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Spirited wins could push Precious to Oscar glory

Gabourey Sidibe, left, and Mo'Nique celebrate as the award for best female lead is announced at the Spirit Awards in Los Angeles. (AP)

By Reuters

Precious, the harrowing tale of an incest survivor's struggle for self-acceptance, swept the Spirit Awards on Friday, taking home five prizes at the independent film world's version of the Oscars.

The haul of the film included best feature, director and first screenplay. Its actors, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and comedienne Mo'Nique, took home the honours 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 today.

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 (Dh7.34) 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 favourite 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 realising 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 favourite, 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 at the ceremony 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 US 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 honours went to Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The indefatigable heavy-metal band at the centre of the action performed at the event.

The Spirit Awards, now in their 25th year, honour low-budget American films based on such criteria as original, provocative subject matter and the degree of independent financing. The event is organised by Film Independent, a nonprofit group that champions arthouse movies.


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