The PEN Center USA literary awards, as always, honored excellent writing and celebrated heroes of free speech on Tuesday. And host Aisha Tyler exercised it with a high-energy, highly profane commentary that kicked the event’s energy up a notch.
That gave winners like Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow -- who took the teleplay award for the “Together” episode of “Girls” -- a colorful starting point for their speeches. “I realized we beat out the last episode of ‘Breaking Bad.’ They’ve made a terrible mistake,” Apatow joked.
Sharing the podium and trading punch lines at the Beverly Hills event, Apatow and Dunham quickly turned their attention from their own work to a man seated near the stage: Norman Lear.
Lear, creator of groundbreaking television programs “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “The Facts of Life,” “Silver Spoons” and more, was there to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the end of the evening.
“I feel like Norman programmed my brain as a child with those shows,” Dunham said. Although she recently canceled events after controversy emerged over her book “Not that Kind of Girl,” Dunham, wearing a black-and-white dress and cat-eye makeup, seemed ready to face the public again. “I’ve just written a hotly debated literary memoir,” she noted.
It was a good day for memoirs.
Amy Poehler, who recently published her own memoir (“Yes, Please”), was on hand to present Lear with his award. She quoted from his recent memoir “Even This I Get to Experience” to show just how much the writer-producer has gone through in his 92 years. Accepting the award, Lear also turned to his book, reading from its preface.
Lear, who once purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence that he sent on a nationwide tour, is the founder of the nonprofit People for the American Way. He spoke briefly of his commitment to the Bill of Rights. “It is eternal vigilance,” he said, “The price that we pay for liberty.”
PEN’s First Amendment Award was given to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentarian Laura Poitras, for their work bringing Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency spying to light. Neither Poitras nor Greenwald was able to attend, so the award was accepted by actor John Cusack, BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin and Trevor Timm, all of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and, via live video, Julian Assange.
“Laura’s film and Glenn’s work...” Assange said, “comes out of a long struggle in the United States and other parts of the world to exercise free speech in the way that it must be to hold governments accountable.”
He continued, “The most important act is simply to exercise it, to speak frankly and fairly.... the only thing in the end that is capable of regulating the state and corporations is the cultural space outside of the government.”
Two other winners whose awards emphasized free speech included the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, activist and documentarian Jose Antonio Vargas, who received the Freedom to Write award for his film “Documented,” and Vice Media, which received the Award of Honor for pushing the boundaries of free speech while creating an improbable media empire.
Literary award winners included Lindsay Hill’s “Sea of Hooks” for fiction; Gretel Ehrlich’s “Facing the Wave” for creative nonfiction; Victoria Chang for poetry with “The Boss"; Wayne A. Rebhorn’s “The Decameron” for translation; Bill Muntaglio and Steven L. Davis for research nonfiction for “Dallas 1963"; Margarita Engle for children’s literature for “The Lightning Dreamer, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist"; Craig Maslow for his article “Deadly Charades” at the Houston Press for journalism; Octavio Solis for Drama for “Se Llama Cristina"; Mimi Pond for her outstanding body of work in graphic literature; and Ben Coccio, Derek Cianfrance, and Darius Marder for their screenplay, “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
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