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Writers Guild: Kudos for a String of Hits--and Skits

Times Arts Editor

The annual awards banquet of the Writers Guild of America is invariably the most entertaining in Hollywood’s endless skein of ritualized, honor-bestowing nights.

The men and women who spend the balance of the year putting wit, passion, eloquence and insight into the mouths of others take one evening a year to give themselves the good lines.

The result is a string of skits, musical numbers and jokes, a small handful of which you could tell to your minister without embarrassment or footnotes. Make that very small.

It is a very inside occasion, the humor demanding a close familiarity with the creative patterns of television executives such as Brandon Tartikoff of NBC, the relative strengths of the networks and the off-camera personalities of various performers, with a notable stress this year on Rosanne Barr, who is evidently not regarded as the writers’ best friend.

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Like the Hollywood product generally, the guild banquet has its ups and downs, historically speaking. Tuesday night’s was one of the liveliest in years, with an embracing tone of ebullient confidence stemming from what is obviously perceived as the success of the writers’ six-month strike in 1988.

It was the first sold-out banquet in eight years. “Even now,” said Carl Reiner, one of the celebrity presenters, “there are writers crouched by their telephones at home, waiting to hear that somebody got sick.”

The humor revealed a lighter than usual frosting of the self-commiseration which traditionally suggests that the life of Hollywood writers is a kind of gulag with Gelson’s, perdition with palm trees.

The prevailing note this year was upbeat and assertive, from the opening number in which 10 men and women from the writers’ ranks sang “If They Could See Us Now,” addressed to the guild’s founders and concluding with a remarkably coherent kick line.

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The evening was in form a long series of skits punctuated by the presentations, which were themselves frequently skittish. (The winners were reported in Tuesday’s editions of The Times). Threaded through the night as well was an expert taped parody of a show called “Showbiz Hype Entertainment Enquirer Tonight,” directed by Michael Hoey, with David Birney and Jackie Joseph as the gleaming hosts.

In one of the telecast’s best segments Harlan Ellison played himself in a parody of his Japanese small-car commercials, this time selling his collected works and stressing his enormous output and matching ego.

Critics are always unfair game on these evenings and another taped segment reported the murder of Rex Reed, Janet Maslin and Roger Ebert (stock footage of a beached whale). An overall of an earlier guild banquet was identified as a round-up of the suspects.

The live skits included an acknowledgement of the financial troubles of Dino de Laurentiis. Abbey Rents carts off the furniture--and Dino--even as Dino (Roberto Bonanni) is talking up a movie that will re-use the King Kong suit in his warehouse.

In “Writeman,” William Tucker did a cleverly close spoof of Dustin Hoffman, this time as a writer savant whose brother (Phil Zuckerman) is peddling him as a script doctor.

Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna played husband-and-wife writers whose flops are having a terrible effect on their sex lives, in a rowdy sketch they wrote with Carla Conway and Ray Cunneff.

A delicious skit called “Carphone,” written by I C. Rapoport (who oversaw the night’s entertainment) with Rene Balcer and Don Segall, had a besieged writer calling in, increasingly and then fatally desperate, as his agent and a limp English director tear his script to shreds.

Like most awards banquets the writers could use a sympathetic but ruthless editor. (The show ran three hours.) The difference is that the writers’ acceptances tend themselves to be witty and pointed.

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Ron Shelton, accepting for best original screenplay for “Bull Durham,” noted that critics had accused him of creating a Susan Sarandon character who was simply a male fantasy. In fact, Shelton said, the traditional woman of male fantasy was blond, beautiful and dumb. The character Sarandon played, on the other hand, was smart, beautiful and assertive.

“I may be guilty,” Shelton said, “but at least I take credit for raising the level of male fantasies.”

The evening was not all laughs. Garson Kanin and his brother Michael Kanin, joint winners of the Valentine Davies Award for enhancing the status of writers, were greatly affecting in their memories of growing up in Rochester, N.Y., fighting as kids, sustaining each other as struggling young writers.

Director Richard Brooks, introducing Ring Lardner Jr., winner of the Laurel Award for screenwriters, gave a moving reading of the last pages, which Lardner wrote uncredited, of the script for the William Wellman “A Star Is Born” with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, of which Dorothy Parker and husband Alan Campbell had done the lion’s share.

Lardner, an Oscar-winner for “Woman of the Year” (with Michael Kanin) and “M.A.S.H.,” remembered the days when the writer felt like a serf in a feudal Hollywood, his screen credit given or withheld at the whim of the producer, allowed no ownership in the work. (MGM, not Kanin and Lardner, got the royalties from the musical version of “Woman of the Year” 40 years after the film.)

The author of “The Cincinnati Kid,” Lardner was one of the Hollywood 10 who served time in prison for contempt of Congress. He also recalled how, after 15 years of writing pseudonymously for British films and television during the blacklist days, he was hired, again pseudonymously, to do a film for Paramount. He discovered accidentally, he said, that the disguise was not to keep his identity a secret from Frank Freeman, the head of the studio, but was Freeman’s own idea, to conceal his hiring from the underlings and the public. “It gave me,” Lardner said dryly, “an insight into post-feudal Hollywood.”

One of the honored guests at the banquet was J. Nicholas Counter III, chief negotiator for the producers during the long writers strike. “I grew to love him,” guild president George Kirgo said in his opening remarks. “It’s the old kidnaper-hostage syndrome. After a while neither of us knew who the hostage was.”

Peace: It’s wonderful, and even funny.

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