This year’s Writers Guild Awards were an efficient pre-taped affair (with the two coasts united in one show) perfunctorily hosted by new member Kal Penn. A smattering of Oscar contenders such as Riz Ahmed, Sacha Baron Cohen, Leslie Odom Jr., and Andra Day joined other celebrities from Daveed Diggs to Jimmy Fallon to present this year’s film and television winners. (You can read the full list of winners here.)
Every year, because the WGA always leaves out non-WGA signatories in its award nominations — among them Oscar-contending screenplays — it’s not always as Oscar-predictive as the other Guilds. Last year’s WGA award winners, Taika Waititi (Adapted Screenplay, “Jojo Rabbit”) and Bong Joon Ho (Original Screenplay, “Parasite”) did go on to repeat at the Oscars. Bong won in a category for which Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” wasn’t eligible. (He never joined the WGA.)
This year, there were three ineligible movies that weren’t in the running for the WGA Awards: adapted screenplays by Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), French playwright Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (“The Father”), and an original screenplay by Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”). All three still have shots to win Oscars without any help from the WGA.
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Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (October 16, Netflix), which may have peaked when it won the Screenplay Golden Globe, tellingly lost the Critics Choice Original Screenplay award to piping hot “Promising Young Woman” (December 25, Focus Features) from rookie director Emerald Fennell, who appeared gobsmacked to have also won the WGA Original Screenplay prize from her “very bleak writers’ room in England,” she said. WGA members also know Fennell as a television writer (“Killing Eve”); she could go on to win more awards on her home turf at the BAFTAs.
Still, Academy voters often go their own way; several movies won Oscars without WGA wins, including “Green Book,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Precious,” and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” The question, as always, is where the momentum is heading. For the moment, it’s with Fennell.
Beating Kemp Powers’ adaptation of his play “One Night in Miami” (January 8, 2021, Amazon) was Sacha Baron Cohen and his “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” team of eight other writers. “60 percent of the Writers Guild worked on this movie,” said multi-hyphenate and “UK variant” Baron Cohen, who was nominated for the WGA and the Oscar for his first “Borat” 14 years ago. “A film like this is hard to write, based on the behavior of real people who are unpredictable, except for Rudolph Giuliani, who did everything we hoped for.” It’s possible that the PGA-nominated “Borat” sequel ranked just behind the eight Oscar Best Picture nominees.
WGA winners get an extra boost moving toward Oscar voting, which begins April 15 and ends April 20, ahead of the global Oscar show on April 25.
The documentary award went to Bryan Fogel’s “The Dissident,” written by Fogel and Mark Munroe, which is not nominated for an Oscar. Fogel said the movie was “for journalists all over the world who seek to make this world a better place.”
Also recognized by the WGA with the Paul Selvin Award (given to a script that “best embodies the spirit of the constitutional and civil rights and liberties which are indispensable to the survival of free writers everywhere”) was WGA and Oscar Original Screenplay nominee “Judas and the Black Messiah,” from writer-director Shaka King and writers Will Berson and Paul Lucas and Keith Lucas. The timely movie about Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who was gunned down by the FBI in 1968, is “a stirring morality tale and a shocking indictment of what can happen when a government loses its soul,” said presenter Jelani Cobb.
Of course the WGA did not waste the opportunity to lambast WME chief Ari Emanuel. WGA president David Goodman said to look for him “if something happens to me.” This past pandemic year of heated negotiations with the agencies at the end of a three-year battle over packaging fees “has been a tough time. We have a membership that is willing to fight and unite and sacrifice if necessary.”
“Storytelling is more important than ever,” said WGA East president Beau Willimon, “by holding a mirror to society, and confronting pain, bringing joy, and staving off despair with empathy, honesty, and beauty.”
Many writers provided testimonies of support for their guild, repeating the mantra that the WGA had their back. “What the WGA does is connect you and make you feel like you’re part of something bigger,” said film nominee Paul Greengrass (“News of the World”).
The list of motion picture winners is below.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Swimer & Peter Baynham & Erica Rivinoja & Dan Mazer & Jena Friedman & Lee Kern, Story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Swimer & Nina Pedrad, Based on Characters Created by Sacha Baron Cohen; Amazon Studios
“Promising Young Woman”
Written by Emerald Fennell; Focus Features
Written by Mark Monroe and Bryan Fogel; Briarcliff Entertainment