LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Helen Mirren of "The Queen" and Forest Whitaker of "The Last King of Scotland" won Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday as best lead players, their latest prizes on the road to the Academy Awards.
The road-trip romp "Little Miss Sunshine" won the prize for best film ensemble, the guild’s equivalent of a best-picture award.
Solidifying their positions as Oscar favourites, Mirren won for playing British monarch Elizabeth II and Whitaker for starring as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson won supporting-acting honours as soulful singers in "Dreamgirls," reinforcing their status as Oscar front-runners as well.
The best-picture Oscar race, though, remains wide open, with "The Queen" and "Little Miss Sunshine" up against three sprawling dramas, "The Departed," "Babel" and "Letters From Iwo Jima."
Mirren said she initially was dismayed at the prospect of donning Elizabeth II’s conservative wardrobe, including sensible shoes and tweed skirts.
"I thought, I can’t play anyone who chooses to wear those clothes. I just can’t do it," said Mirren, who also won the guild honour for best actress in a miniseries as the current monarch’s namesake in "Elizabeth I."
"But I learned to love the person who chooses to wear those clothes, because I learned to love a person without vanity, but with a great sense of discipline that I understand. With a great sense of duty that I understand. And with a great deal of courage, and that I understand."
It seemed the soft-spoken Whitaker was struck speechless, rambling through some awkward words of gratitude.
"I want to thank you for allowing me to have a moment like this," Whitaker said.
"Little Miss Sunshine" co-star Greg Kinnear thanked the German automaker that designed the rickety minibus the film’s horribly dysfunctional family drives to their little girl’s beauty pageant.
"I’d like to thank the engineers at Volkswagen for making a beautiful vehicle back in 1969 that is so comfortable, so safe," Kinnear said.
Murphy, who built his career as a fast-talking comic player, began with a thank-you speech more appropriate for a serious thespian _ but his sober demeanour proved a gag.
"What a tremendous honour to be recognized by one’s peers. I’ve been acting for some 25 years now and this is a tremendous honour," said Murphy, talking in a British accent.
"No, I’m sorry," said Murphy, cracking up in laughter. "I feel goofy up here, ’cause I don’t be winning stuff."
As a powerhouse vocalist in "Dreamgirls," Hudson continued her breakneck rise to movie stardom after becoming famous as an "American Idol" contender two years ago. Hudson thanked her co-stars, who included Murphy, Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles.
"Because of you, I was able to work and learn from the best. Yes, you are the best," said Hudson, who added thanks to the actors guild. "Just thank you for noticing little old me and accepting me."
"Dreamgirls," which had been considered a potential best-picture favourite at the Academy Awards, was among the guild nominees for best ensemble cast, yet was shut out of the nominations for the top Oscar.
Backstage, Murphy said he and his "Dreamgirls" castmates were as surprised as everyone else that the film received a leading eight Oscar nominations _ but not one for best picture.
"We got eight nominations, that was a great thing. We were happy about that," he said. "I was so happy to be nominated, I wasn’t feeling disappointment about anything. I was caught off guard that we didn’t get nominated for best picture but I’ve just been happy, nonstop happy."
The ensemble win for "Little Miss Sunshine" could give the low-budget film a best-picture boost at the Oscars. But academy voters tend to favour heavy drama such as fellow nominees "Babel" and "The Departed."
The guild category has never been a reliable forecast for how the top Oscar might play out. In the 11 years since the guild added the ensemble honour, only five winners have gone on to receive the best-picture Oscar, including 2005’s "Crash."
The guild’s individual acting winners often line up with the Oscars, however. Three of the four guild winners for 2005 _ Philip Seymour Hoffman of "Capote," Reese Witherspoon of "Walk the Line" and Rachel Weisz of "The Constant Gardener" _ all went on to receive Oscars, while all four guild acting winners for 2004 won at the Oscars.
Whitaker, Mirren, Murphy and Hudson have dominated Hollywood’s acting honours this awards season, all four also taking home Golden Globes.
Mirren was diplomatic backstage when asked if she wants the Oscar.
"I’m not going there right now," Mirren said. "But it’s been the most incredible year for me, ever. That’s been amazing at this end of my life."
Mirren’s "Elizabeth I" co-star Jeremy Irons won the guild’s prize for best actor in a TV movie or miniseries.
Other TV winners were America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty" and Alec Baldwin of "30 Rock" as performers in comedy series, and Chandra Wilson of "Grey’s Anatomy" and Hugh Laurie of "House" as performers in dramatic shows. TV ensemble prizes went to "Grey’s Anatomy" for drama and "The Office" for comedy.
"This is quite the honour having these people present this to us," Steve Carell, star of "The Office," said of the award’s presenters, the cast of the sitcom classic "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," including Moore, Edward Asner and Cloris Leachman.