SAG Awards Make 'Slumdog Millionaire,' Heath Ledger Clear Oscar Favorites

Wins by Sean Penn and Meryl Streep, however, heat up competition in lead actor categories.

It was a night of both expectations met and surprises delivered at Sunday's 15th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, as [movie id="364450"]"Slumdog Millionaire"[/movie] and [movieperson id="233661"]Heath Ledger[/movieperson] triumphed once again, while [movieperson id="93819"]Sean Penn[/movieperson] shocked with a win in the lead actor category over presumed favorite [movieperson id="54512"]Mickey Rourke[/movieperson].

With just five motion picture categories, no one film dominated the evening. What the show did do was help to clarify the clear favorites and the stiffest competitions heading into the Academy Awards on February 22.

"Slumdog Millionaire" continued to collect accolades last night, winning Outstanding Performance by a Cast. Coming weeks after ruling at the Golden Globes, this latest victory solidified its status as a heavy favorite to take the Oscar for Best Picture.

The late Heath Ledger, too, has secured Oscar front-runner status after nabbing SAG's outstanding supporting actor prize for his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." Accepting on his behalf, "Knight" co-star Gary Oldman choked back tears as he sung Ledger's praises.

In the night's biggest surprise, Sean Penn ("Milk") knocked out Globe winner and comeback kid Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") in the lead actor category. Penn's win for his inspired portrayal of gay activist Harvey Milk wiped away any certainty about who will prevail in that category come Oscar night.

"We don't play gay, straight ... We play human beings," Penn said. "This is a story about equal rights for all human beings."

He then took the opportunity to rebut recent gossip that there's been a rift between him and his old friend Rourke. "They're idiots," Penn said of the pundits who want to make the Oscar contest into a "dogfight."

The first movie award of the evening — outstanding supporting actress — went to a luminous, blue-frocked Kate Winslet for her turn as a former Nazi prison guard in "The Reader." "Playing Hanna Schmitz was such a blessing," confessed Winslet, "even though it made me completely insane."

With Globe and SAG supporting actress wins for the part, one might assume Winslet is a sure thing to nab an Oscar for "The Reader." The catch is that the Academy nominated her in the "Reader" not in a supporting role, but in a leading role.

Meryl Streep took home the lead actress statue. She practically floated up to the stage after winning for "Doubt," laying a big smooch on Ralph Fiennes and confessing she didn't expect to win so she didn't buy a dress. "Even though awards mean nothing to me anymore," she deadpanned, "I'm really happy." Of the women nominated in her category she added, "I'm so proud of us girls!"

Going unrewarded on Sunday were "Frost/Nixon," "The Wrestler," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which is nominated for 13 Oscars. And unless the tide shifts dramatically, it looks as if little-known actors such as Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") and Melissa Leo ("Frozen River") will not take home major awards this year. Of first-time Oscar/Globe/SAG nominee and "Doubt" co-star Viola Davis, Streep declared, "My God, somebody give her a movie!"

How much sway do the SAGs generally have over the Academy Awards? A lot and not very much, it turns out. In four of the last eight years, the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture also took home SAG's top trophy, including last year's "No Country for Old Men." SAG actor awards, meanwhile, are a more reliable prognosticator: six of the previous eight lead actress winners and the last four lead actor winners also secured Oscar gold.

At slightly over two hours, the host-less SAG show zipped along, with only a few of the video montages that often make these events seem interminable. (What's Hollywood without a bit of slick self-congratulation?) Just after the two-hour mark, the "Slumdog" cast garnered the evening's top prize. Co-star Anil Kapoor dedicated the award to the film's child actors back home in India. "It is the children that have done it, not us," he said. "This is on behalf of the children."

Will it be a curious night for "Benjamin Button"? Can "Slumdog Millionaire" rise out of obscurity to grab Oscar gold? Will Brad Pitt surprise leading contenders Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn? The MTV Movies team has the Academy Awards covered every which way with news, interviews, photos and more. Check out a complete list of the Oscar nominees here and keep it locked on MTVNews.com until the statues are handed out on February 22.

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