LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - “Slumdog Millionaire,” the rags to riches tale of a Mumbai slum dweller, emerged as favorite to win the best picture Oscar after winning the top prize at the 15th Screen Actors Guild awards on Sunday.
“Slumdog,” which involves a host of amateur young actors in Mumbai’s slums, won for best ensemble cast on a night where Hollywood actors traditionally tend to honor their own.
The SAG win followed four Golden Globes earlier this month and a Producers Guild Award on Saturday.
“It was overwhelming enough to be nominated. But to win this is unbelievable,” said Anil Kapoor, who plays the cynical quiz master in the independent movie. “It is the children who have done it, not us.”
“It is historic where India is concerned,” Kapoor said, telling journalists of his excitement at meeting Angelina Jolie at the SAG awards dinner.
But the night did not belong entirely to “Slumdog,” which came away with just one prize and had to share the limelight with the late Heath Ledger, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet in four other films.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which has a leading 13 Oscar nominations, came away empty-handed on Sunday, as did “Frost/Nixon” which recounts journalist David Frost’s interviews with disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon.
David Poland, editor of Movie City News, said: “People admire ‘Benjamin Button’ but they don’t love it. It is big and the acting is beautiful but it doesn’t hit them emotionally.”
Sean Penn won the best actor award for playing slain San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk in “Milk.” Veteran Meryl Streep was a popular best actress winner for her role as a vindictive nun in the Catholic Church abuse drama “Doubt.”
Neither “Milk” nor “Doubt” has featured strongly in the awards season so far, but Penn’s win set up a tight-two way Oscar race with Mickey Rourke, who won a Golden Globe for his comeback role in “The Wrestler.”
“Milk” has played well in Los Angeles, where the gay community was dismayed by a November 2008 referendum that banned same sex marriage in California. “This is a story about equal rights for all human beings,” Penn said in his acceptance speech.
Streep paid tribute to other strong performances by women in the past year, adding, “There is no such thing as the best actress. There is no such thing as ‘the greatest living actress’,” referring to the accolade often bestowed on her.
Ledger, who died at age 28 a year ago, added a SAG award to his haul for playing the Joker in Batman blockbuster, “The Dark Knight.”
Sunday’s award, greeted by a standing ovation, makes Ledger a virtual shoo-in in February to join Peter Finch as the only two actors to win Oscars after their death. Finch won in 1976 for “Network.”
British actress Kate Winslet won the best supporting actress award for her role as a German woman with a hidden Nazi past in “The Reader.”
Winslet, who is also Oscar nominated for her performance, said it was the most challenging part she had ever played. “Playing Hanna Schmitz was such a blessing, even though it made me completely insane,” Winslet said.
SAG also handed out awards to television actors. Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and the cast of “30 Rock” swept the TV comedy awards, while “Mad Men,” set among advertising industry players in the early 1960s, won for best TV drama ensemble cast.
British actor Hugh Laurie won best actor in a TV drama for his cranky doctor in “House,” Sally Field won for best actress in a drama for “Brothers and Sisters” and Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti won best actress and actor in a TV miniseries for “John Adams.”
Additional reporting by Mary Milliken; editing by Todd Eastham