In kicking off Monday night’s Writers Guild of America awards, WGAW president Del Reisman told a packed Beverly Hills ballroom that ageism within the industry has turned into an “American tragedy.”

“Talent does not know age, but ageism has nonetheless become a fact of Guild life,” Reisman said. “I find it to be cruel and unusual punishment though.”

It was a theme that was touched upon throughout the evening, as the West Coast segment of the WGA’s awards went off without a hitch at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

“I would just like to say that writers who are past the age of puberty are not fossils, but are forces” noted Irma Kalish, upon picking up the Guild’s Morgan Cox Award. “They are not dinosaurs. They are dynamos.”

The 45th annual awards event featured a wide variety of presenters, including Michelle Pfeifer, Forest Whitaker, Grant Shaud and Phyllis Diller.

Top awards went to Neil Jordan for “The Crying Game” as original screenplay and Michael Tolkin for “The Player” as adapted screenplay (from his book).

Awardees hit on a number of subjects, including the recent strife within the Guild itself.

“I want to thank every member who takes the time to serve on a committee,” noted Bernard Lechowick, who with his wife, Lynn Latham, won the award in the TV longform category for the pilot episode of ABC’s “Homefront.””And I want to thank the staff, especially those who may say to themselves ‘couldn’t I have worked for a quieter union, like the UAW?’ I would also like to thank (exec director) Brian Walton for all he’s done for writers.”

For the first time, the WGA honored five of its African-American members as founding pioneers. They included Helen Thompson and Ossie Davis and, posthumously, James Baldwin, Robert Goodwin and Lorraine Hansberry.

“To be the first in anything is always tough, as it was for these writers,” said Alfre Woodard, who, along with John Singleton, handed out the award. Thompson — who had been a Guild member years ago, was forced to drop out after racism and sexism stalled her career as a writer, and was reinstated four years ago as an emeritus member — accepted the award for all five honorees.

“You did a courageous thing when you accepted this plan,” Thompson said, referring to the Black Writers Committee’s suggestion to create this honor. “It’s long, long overdue.”

She added that now is not the time to stop promoting African-Americans within the industry.

“We need your help now more than ever,” she said. “We deserve it. We’ve earned it.”

The evening included clips from many of Norman Lear’s television shows prior to his receiving the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award.

“There is no doubt the experience of working on those shows and laughing with my collaborators has added years to my life,” Lear said. “And I’m not through yet. I thank you now for helping me laugh all the way to 90.”

Julie Brown, picking up an award with Charlie Coffey for “Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful,” quipped: “You know, when I went to Showtime and told them that I wanted to satirize Madonna, they said here’s lots of money. But I have to say that I’m glad I did it before her book was published, because I wouldn’t want to pose for those pictures.”

Horton Foote received the evening’s only standing ovation as he received the Screen Laurel Award, the Guild’s highest honor.

“To be honored by your fellow writers is the most precious honor of all,” he said. “And I want to say that I have the deepest respect for all the past honorees.”

Diane English, who won in the episodic comedy category for the “Uh-Oh, Part II” episode of “Murphy Brown,” simply thanked her husband and CBS. “I might add that the pen is mightier than the golf club.”

“My father was nominated five times by the WGA and he won four of those times ,” noted Tolkin. “I didn’t realize what an achievement that was until I joined the Writers Guild 14 years ago.”

Ironically, when he was asked by producer David Brown to adapt his book, Tolkin said he agreed and was subsequently fired by his agent for accepting so little money.

Jordan, upon winning for “The Crying Game,” said that not only was his film initially turned down by every major studio in Hollywood, but that it also was turned down by “every other country in the world.

“So this award is particularly gratifying to me,” he said.

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