The Writers Guild Awards are usually seen as a precursor to the Oscar race, mirroring the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voting 80% of the time. But there's one major difference this year: Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"--sure to be a strong presence on Monday night--was ineligible to compete in the group's 47th annual awards. That cleared the way for Richard Curtis' "Four Weddings and a Funeral"--one of two life-affirming features honored Sunday night.
" 'Four Weddings' is a reaction to the cynical mood in England today," British writer Curtis said backstage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel after receiving best original screenplay award. "Some may view loyalty, camaraderie and love as sentimental or old-fashioned, but I wanted to show that they're still around."
The success of Gramercy Pictures' romantic comedy, which took in more than $50 million worldwide, contrasts sharply with its expectations going in. "It was like going out on a date with Edward G. Robinson and waking up in the morning to find you're in bed with Vivien Leigh," Curtis quipped during his acceptance speech.
Eric Roth won the best adapted screenplay award for "Forrest Gump." The Paramount Pictures release, which languished for nearly nine years in development hell, has brought in $554 million in worldwide box-office receipts and become part of the national lexicon.
"There was something in my soul--or the soul of the book--that spoke to the basic dignity and decency in people," Roth said. "What really surprised us was the way the picture took off abroad. We thought this was a particularly American piece."
If Roth is now considered the Oscar front-runner, Curtis has a major hurdle to clear. Tarantino, whose critically acclaimed "Pulp Fiction" was disqualified from WGA competition because its production companies were not guild signatories, is considered the odds-on favorite. And the academy may be even more inclined to honor his Golden Globe-winning script in the event of a "Forrest Gump" sweep.
On the TV side, NBC's "Witness to the Execution," a cautionary tale about the impact of media sensationalism on the justice system, won the original long-form prize as well as the Paul Selwyn Award for a script about civil liberties. "Tracey Ullman: Takes on New York" was honored for best variety or musical; "AIDS Research: The Story So Far" was selected as the best current events documentary. And, for the second straight year, "Homicide: Life on the Street" was singled out for the best episodic drama and "Seinfeld" for the best episodic comedy award.
In a moving tribute, 95-year-old Charles Bennett ("Foreign Correspondent," "The 39 Steps")--whose 54 movies included five for Alfred Hitchcock and four for Cecil B. DeMille--was given the Screen Laurel Award. Supported on both sides, the guild's senior member stood up and recalled that when he first arrived in Hollywood in 1937, his agent warned him that joining the newly formed WGA was the equivalent of professional "suicide."
Alan Alda presented the Paddy Chayefsky Award to Carl Reiner, a writer whose "genius," he said, helped to make Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" a classic and "transformed the half-hour TV comedy" with "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
Alfred Levitt and his late wife, Helen, a writing team blacklisted from 1951 to 1967, were awarded the Morgan Cox Service Prize for aid to other writers targeted during the McCarthy Era. And writer-director Garry Marshall--recipient of the Valentine Davies Award for contributions to the entertainment industry and the community-at-large--quoted Hubert Humphrey's belief that a government is judged by how it treats people in the dawn of life, the twilight of life and the shadow of life--the young, the old and the infirm.
Though Marshall insisted that there are fewer unhappy guild members these days "thanks to Prozac," self-deprecating humor and references to the agony of screenwriting were the order of the evening. Presenting the award for original screenplay, actor Martin Landau ("Ed Wood") observed that even female writers admit writing a script is harder than having a baby. "It takes longer to deliver and there may be a lot more agony involved."
Former WGA president George Kirgo took some tongue-in cheek swipes at the controversial "possessive credits" issue in which the director is considered the author of a film.
"How much longer must we endure this abuse?" he asked. "The good news is that, under the new contract, directors receiving possessive credit must be of voting age. They must also agree to read the script--or have it read to him or her--prior to principal production. Some progress has been made."