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Governor Jerry Brown, Harrison Ford and Anjelica Huston Celebrate Joan Didion at PEN Center USA Awards

Governor Jerry Brown, Harrison Ford and Anjelica Huston Celebrate Joan Didion at PEN Center USA Awards

PEN Center USA’s 23rd annual Literary Awards Festival at the Beverly Hills Hotel was a dazzling mix of literary Los Angeles and Hollywood, as Joan Didion was winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. Many of the 400 or so attendees, from producer Laura Bickford to authors Bret Easton Ellis, A.M. Homes, Janet Fitch, Cari Beauchamp and Michael Tolkin, were disappointed that the diminutive and frail New York writer was not able to attend, after a recent fall. 

Governor Jerry Brown and Harrison Ford had been friends with Didion for some 40 years, and valued her friendship–and sophisticated dinner parties. Ford used to do carpentry for Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne, and worked on their Malibu house, before his acting took off. “To be part of Joan Didion’s world gave me a sense of support and validation,” Ford said. Anjelica Huston read Didion’s acceptance speech, in which the writer thanked a list of PEN attendees including her long-time L.A. agent, Ron Bernstein. 

Didion’s nephew, actor-director Griffin Dunne, is making a Didion-narrated documentary for HBO, which he started independently, he said, which still needs more funding. The excerpted footage looked strong. 

PEN Center USA recognized literary excellence in eleven categories: fiction, creative nonfiction, research nonfiction, poetry, children’s literature, graphic literature, translation, journalism, drama, teleplay, and screenplay. (Winners are listed below.) Entries in the eleven categories were reviewed and judged by panels of established writers, critics, and editors. Each winner gets a $1,000 cash prize and a free year of membership with PEN Center USA.

Screenplay winner Mark Boal shared credit for “Zero Dark Thirty with his dinner companion, director Kathryn Bigelow, but said he’d take the award home. The duo told me “they’re chipping away” at something. Danny Strong won for his teleplay for Jay Roach’s Sarah Palin cable drama “Game Change.” Other Hollywood insiders in attendance were Sundance Institute executive director Keri Puttnam, who was on the event’s Benefit Committee along with her husband, litigator Marvin Putnam, who happily won the recent Michael Jackson case. 

Oliver Stone made the presentation to journalist Chris Hedges, winner of the First Amendment Award for a writer who has “fought for freedom of expression to protect the First Amendment” stateside. The Freedom to Write Award goes to an international candidate, this year, Afghan-American activist and filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole. Both awards reward someone who has “produced exceptional work in the face of extreme adversity, who have been punished for exercising their freedom of expression, or who have fought against censorship and defended the right to publish freely.” 

Stone first met Hedges when he was researching his film “Salvador.” He spent seven years covering the Middle East for the New York Times, then went on to Bosnia and then won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Al Queda. But Hedges left the New York Times after they reprimanded him for denouncing Bush’s call for war in Iraq. Now Hedges writes books–he has published 12–and for Truthdig. His latest book is set inside the U.S.: “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” is about America’s “sacrifice zones.” In his acceptance speech Hedges praised whistleblowers such as Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning as “forming the last line of defense against corporate totalitarianism.”

Stone says he does his own tweets, although he has help managing his @Theoliverstone account. He wishes that people would pay more attention to his years-in-the- making “Untold History” on Showtime than his offhand “Breaking Bad” comments–which he totally stands by. 

Kickstarter won the Award of Honor, but did not show, saying in an acceptance speech that after 4 1/2 years they are still finding their voice. Laura Dern in her intro reminded that while the crowdfunding site raises financing for projects from Zach Graff and Spike Lee and the “Veronica Mars” movie among many others, Kickstarter hasn’t reinvented the wheel, but rather revised its function. She praised the Kickstarter team’s values: they believe in a moral obligation to artists –and are not chasing an IPO. 

Full list of awards below:

Award of Honor


Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Michael Harmon , Under the Bridge

Creative Nonfiction

Joy Harjo , Crazy Brave


Dan O’Brien , The Body of an American


Ramona Ausubel , No One is Here Except All of Us

First Amendment

Chris Hedges

Freedom to Write

Sonia Nassery Cole

Graphic Literature


Ed Leibowitz , The Takeover Artist (Los Angeles Magazine)

Lifetime Achievement

Joan Didion


Amanda Auchter , The Wishing Tomb

Research Nonfiction

Seth Rosenfeld , Subversives


Mark Boal , Zero Dark Thirty


Danny Strong , Game Change


Philip Boehm , An Ermine in Czernopol

UC Press Exceptional First Book Award

Randol Contreras , The Stickup KidsExpand

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