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Acting awards fail to get the Hollywood party started

This may be as festive as Hollywood gets this year: a rain-soaked red carpet; a clutch of stars trying not to look worried about the dispute crippling their business; and a pall of grief over the death of Heath Ledger.

A decidedly downbeat mood prevailed over the Screen Actors Guild awards – the only glamour fest to date that Hollywood's striking writers have allowed to go ahead unpicketed – even as the British luminaries Julie Christie and Daniel Day-Lewis walked away with the top acting prizes and No Country For Old Men established itself as the film to beat at the Oscars.

Day-Lewis, who has won almost every award going for his stunning turn as an oil baron in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, gave a heartfelt tribute to Ledger, the Australian-born actor who was found dead in his New York apartment last week.

Although he never met him, Day-Lewis praised his performances in both Monster's Ball and Brokeback Mountain – his most famous role, for which he received an Oscar nomination. "He was unique," Day-Lewis said. "And in Brokeback Mountain he was perfect."

Christie was the only award recipient to talk explicitly about the writers' strike, now entering its 13th week. "It's lovely to receive an award from your own union, especially at a time when we're being so forcefully reminded how important unions are," she said.

She won best actress for her role as a woman lapsing into senile dementia in the independent Canadian film Away From Her. Christie also used the occasion to champion her young director, the actor turned writer, Sarah Polley.

With the writers threatening to boycott next month's Academy Awards, and the Actors Guild vowing to stay in and respect the picket lines, Sunday night's awards show was widely billed as the best bet for glamour, designer dresses and the rest of the usual Hollywood extravaganza.

Everything seemed decked against a carefree good time, however, starting with the weather – it poured and poured all weekend, making the arrivals at the Shrine Auditorium as damp and disappointing as everything else.

Steve Carell, the comic actor who served as master of ceremonies, caught the absurdity with his opening remarks. "This is the most glamorous and exciting ceremony in the history of the world," he said.

Awards watchers came away convinced that the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men was now odds-on Oscar favourite – it won best ensemble cast while Javier Bardem won best supporting actor for his role as a ruthless contract killer. It also won top honours from the Directors Guild on Saturday night.