The pregnancy comedy "Juno" was chosen as the year's best independent film and won two other honors Saturday at the Spirit Awards, including best actress for Ellen Page.
The ceremony was a warmup for Hollywood's big show, Sunday's Academy Awards, where "Juno" and Page are in the running for the same categories. Page gushed thanks for "Juno" director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody.
"This is so, so special, but this is pretty much all Diablo Cody's fault," said Page, who played a whipsmart pregnant teen giving the baby up for adoption in "Juno." "She wrote one of the best screenplays I have ever read and created a teenage female lead I feel like we've never seen before."
Cody won the award for best first screenplay and is up for original screenplay at the Oscars.
"This is the coolest award in the coolest category. There is nothing like writing a first screenplay," Cody said.
Schnabel wins for ‘Diving Bell’
Reitman missed out on the directing award, which went to Julian Schnabel for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," based on the memoir of French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a paralyzing stroke. The film also won the cinematography prize for Janusz Kaminski.
Reitman and Schnabel are nominated for best director at the Oscars. Most key Spirit Award recipients had Oscar nominations.
"Juno" producer Russell Smith said he felt Cody was the Oscar front-runner for original screenplay. As for the film's other nominees: "The rest of us are just happy to be in the big house," Smith said.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won best actor for the sibling drama "The Savages," is nominated for supporting actor at the Oscars for "Charlie Wilson's War."
Co-star Laura Linney missed out on a Spirit Awards nomination but is up for best actress at the Oscars for "The Savages." The film's writer-director Tamara Jenkins won the screenplay award for "The Savages," which also earned her an Oscar slot.
And keeping the spirit of pregnancy in the air, Angelina Jolie, nominated for best actress for "A Mighty Heart," a role for which she was denied an Oscar nod, showed up looking clearly pregnant with her partner Brad Pitt. Jolie walked right down the carpet and did not answer questions from reporters.
Tribute to Heath Ledger
Moments of the ceremony were a tribute to Heath Ledger, who died of a prescription drug overdose Jan. 22 at his Manhattan apartment.
One of six actors playing incarnations of Bob Dylan in director Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There," Ledger was remembered as "probably one of the most beautiful independent spirits of all" by Cate Blanchett, winner of the supporting-actress prize for portraying Dylan in his transition from folk icon to electric rocker, a role that also earned her an Oscar nomination.
"We all loved him so dearly," Haynes said of Ledger, recalling that the actor had started making music videos and intended to go into directing himself. "I have no doubt he would have made an astounding director."
Ledger was a Spirit Award best-actor nominee two years ago for "Brokeback Mountain," the best picture winner.
Award honors Robert Altman
Also nominated for best picture at the Spirit Awards, "I'm Not There" received the first-ever Robert Altman Award honoring Haynes, Ledger, Blanchett and co-stars including Christian Bale and Richard Gere, who were among the performers taking on personifications of Dylan.
The Altman award was created after the filmmaker's death in 2006, the prize going to a filmmaker, casting director and acting ensemble, a nod to Altman's gift for big casts and overlapping story lines. Altman was nominated a year ago as best director for his final film, "A Prairie Home Companion."
Chiwetel Ejiofor won supporting actor as a radio station manager signing up an ex-con who becomes an outspoken on-air activist amid the 1960s civil-rights movement in "Talk to Me."
While most Spirit Award winners are unknown to general audiences, "Juno" followed last year's top winner, "Little Miss Sunshine," as an independent film that has soared into the mainstream. "Juno" is closing in on $130 million at the domestic box office, the biggest commercial hit among the best-picture contenders at the Oscars.
Spirit Awards host Rainn Wilson, who has a small role in "Juno," wisecracked that the film managed to avoid the fate of obscurity "like every single other movie we're honoring today."
‘Once’ gets best foreign film
The Irish music romance "Once," whose stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova have a best-song Oscar nomination, was named best foreign film.
"This is amazing to start making little films for a hundred grand with your mates in Dublin and not have any permits," said "Once" writer-director John Carney. "I guess that's independent filmmaking."
Other Spirit Award winners were:
- Documentary: "Crazy Love."
- First feature: "The Lookout," directed by Scott Frank.
- John Cassavetes Award, given to a film made for less than $500,000: "August Evening."
Presented by the cinema group Film Independent, the Spirit Awards honor movies that cost less than $20 million to make, with a significant part of their budget originating from outside the Hollywood studio system. Other criteria for nominations include films' originality and provocative subject matter.