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SANTA MONICA, California (Reuters) - "Juno," a runaway hit comedy about a wisecracking pregnant teen, picked up the top prize at the Spirit Awards, the independent film community's version of the Oscars, on Saturday.
The movie was named best feature, while Canadian actress Ellen Page won the female lead award for her role as the titular heroine, and former stripper Cody Diablo won for first screenplay.
The only category "Juno" missed out on was best director, which went to Julian Schnabel, the pop artist who made the French-language drama "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
"Juno" and "I'm Not There," an innovative drama in which six actors depict the many sides of Bob Dylan, led the field with four nominations each. Australian actress Cate Blanchett won the supporting female statuette for playing the tireless troubadour during his amphetamine-fueled period in the mid-1960s.
The Spirit Awards, one of the liveliest events on the Hollywood awards calendar, were held in a marquee on Santa Monica Beach. Hollywood elite's donned casual duds and idled in the seaside atmosphere, a day before the black-tie Academy Awards take place in Hollywood.
It was one of the few occasions for boozy bonhomie in a season overshadowed by a three-month screenwriters strike. The walkout forced the cancellation of many glitzy parties because of uncertainty as to how it would affect Hollywood's biggest night.
The grim tone and modest earnings of leading Oscar contenders "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" have not helped the mood.
The Spirit Awards, in their 23rd year, honor low-budget American films based on such criteria as original, provocative subject matter and degree of independent financing. The budget threshold is $20 million -- about one-third of the average cost for a big-studio film, according to data for 2006 compiled by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Each year, a handful of winners also go on to take home an Oscar. Last year, they included "Little Miss Sunshine" co-star Alan Arkin, and the film's first-time writer, Michael Arndt.
While the Academy Awards are becoming more slanted towards independent movies with modest box office sales, only two actors were nominated for roles by both events this year: Blanchett and Page. Backstage, both actresses dodged questions about their Oscar prospects.
But one of the "Juno" producers described his film as "the comic relief" at the Oscars. Russell Smith said Diablo had the best chance of winning the original screenplay Oscar.
As for the famously elusive Dylan's reaction to "I'm Not There," Blanchett revealed backstage that actor Val Kilmer had spoken to Dylan about the movie. But she recalled that as Kilmer recently tried to whisper Dylan's reaction to her at a party, his voice was drowned out.
"I hope he (Dylan) liked it, I hope he's seen it," Blanchett said.
Other winners included Philip Seymour Hoffman in the male lead category for his role as a son dealing with an ailing father in "The Savages." The film's director, Tamara Jenkins, also won the screenplay award.
The Irish musical romance "Once" was named best foreign film. Its director, John Carney, recalled that the movie was made with "no permits, money or food."
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Stuart Grudgings and Jackie Frank