Times Staff Writer

In the beginning, there are blank pages and high hopes. In the end, there are stories and characters and images. In between, there are famine, pestilence, destruction and death.

No one went quite so far as to call up the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to describe the agony of writing at the Writers Guild of America’s 38th annual awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton Friday. But the pain and anguish were apparent.

Before and after announcements that the writers of “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Witness” had won the adapted and original screenplay awards, respectively, further confusing the outlook for tonight’s Oscar show, there were streams of writers’ laments.

The winners gave more heartfelt spousal apologies than we’ve heard since the final reel of “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” and the formal program--written mostly by Hollywood’s toastmaster treasure Hal Kanter--roasted the very reason everyone had gathered.


A commiseration dinner is what it was.

The show’s highlight was a long medley of ironic and self-effacing quotes about writing by writers, delivered by actors Georg Stanford Brown, Tyne Daly and MacDonald Carey. (Sample: “Only a mediocre writer is always at his best.” W. Somerset Maugham.)

You expect good writing at a writers’ awards dinner and there was plenty of it.

On the light side, there was emcee Kanter, the funniest man ever served up with a hotel steak.


On the serious side, there was Waldo Salt, who in accepting the guild’s Laurel Award for advancing screen literature, recalled the oppression of the ‘50s (he was one of the era’s blacklisted writers) and urged his colleagues to write courageously and to fight for control of their work.

“If we’re good, we will always be in trouble,” Salt said. “Let’s just be sure we deserve it.”

During the evening, there were also references to the upcoming contract negotiations with management and hints of another strike if the guild does not win major participation in the rich videocassette aftermarket.

“The promised land is in sight for all of us,” guild president Melville Shavelson said.

Then, there were the awards, voted by the nearly 9,000 members of the Eastern and Western branches of the organization.

Richard Condon and Janet Roach won the adapted screenplay award for “Prizzi’s Honor.” The script was based on Condon’s 1982 black-humor novel about a hit man and a hit woman who get married and try to hit each other. The movie is up for eight Oscars tonight, including the one for adapted screenplay.

“Witness” won the best original screenplay award for writers Earl W. Wallace, Pamela Wallace and William Kelly, who are also nominated for an Oscar. “Witness” matched “Prizzi’s Honor’s” total of eight Oscar nominations.

The other guild winners:


Television: original drama anthology, Vickie Patik (“Do You Remember Love?,” CBS); adapted drama anthology, Rose Leiman Goldemberg (“The Burning Bed,” NBC); comedy anthology, Jim Mulholland and Michael Barrie (“The Ratings Game,” Showtime/The Movie Channel); episodic drama, tie, Georgia Jeffries (“Cagney and Lacey,” CBS) and Anthony Yerkovich (“Miami Vice” pilot, NBC); episodic comedy, tie, Glenn Gordon Caron (“Moonlighting” pilot, ABC) and David Pollock and Elias Davis (“Steambath,” Showtime/The Movie Channel); variety, Martin Mull and Allen Rucker (“The History of White People in America, Part II,” Cinemax; long-form series, E. Jack Neuman (“Death in California, Part I,” ABC); children’s show, Charles Johnson and John Allman (“Booker,” PBS); current events, tie, Brian Ellis (“CBS Reports: Honor, Duty and a War Called Vietnam,” CBS) and Mose Richards (“Snowstorm in the Jungle,” WTBS); documentary, Marc Siegel (“Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, Part VII,” PBS); spot news, Lindsay Miller (“News in Review, CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS); daytime serial, the writers of “One Life to Live,” ABC.

Radio: documentary, Pamela Rauscher (“Newsmark--One Nation Under God,” CBS); David P. Ysais (“News of the Day--Aug. 31, 1985,” CBS); drama, Steve Sharon (“Birdie, Heartbeat Theater,” syndicated); comedy, John A. Boyle (“Casper and Porter, Hearteat Theater,” syndicated).

Special awards: Morgan Cox Award for service to the guild to Arthur Orloff; Valentine Davis Award for contributions to dignity of writing to Ron Austen; Paddy Chayefsky Award for advancing literature of television to Richard Levinson and William Link.

INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS: “After Hours,” Martin Scorsese’s comedy about nocturnal New York City, won the inaugural Independent Spirit Award as best picture, presented Saturday by the Independent Film Project/West.

The organization of about 1,000 independent film makers also voted Independent Spirit Awards--for achievements in independent film productions--to Geraldine Page, as best actress for “The Trip to Bountiful,” M. Emmett Walsh, best actor for “Blood Simple” and Toyomichi Kurita, for his cinematography for “Trouble in Mind.”

Scorsese and Joel Coen (“Blood Simple”) tied for best director. A special award, for distinction by an independent film of foreign origin, was voted to the producers of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”