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Thornton lauded at WGA Awards

Billy Bob Thornton was the most casually dressed man around, the “Larry Flynt” scripters defended their film and honoree Robert Towne and actress Fay Wray got online to chat with fans at Sunday night’s Writers Guild of America Awards.

Decked in a leather jacket, black shirt and yellow tie, Thornton explained, “My tux is in the cleaners.”

Had he worn a tux, that just wouldn’t have been Billy Bob. The writer-actor-director was certainly more dressed up than at last week’s Oscar nominees luncheon, to which he wore a T-shirt and black John Deere cap.

Thornton, the winner of the adapted screenplay nod for “Sling Blade,” drew loud cheers as he won. On his way to the podium, he hugged fellow nominee Anthony Minghella; on stage, he paid tribute to all the writers in the room, and drew upon his experience acting in and directing “Sling Blade” to compare professions.

“As we know, when you are an actor, you got something to do when you get there,” he told the audience. “When you are a director, you kind of got something to do when you get there. When you are a writer, you don’t have a damn thing. You just go in there and decide to do this. I have a respect for all these professions, but this one, I have to say, is really not easy.”

His words about the writer are a natural trademark of the WGA Awards, one of the few times when scribes get center stage. It makes for a lengthy (but literate) evening.

“I don’t know how many of you out there are hyphenates like me, but there’s no question that the speeches are better at the WGA than at the DGA,” said Sidney Lumet, who received the special Evelyn F. Burkey Award in New York.

Ethan Coen accepted the award for original screenplay for “Fargo,” an award shared with brother Joel, who did not attend.

Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski offered a spirited defense of “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” when they accepted the Paul Selvin Award, given to those who write scripts that best embody civil rights and liberties. There has been heated debate over the pic, led by Gloria Steinem’s criticism that it glorifies Flynt, which led to the film-maker’s charges of a backlash against the movie.

“The whole controversy has kind of taught us that even in 1997, 200 years after it was written, the First Amend-ment is still a very radical idea,” Karaszewski said.

Among the other highlights was the presentation of the special Screen Laurel Award to Robert Towne by Kurt Russell, who’d starred in “Tequila Sunrise.”

They both sat in the press room later in the evening, participating in the WGA’s online chat with winners, organized by the Interactive Agency.

The ceremony — which started with a rather elaborate light show — comes as the guild is continuing its campaign to improve the image of the writer in showbiz.

The WGA’s ongoing assault of the auteur theory (which states that the director is the author of the picture) has raised the hackles of some directors, with the two guilds at odds in areas involving creative rights. (The WGA ne-gotiates a new contract next year).

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