Santa Monica, Calif. -- Brokeback Mountain won big at yesterday's Independent Spirit Awards, setting the stage for what could be a great weekend for director Ang Lee's gay-cowboy drama.
The movie stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as 1960s ranch hands who fall in love atop a Wyoming mountain one summer, then spend their lives alternately reveling in and concealing that love. The movie, which is up for eight Oscars tonight, won the best feature Spirit, and Lee won for his direction.
"It looks like we stepped on a big nerve in this country," Lee said of his film, which has already become something of a cultural touchstone.
The awards ceremony, sponsored by Los Angeles-based Film Independent and devoted to films with budgets under $20 million, was held under a giant tent on an oceanside parking lot.
Lead actor and actress Spirits went to Capote's Philip Seymour Hoffman, considered the favorite for the Oscar, and Transamerica's Felicity Huffman, considered the Oscar co-favorite (with Walk the Line's Reese Witherspoon).
Huffman, whose character is awaiting a sex-change operation, said she was overwhelmed by the film's popularity. "I knew my husband would see it," she said, "I was pretty sure my mom and a couple of friends would see it, but I thought that would be it."
Huffman also said she would be glad if her role would help "bring inclusiveness and understanding" to a group of people "who feel disenfranchised."
Hoffman's channeling of author Truman Capote, a favorite among critics from the moment Capote opened last fall, has made Hoffman the actor to beat this year. He has already won a Golden Globe and been feted by numerous critics' organizations.
"It's all nerve-racking," a clearly delighted (and clearly nervous) Hoffman said backstage. "Getting up in front of people and speaking is a nervous thing ... but you've just got to be grateful and stay focused on what you're up here for."
Supporting male and female actor Spirits were awarded to Matt Dillon for Crash and Amy Adams for Junebug. Both are up for Oscars tonight.
The Spirits regard themselves as Oscar's feistier cousin. Traditionally, they have recognized films outside the mainstream made for relatively little money.
For years, however, the distinction between films up for Spirits and films considered Oscar-worthy has been harder to spot. Of the five films up for tonight's best picture Oscar, three - Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck - were also up for the best feature Spirit.
Comedian Sarah Silverman, who served as host for the Spirits, made light of that line-blurring. She said she loved that the Spirits ensure much-needed recognition is given to "struggling artists like Ang Lee and George Clooney."
The Spirit for best foreign film went to Paradise Now, a Palestinian film that tells the story of two would-be suicide bombers.
Its director, Harry Abu-Assad, said he welcomed debate and other forms of civil discourse over the movie. "It's no problem to protest against the film," he said. "It's better than to use violence."
Other Spirits were awarded to Good Night, and Good Luck (cinematography), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (documentary), Crash (first feature, for director Paul Haggis and the film's six producers) and Junebug (first screenplay, Angus MacLachlan).