Notes from Monday night’s 23rd annual Pen Center USA Literary Awards Festival:

These awards, handed out at a ritzy gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel, celebrate the “freedom to write” and generally honor books. But there were a few showbiz awards thrown in including the Screenplay honor to Mark Boal for Zero Dark Thirty and its television counterpart to Danny Strong for HBO’s Game Change. Kickstarter even got in on the game, winning the Award Of Honor. But the big news was happening out in front of the hotel as the Motion Picture Editors Guild followed through on threats reported on Deadline to protest the Freedom To Write award to Sonia Nassery Cole, director/co-writer/producer of Afghanistan’s 2010 Foreign Language Oscar entry The Black Tulip. Several members were there with signs claiming she stiffed them back pay for their work on the film. The protest didn’t seem to dampen the mood inside the ballroom (there was no acknowledgement of the dispute) as she won a hearty ovation when Oscar-nominated actress Shoreh Aghdashloo introduced her to receive the evening’s final award. Cole’s speech focused heavily on the fight for freedom and peace in Afghanistan, pointing out her time there was “Hell on Earth”. Her anti-Taliban book and film enabled her to fight against them, she said.”Freedom is something I have been fighting for my entire life, and for me freedom is not free. We have to fight for it every single day of our lives, especially when you go to a country like Afghanistan,” she said, although the protesters outside would probably say making a movie is “not free” either.

Boal said upon receiving his award, “I never imagined that as a young reporter from New York that I would be part of a Pen event. I never imagined I would be sitting in a room like this with so many illustrious writers. For me in those days Pen writers were like New York Yankees, someone you admired from afar, from the bleachers. I never dreamed I could be a part of it. Tonight it’s nice to be among the pros.” Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow was there with Boal. Before the event we reminisced about being on the awards trail, a path she’s taken twice recently with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker and last year’s powderkeg Zero Dark. “A journalist asked me early on if I was enjoying being on ‘the circuit’. I had no idea what he meant then by the circuit,” she laughed. The two-time Oscar-winning director (to whom Boal offered great thanks) certainly knows what it is now.

Strong also seemed thrilled to be in the room. At the reception, the Emmy winner told me he’s also excited to be in the Oscar game now contending for an Original Screenplay nomination for his hit film Lee Daniels’ The Butler. “I’m going to be on a roundtable with other writers including George Clooney on Friday. It doesn’t get much better,” he said. His Game Change director Jay Roach came to cheer him on. Roach told me his next film will likely be the Lance Armstrong project he has been developing for Bradley Cooper to star, but cautioned there were so many Armstrong projects in the works, including the Stephen Frears film, that whichever one gets there first will likely prevail. His other big film is a Dalton Trumbo biopic to star Bryan Cranston as the famous blacklisted screenwriter. He’s very excited about that one.

One of the evening’s highlights was the presentation by Harrison Ford and Anjelica Huston of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Joan Didion, who had just suffered an accident at home and couldn’t make the trip to Los Angeles. Organizers only found out Monday morning. Ford, a friend of hers for 40 years, said he met her originally when he was her carpenter. He read a letter of thanks she composed. Ford, by the way, could be in the Oscar race himself this year as Warner Bros tells me they plan to campaign him for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Branch Rickey in the April release 42.

Kicking off the evening, California Gov. Jerry Brown said, “As government becomes ever more bureaucratic and ever more intrusive, we always have to celebrate those who stand up, and without chant and without cliche, speak to life as we all experience it”.

Oliver Stone and Laura Dern were also presenters on the show.