One night 'Titanic' doesn't hit

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In bicoastal ceremonies that pointedly strayed from contemporary political correctness into more daring satirical territory, the Writers Guild of America presented its highest honors Saturday to scribes for the screen, television and radio.

“As Good As It Gets,” by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks, won the award for screenplay written directly for the screen, while “L.A. Confidential,” Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel, took the prize for work based on material previously published.

” ‘L.A. Confidential’ is the iceberg that’s going to sink the ‘Titanic,’ ” Helgeland said after the ceremony, in conspiratorial tones. “They think they’re going to take the Oscars, but we’re waiting out here in the Atlantic for them.”

The tendency to see the WGA’s awards — and, for that matter, the Directors Guild’s — as predictive of the Academy races does not much impress Brooks.

“There’s a thing in Hollywood about always moving the finish line,” he said, clutching his WGA statuette at the Beverly Hilton rites. “Sometimes you just have to enjoy the moment.”

In TV, the “Law & Order” episode “Entrapment,” written by Rene Balcer and Richard Sweren, took the prize for episodic drama, while “The Fatigues,” a “Seinfeld” episode, won the episodic comedy category; its writers, Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin, did not stay long enough at the 3-1/2-hour ceremony to pick up their awards.

Other TV awards went to Robert Inman, original longform for “The Summer of Ben Tyler”; Craig Leake and Tom Brokaw, documentary current events, for the “Dateline NBC” program “Why Can’t We Live Together?”; Thomas A. Sabella, radio docu, for “Jackie Robinson: His Life and Legacy”; and no fewer than 16 writers for “General Hospital,” in the soaps category.

The adapted longform was “Bastard Out of Carolina,” written by Anne Meredith, from Dorothy Allison’s book. As she stepped up on stage in L.A. to receive her statuette, she echoed a sentiment that already rumbled through the hall. “I don’t think it’s right that with all the dues we pay that we have to pay for our drinks at the bar,” Meredith said somberly. “Maybe you can work on that for next year.”

That same anarchic spirit filled remarks by veteran writer Hal Kanter, who has made WGA awards audiences laugh for years.

“Our annual party is one of the highlights of the social season — if you live in Oxnard,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned about life in Hollywood — if you don’t blow your own horn, you won’t get blown at all.”

Kanter praised Jerry Seinfeld “for being the first writer to fire a network,” Barry Levinson for transforming “Wag the Dog” from “a satire into a documentary,” and James Cameron — in the audience as a nominee for “Titanic” — for creating “the movie with something for everyone — water.”

For his part, Cameron appeared sanguine at being passed over in the screenplay stakes. “Like we’re all surprised by that,” he said afterwards. “Big upset, huh? Rightly or wrongly, ‘Titanic’ has taken some hits from the critics. I don’t happen to agree with them.”

“As Good As It Gets” and “Confidential” deserved to win, Cameron said, and the fact that those movies and his are all financially successful means that “audiences are rewarding the basics — they’ve had 10 years of Twinkie movies and now they’re getting meat and potatoes.”

In a simultaneous ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, emcee Steve Allen entertained the audience with a parody of the Gettysburg Address, punctuated with modern idioms such as “like,” “you know” and “you know what I mean.” Listening were Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (nominated for “Good Will Hunting”), and James Schamus (for “The Ice Storm”).

Presenting awards were Marlo Thomas, Charles Osgood, Barbara Barrie (“Suddenly Susan”), and Star Jones and Meredith Vieira of “The View.”

Those receiving special awards in the east included Bill Persky, Michael Winship and Judy Crichton (“The American Experience”), who observed, “It’s very hard to do serious work today.”

In L.A., Brad Pitt looked out at the crowd and said with a laugh, “You guys talk a lot,” before presenting the Screen Laurel Award to Bo Goldman, who won Oscars and WGA awards for “Melvin and Howard” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“He doesn’t write about happy-ever-afters — he writes about perfect moments,” said Pitt, who will star in Goldman’s upcoming “Meet Joe Black.”

Other special awards went to Brooks and longtime partner Allan Burns; Gary David Goldberg, creator of “Spin City” and “Brooklyn Bridge”; former WGA president Mel Shavelson; and Gregory Poirier, who wrote “Rosewood.”

Presenters in L.A. included Peter Fonda, Salma Hayek, Greg Kinnear, Jon Voight, Robert Forster, Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce and Tony Danza performed musical skits.

A complete list of winners follows.

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