SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Proving that comedies can win big in Hollywood, Little Miss Sunshine dominated yesterday's Spirit Awards, walking away with four of the honors given annually for smaller-budget movies made outside the Hollywood mainstream.
The movie, which will also be up for the big prize at tonight's Oscars, won Spirits for best picture, best director (the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), best supporting male (Alan Arkin) and best first screenplay (Michael Arndt).
Comedies rarely earn Oscar recognition; the last comedy to win the best picture Oscar was Woody Allen's Annie Hall in 1978. But in a year where the field is wide open, the buzz for Little Miss Sunshine, the story of a dysfunctional family rallying behind a 10-year-old would-be beauty queen, has been increasing steadily.
"I think we're still 1-in-5 odds," said a smiling Peter Saraf, one of the film's five credited producers.
Dayton, the film's co-director, credited good word-of-mouth for much of Sunshine's success. "The online community really contributed to this film's success," he said.
Principal acting honors went to the leads in Half Nelson. Ryan Gosling won best male lead, for playing an inspirational high school teacher with a severe drug problem. Shareeka Epps won best female lead for playing the 13-year-old student who discovers his addiction.
"I've been trying to sell out for years," Gosling, a longtime favorite of the indie film community who is also up for an acting Oscar tonight, said jokingly. "Maybe this will help me."
The festivities, held under a tent pitched along a stretch of Santa Monica beach, began with the 72-year-old Arkin, who was making movies before many of today's independent-minded filmmakers were born, winning the best supporting male Spirit for playing the grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine.
"I feel humbled and small," Arkin said, adding that was how he felt when he broke into the movies in 1966. "I'm right back to where I began," he said.
Frances McDormand won the best supporting female award, as one of three wealthy women obsessed with their unlucky-in-love mutual friend (Jennifer Aniston) in Friends With Money.
The award for best screenplay went to Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking).
The Spirits, awarded by the Los Angeles-based Film Independent organization, took on a distinctive international flavor. Mexico's Guillermo Navarro won the best cinemtography Spirit for Pan's Labyrinth, while Germany's The Lives of Others won for best foreign film.
Special awards were given to the late Robert Altman, whose A Prairie Home Companion earned him a best director nomination, and to the director-actor team of David Lynch and Laura Dern, who have made four films together -- including Lynch's latest, Inland Empire.
A pantheon of actors from Altman's films, including Sally Kellerman and Elliott Gould (M*A*S*H) and Lily Tomlin (Nashville, A Prairie Home Companion), praised the director, long known as one of Hollywood's most stubbornly independent filmmakers. Robert Downey Jr. (Short Cuts) pointedly took mainstream Hollywood to task, noting that the major studios failed him "time and time again."
In presenting Lynch's award, actor Dennis Hopper praised the often surrealist writer-director -- who missed the Spirits in favor of attending an exhibition of his artwork in Paris -- for "liberating film from the cliche of narrative convention ... which I suppose is a good thing." Dern, accepting the award, summed-up Lynch's philosophy as, "Stay true to your movie."
The difficulties of finding an audience for non-mainstream films proved a prime topic all afternoon. Many of the nominated films have yet to be shown widely in theaters; of the five films nominated for best picture, for instance, two (American Gun and The Dead Girl, have yet to open in Baltimore). Even backstage yesterday, several of the reporters on hand to interview the Spirit winners had to open their questions by admitting they had not seen the movie.
This year's winner of the best first feature Spirit, director Ali Selim's Sweet Land, does not even have a distributor.
For many of yesterday's winners, success at the Spirits could translate into bigger budgets and increased visibility.
Asked about his plans, Selim hesitated momentarily. "I'd like to do it again," he said. "Not like this, but I'd like to make another movie."