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‘Eighth Grade’ and ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ take top honors at the 2019 Writers Guild Awards

2019 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony - Arrivals
“Eighth Grade” writer-director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher at the 2019 Writers Guild of America awards, where their film was the surprise winner of the original screenplay prize.
(Frazer Harrison / Getty Images)

At its annual awards show — one of the final bellwethers of what has been an unusually unpredictable awards season — the Writers Guild of America threw a couple of final curveballs, honoring a pair of indies that have generally gotten less attention in the Oscar horse race than their bigger, flashier competitors: the coming-of-age film “Eighth Grade” and the dramedy “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

“Eighth Grade” — which was entirely overlooked by academy voters but is up for four prizes at the upcoming Spirit Awards, including best feature — picked up the award for original screenplay, beating out best picture Oscar nominees “Green Book,” “Roma” and “Vice” as well as the horror hit “A Quiet Place.” The last film to win the guild’s prize for original screenplay without being up for the Oscar was Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine.”

Taking the stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday night to accept the award, “Eighth Grade” writer-director Bo Burnham — who picked up the prize for best first-time feature film director at the Directors Guild Awards earlier this month — seemed genuinely stunned that his small-scale debut feature had emerged victorious over such a strong field, saying he hadn’t prepared a speech.

RELATED: According to the teenage experts, ‘Eighth Grade’ gets it right »

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“To the other nominees in the category — have fun at the Oscars, losers!” Burnham riffed. (“Green Book,” “Roma” and “Vice” are all up for this year’s original screenplay Oscar, along with “The Favourite” and “First Reformed.”)

In the adapted screenplay category, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” — the story of literary forger Lee Israel — won out over “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “A Star Is Born.”

2019 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony - Inside
Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener, winners of adapted screenplay for "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
(Charley Gallay / Getty Images)

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Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has also been nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar, one of three nominations for the film, along with nods for its stars, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. The other films in Oscar contention for adapted screenplay are “BlacKkKlansman,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “A Star Is Born.”

With the Academy Awards less than a week away, Oscar prognosticators are looking for any signs of how voters may be leaning in a year that has had no clear, sustained frontrunner. But the Writers Guild Awards are generally an unreliable predictor of future Oscar wins, in part because guild rules render some potential contenders ineligible if the writer isn’t a WGA member or the production is not a signatory with the guild. This year, “The Favourite” was not included on the WGA Awards ballots.

On the television side, Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” continued its streak of awards wins, picking up the prize for comedy series over “Atlanta,” “Barry,” “GLOW” and “The Good Place.”

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Justin Weinberger, Hilary Bettis, Stephen Schiff, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg attend the 71st Annual Writers Guild Awards New York ceremony at Edison Ballroom Sunday in New York City.
(Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images for Writers Guild of America, East)

RELATED: Here’s what ‘The Americans’ creators had to say about that series finale »

In the drama series category, the final season of FX’s “The Americans” won over “Better Call Saul,” “The Crown,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Succession.” The winner of the episodic drama prize was Showtime’s “Homeland” for the episode “Paean to the People,” written by showrunner Alex Gansa.

HBO’s comedy “Barry” won the prize for best new series over “The Haunting of Hill House,” “Homecoming,” “Pose” and “Succession.” “Barry” also took the episodic honors for comedy for its pilot, written by Alec Berg and star Bill Hader.

Other TV winners included Hulu’s “Castle Rock” (original long form), FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (adapted long form), HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (comedy/variety talk series) and Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You” (comedy/variety sketch series).

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Issues of inclusion and representation in Hollywood — or the lack thereof — have been threaded throughout this year’s awards season, and the Writers Guild Awards ceremony was no exception. “It’s an honor to be here at the whitest guild awards — I mean, the Writers Guild Awards,” presenter Larry Wilmore cracked at one point.

“Isn’t it so weird the way in sports the word ‘team’ means a diverse collection of athletes whereas in writing it means two white guys?” host Chelsea Peretti joked in her opening monologue. “Every woman is obsessed with procuring a flipped role — a role that’s good that’s written for a guy and then they just name it Esmerelda. My kooky idea is, Why not just write a good role for a woman? Is that too kooky?”

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Host Chelsea Peretti speaks onstage during the 2019 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday.
(Rich Fury / Getty Images for WGAw)

The nation’s fractured politics have also loomed large at every stop on this year’s awards circuit, and while the WGA Awards, which is un-televised, is a generally loose, self-deprecating affair, with writers themselves the usual butt of the jokes, there were a handful of sharp barbs aimed at the current administration.

WGA West president David A. Goodman gave a shout-out to Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, who was in attendance, noting, “Ted, you have the night off, but tomorrow it’s Presidents Day and most of us would like a new one.”

As a running gag, two people posing as FBI agents were on stage throughout the evening, Peretti said, “to serve the dual purpose of handing out awards and spying on the subversive liberal elites.”

Amid all the celebration, lest any of the writers in attendance forget their place in the greater Hollywood pecking order, Peretti went out of her way to knock them down a peg.

“I’m so excited to be hosting the WGAs — all the glitz and glamour of the Oscars without the pressure of public interest,” she cracked. “This is a great warm-up for an even bigger awards show I’m hosting next week: The Line Producers’ Extravaganza. I’ve been going to so many Hollywood parties, it’s refreshing to just look out and remember what regular people look like.”

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josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

Twitter: @joshrottenberg


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