LOS ANGELES — Finally, an awards show with some surprises and spontaneity.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards featured some unexpected winners, including "The Help" for best overall cast performance and Jean Dujardin for best actor in "The Artist" alongside some of the longtime favorites in movies and television.
But there was a looseness and a playfulness that permeated the Shrine Exposition Center Sunday night — maybe because it was a room full of people who love to perform, without the rigidity of one single host to lead them.
Unlike the great expectations that came with the sharp-tongued Ricky Gervais' reprisal at the Golden Globes a couple weeks ago or the much-anticipated return of Billy Crystal to the Academy Awards next month, there was no master of ceremonies at the SAG Awards. The presenters and winners seemed to have more room to improvise and put their own spin on the evening — but mercifully, the show itself still managed to wrap up on time after just two hours.
And so we had three of the stars of best-cast nominee "Bridesmaids" — Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy — introducing their comedy with a joke about turning the name "Scorsese" into a drinking game, which became a running gag throughout the night. When HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" won the award for best drama series cast, among the first words star Steve Buscemi uttered in accepting the prize were "Martin Scorsese" — he just happens to be one of the show's executive producers.
One of the more exciting moments of the night was the announcement of Dujardin's name in the best-actor category for his performance in the silent, black-and-white homage "The Artist." In winning the award for his portrayal of a silent-film star who finds his career in decline with the arrival of talkies, Dujardin definitely boosts his chances at the Oscars on Feb. 26. Little-known in the United States before this, the French comic bested bigger names like George Clooney ("The Descendants"), Brad Pitt ("Moneyball") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("J. Edgar").
If he follows this up with an Academy Award, Dujardin would become the first French actor ever to take the prize. Asked backstage how it would feel, Dujardin launched into a jaunty rendition of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem.
"Pressure, big pressure," Dujardin then added in his halting English. "It's unbelievable. It's amazing already. Too early to tell."
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer continued to cement their front-runner status in the actress and supporting actress categories, respectively, for their formidable work in "The Help." Both women play black maids in 1960s Mississippi who dare to go public about the bigotry they've endured.
"I just have to say that the stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It's all of our burden, all of us," Davis said, accepting the ensemble prize on behalf of her "The Help" co-stars.
Backstage, Davis said of her own victory: "A few more people checked my name in the box for whatever reason. This time I kind of fooled them."
Meanwhile, Christopher Plummer picked up yet another supporting-actor prize for his lovely turn as an elderly widower who finally comes out as gay in "Beginners." Plummer won at the Golden Globes and is nominated for an Oscar. He would become the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award at age 82, two years older than Jessica Tandy was when she won best actress for "Driving Miss Daisy."
Backstage, Plummer joked when asked if he would like to win an Oscar, an honor so elusive during his esteemed 60-year career that he did not even receive his first Academy Award nomination until two years ago, for "The Last Station."
"No, I think it's frightfully boring," Plummer said. "That's an awful question. Listen, we don't go into this business preoccupied by awards. If we did, we wouldn't last five minutes."
The win for overall cast for "The Help," when "The Artist" and "The Descendants" have been the favorites all along, makes the conversation more interesting but it isn't necessarily an indicator of how the film will do come Oscar time.
The guild's ensemble prize, considered its equivalent of a best-picture honor, has a spotty record at predicting what will win the top award at the Oscars. While "The King's Speech" won both honors a year ago, the SAG ensemble recipient has gone on to claim the top Oscar only eight times in the 16 years since the guild added the category.
The winners at the SAG ceremony often do go on to earn Oscars, however. All four acting recipients at SAG last year later took home Oscars — Colin Firth for "The King's Speech," Natalie Portman for "Black Swan" and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo for "The Fighter."
On the television side, comedy series awards went to "Modern Family" for best ensemble; Alec Baldwin as best actor for "30 Rock"; and Betty White as best actress for "Hot in Cleveland."
"You can't name me, without naming those other wonderful women on 'Hot in Cleveland,'" the 90-year-old White said. "This nomination belongs to four of us. Please, please know that I'm dealing them right in with this. I'm not going to let them keep this, but I'll let them see it."
The TV drama show winners were: Jessica Lange as best actress for "American Horror Story"; and Buscemi as best actor for "Boardwalk Empire."
For TV movie or miniseries, Kate Winslet won as best actress for "Mildred Pierce," while Paul Giamatti was named best actor for "Too Big to Fail."
The guild gave its lifetime achievement award to Mary Tyler Moore, presented by Dick Van Dyke, her co-star on the 1960s sit-com "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
Moore recalled that when she entered show business at age 18 in 1955, there were already six others Mary Moores in the Screen Actors Guild. Told to change her name, she quickly added Tyler, the middle name she shares with her father, George.
"I was Mary Tyler Moore. I spoke it out loud. Mary Tyler Moore. It sounded right so I wrote it down on the form, and it looked right," she said. "It was right. SAG was happy, my father was happy, and tonight, after having the privilege of working in this business among the most creative and talented people imaginable, I too am happy, after all."
AP writers David Germain and Beth Harris contributed to this report.