial debut, Joe Versus the Volcano. Anyone who appreciates good writing would love to squander like that (it’s easily one of the most underrated movies of my lifetime), but Warner Brothers never understood the whimsical Tom Hanks comedy and made Shanley’s life miserable throughout the production. Once the movie was released to mixed reviews and, ultimately, fell short of box office expectations, Shanley retreated to the stage, where he banged out the angry Hollywood satire, Four Dogs and a Bone (a very funny play, but not one of his better works). Though he didn’t shun film altogether, his subsequent screenplays were mostly paycheck gigs (the nadir being Congo, which was written as camp and foolishly directed as serious sci-fi by Frank Marshall).

As a Shanley fan, I’m rooting for Doubt to serve as his triumphant return to filmmaking. Though it’s unclear as to how much he’ll open up the play in his adaptation, at least he won’t have to worry about studio interference; the new Miramax doesn’t have a reputation for meddling, and, even if they did, Rudin would insulate him from any unwanted input. For those of you unfamiliar with the play, Streep will play a nun who levels pedophile allegations against a beloved priest (Hoffman). It’s extraordinarily charged stuff that, obviously, should be dynamite as performed by these two actors (though a part of me wishes Cherry Jones would’ve kept her lead role from the stage production).

Principal photography is set to begin December 1st.