Dustin Hoffman was the center of attention at the 45th annual Writers Guild of America East awards, presenting special achievement kudos to playwright Arthur Miller Monday at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Many winners were not present but accepted their awards in Los Angeles, where sister organization Writers Guild of America West held its edition. That included both movie victors: Neil Jordan for penning “The Crying Game” and Michael Tolkin for adapting his own novel “The Player.”
Hoffman, after shooing off the ever-present paparazzi who singled him out for photo ops, riveted the audience by stepping away from the mike to recite a salute to the working class from Miller’s Playbill note to “Death of a Salesman, ” as well as an excerpt from one of German poet Rilke’s letters saluting the artist.
Miller accepted the Evelyn F. Burkey memorial award –“to one whose contributions have brought honor and dignity to writers everywhere”– by lecturing guild members on the need to resist TV executives’ propensity for working by committee.
“When we finished doing ‘Death of a Salesman’ for CBS, I spoke at a party to the executives and said: ‘This was written by one man, acted by individual actors, had one director, and was made with no committee or discussion of any kind except among the artists. That’s why you can recognize this as some kind of individual work.’
“I hope that television gets back to the voice of an individual to give it the personality we look for in a work of art.”
Another highlight of the event was the Ian McLellan Hunter award for lifetime achievement in writing, given to novelist/screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, longtime partner of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
“Without Jhabvala, there is no Merchant Ivory,” said Christopher Reeve, who worked with her on the films “The Bostonians” and “Remains of the Day.” The actor saluted her generosity, noting that she had supported him without question when he researched and beefed up one of his speeches in “The Bostonians,” the 1984 adaptation of Henry James’ novel.
Jhabvala received a standing ovation from her peers and saluted Hunter, who earned an Oscar for “Roman Holiday” for which he was credited with a pseudonym due to having been blacklisted. She said: “If the blacklist were happening today , I’d like to think that this guild would have grown so much in strength that it would stand by and protect us in the moral realm as it has so splendidly in the material realm.”
WGAE executive director Mona Mangan also paid tribute to member Douglas Marland, who died last week, noting that the guild was making a contribution to the American Indian College Fund in memory of the head writer of “As the World Turns.”
Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach hosted the ceremony, which was introduced by WGAE prexy Herb Sargent. The band occasionally played a chorus from the pop song “California Dreaming” to acknowledge the preponderance of L.A. winners, but a few media recipients were on hand in Gotham to accept their kudos, including a horde of writers honored for outstanding group achievement in daytime serial (ABC’s “One Life to Live”) and Brian Seligson for radio documentary “The Coming of Age in America” on CBS, accepting for himself and his absent colleague Joel Komisarow who won two awards; and Tracy Beckerman and Hugh Heckman of CBS TV winning for on-air promotion and spot news respectively.