FELLOW PRESENTERS at the Directors Guild’s annual gala had a bit of fun at the expense of actress Leelee Sobieski, whose breast nearly staged a daring escape from her low-cut gown.
Nothing similar occurred at Sunday’s Writers Guild of America dinner, which brought to mind an old Hollywood joke — the one that says only a foolish and naive actress would bother to sleep with (or in this case, expose herself to) the writer.
For all the talk about how every great project “begins on the page,” writers relish this underdog image, supporting the notion that not only are they not worth screwing in the get-ahead sense, but that they keep getting screwed by the grinding machinations of the industry. Indeed, it’s that crazy, “What more can you do to me?” attitude that puts teeth in the guild’s negotiating posture as the threat of a strike looms. In a town characterized by exaggerated displays to frighten off predators, writers are seen as being just perverse and angry enough to initiate a fight where everybody loses — including themselves — for the sheer satisfaction of inflicting damage on the other guy.
AS SUCH, it’s notable that compared with the directors’ event earlier this month, there was a wholly different vibe at the WGA ceremony, which was for the most part a lovely, celebratory affair — beginning with the fact that established scribes handed out the honors, making writers, appropriately, the stars of their own show. In speech after speech, moreover, gold-plated recipients such as John Wells and Larry Gelbart, both career-achievement honorees, graciously reminisced about those who provided the little boosts that helped elevate them to such lofty plateaus.
Yet in illuminating moments of symbolism, the festivities also experienced amusing glitches that speak to the writers’ historic lot and current mindset — kicking off with the Teleprompter failing to work and concluding with the hotel’s fire alarm being triggered, flashing warning lights that blinked around the room.
Think “Lost in Space,” only the robot’s “Danger, danger!” warnings would more accurately be directed at the Alliance for Motion Picture & Television Producers.
WGA PREXY Patric Verrone made good on his opening pledge to avoid fiery speeches, but the body language was unmistakable. After rattling off a list of issues he wasn’t going to discuss that included curbing TV product integration and organizing animation and reality TV, he bestowed a special bravery award upon the “writers” of “America’s Next Top Model,” who lost their jobs after an unsuccessful attempt to bring the CW reality program under guild representation.
Given the status reality occupies vis-a-vis the guilds — gobbling up primetime shelf space, and potentially filling up dormant hours if scripted production halts — embracing the genre is the savvy equivalent of entering into a marriage so the other party can’t testify against you in court.
Writers and the Screen Actors guilds each elected more combative leadership, grumbling over money left on the table in past bargaining with the AMPTP. Of course, how to gain concessions from studios adept at pleading poverty — especially in nascent new-media fields, where the business model is so elusive as to be rightfully labeled a “zero-billion-dollar business” — poses a significant challenge whether the guilds dangle a carrot or brandish a club.
Harder to quantify, meanwhile, are the issues of respect that again echoed throughout the WGA dinner, which explains why writers are burdened with those chips on their shoulders. Although writer-producers dominate TV (leaving directors to lament their lack of creative clout), the vision of feature writers watching their work mangled remains intense, prompting emcee Robert Wuhl to joke about writing that “not even a gifted director could destroy,” and Michael Arndt — original screenplay winner for “Little Miss Sunshine” — to proclaim that nothing is so powerful or rewarding as seeing one’s words “up on screen, uncompromised and undiluted.”
For a night, anyway, it was nice seeing writers genuinely enjoy themselves in rented clothes, because life, especially in Hollywood, is full of compromises. Both the guilds and the studios would do well to remember that, in fact, if they wish next year’s awards to possess the same feeling of a celebration, and not a wake.