"Precious," the harrowing tale of an incest survivor's struggle for self-acceptance, swept the Spirit Awards yesterday, taking home five prizes at the independent film world's version of the Oscars.
The film's haul included best feature, director amd first screenplay. Its actors, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and comedienne Mo'Nique, took home the honors for female lead and supporting female, respectively.
For Mo'Nique, who played an abusive mother, it represented yet another statuette for her groaning shelf this awards season. The only event left is the Academy Awards tomorrow.
But the 42-year-old actress told reporters backstage that she was not preparing an Oscar acceptance speech, because "I think the universe would say, 'You have a lot of nerve.'"
Sidibe, 26, plucked from obscurity to play an illiterate schoolgirl impregnated by her stepfather, recalled that her mother would give her $2 a day for going to school. She saved her funds and saw her first 1995 independent movie, "Welcome to the Dollhouse."
"Perhaps that was when my independent spirit was born," said Sidibe, who described herself as "kind of a dork."
The film, whose full name is "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," also won the screenplay award for Geoffrey Fletcher. Lee Daniels, accepting his award for best director, indicated it might be his last time at the podium during awards season.
"Kathryn Bigelow's not here tonight. I am," a tearful Daniels said, referring to the "Hurt Locker" director, who is the favorite to win the Oscar.
Backstage he said, "We've won already," when asked about his Oscar chances. The film, a testament to the struggle that filmmakers undergo every day, received six Oscar nominations.
Daniels made the movie with $10 million in funding from a Denver couple, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, and launched an extensive casting search to find the title character. He settled on Sidibe after realizing that she was the diametrical opposite of her on-screen character.
He unveiled the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009 with the modest goal of securing a straight-to-DVD deal. But it inspired a bidding war and it ended up at independent distributor Lionsgate. The studio released it last November to critical and commercial acclaim.
Another Oscar favorite, Jeff Bridges, won the male lead award for playing a washed-up country singer in "Crazy Heart." The 60-year-old Hollywood veteran, who has never won an Oscar, told reporters that he was "not counting any chickens."
"Crazy Heart" also won for best first feature.
Each year, a handful of Spirit winners usually go on to earn Oscars thanks in part to the success of low-budget films.
But this year's top Oscar race appears to be a showdown between the mega-budget sci-fi extravaganza "Avatar" and the indie war drama "The Hurt Locker," which was not eligible for the Spirits this year because it was nominated last year.
Along with the Tolstoy drama "The Last Station," "Precious" led the field with five nominations each. "The Last Station" went home empty-handed.
Other winners included Woody Harrelson for his supporting turn in "The Messenger." The 48-year-old actor played a U.S. Army captain who must notify soldiers' next-of-kin when they are killed in service.
The British period drama "An Education" was named best foreign film. Documentary honors went to "Anvil! The Story of Anvil." The indefatigable heavy-metal band at the center of the action performed at the ceremony.
The Spirit Awards, now in their 25th year, honor low-budget American films based on such criteria as original, provocative subject matter and the degree of independent financing. The event is organized by Film Independent, a nonprofit group that champions arthouse movies.
Full list of winners at Spirit Awards
BEST FEATURE - "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire"
BEST DIRECTOR - Lee Daniels "Precious"
BEST SCREENPLAY - Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber "(500) Days of Summer"
BEST FIRST FEATURE - "Crazy Heart"
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY - Geoffrey Fletcher "Precious"
BEST MALE LEAD - Jeff Bridges "Crazy Heart"
BEST FEMALE LEAD - Gabourey Sidibe "Precious"
BEST SUPPORTING MALE - Woody Harrelson "The Messenger"
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE - Mo'Nique "Precious"
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY - Roger Deakins "A Serious Man"
BEST DOCUMENTARY - "Anvil!: The Story of Anvil"
BEST FOREIGN FILM - "An Education"
JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD (FIRST FEATURE MADE FOR UNDER $500,000) - "Humpday"
ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD (PRE-ANNOUNCED) - "A Serious Man"
SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD (FOR EMERGING FEATURE DIRECTORS) - Kyle Alvarez "Easier With Practice"
TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD (FOR EMERGING DOCUMENTARY MAKERS) - Bill Ross, Turner Ross "45365"
PRODUCERS AWARD (FOR EMERGING PRODUCERS) - Karin Chien "The Exploding Girl"