David O. Russell's "American Hustle" won the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding cast, setting up the con-artist comedy as the film to beat at the Academy Awards.
"American Hustle" won the 20th annual SAG Awards' top honor over the much-acclaimed historical drama "12 Years a Slave" at Saturday night's Shrine Auditorium ceremony in Los Angeles. Because actors make up the largest branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the SAG Awards are considered one of the most predictive indicators of the Oscars.
Academy Award nominations on Thursday seemed to set up a trio of favorites, heaping 10 nods on "American Hustle" and "Gravity," and nine on "12 Years a Slave." But even though no actor was individually honored by SAG for "American Hustle," the Abscam tale now seems to have an edge over its Oscar rivals.
Speaking for a cast that includes Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper credited Russell as the epitome of the actor's director.
"He makes you feel like you're part of the family, whether you're Robert DeNiro or you're Patty Mack," said Cooper. "You are part of the family."
Saturday's awards were a somewhat low-key affair with a few memorable speeches but no earthquakes in a rapidly solidifying award season. The night's acting winners — Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine"), Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave") and Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club") — are each probably the favorites of their categories.
"It really shines a great light on this bull ride we call acting," said McConaughey, honored for lead actor in the Texas HIV drama. "I've been able to recently find some characters that I can humble myself to their humanities and get feverishly drunk on their obsessions."
One of the night's biggest winners was Nyong'o, who won supporting actress over Lawrence. Though "12 Years a Slave" is only her feature film debut, the Kenyan actress was been hailed for her red-carpet grace this awards season. Her speech was both composed and emotional.
She thanked McQueen "for taking a flashlight and shining it underneath the floorboards of this nation and reminding us what it is we stand on." And she recalled the celebratory phone call to her father when she got the part.
"'Daddy, do you know who Brad Pitt is? I'm going to be in a movie with him!'" recalled Nyong'o. "And he said, 'I don't know him personally, but I'm glad you got a job.'"
Leto was honored for supporting actor for playing the gaunt transsexual Rayon, alongside McConaughey's Texas cowboy in "Dallas Buyers Club." He dedicated the award to those who have died of AIDS and to "the Rayons of the world."
His co-star's speech was one of the more energetic of the evening. McConaughey rhapsodized about the glory of acting like it was space travel: "It feels like they could put a blindfold on you and put you in a spaceship and take you to Neptune and you could hop off on the planet and they better have the sprockets rolling when you get off that spaceship because you are going to behave as your man."
When Blanchett, honored for her undone socialite in Woody Allen's drama, saw her speech time quickly expiring, she remarked: "29 seconds? Matthew McConaughey spoke about NEPTUNE."
The "Breaking Bad" victory lap continued as the show took honors for outstanding dramatic cast and for lead actor Bryan Cranston. For his indelible performance as teacher-turned-meth dealer, Cranston added his second lead actor SAG Award, to go with his recent Golden Globe win and his numerous Emmys.
"We have the nicest bunch of white supremacist Nazis I have ever worked with," said Cranston, looking over his former cast mates. "I swear to you I would kill you all over again."
Two big-screen veterans won awards for TV films: Michael Douglas for HBO's Liberace drama "Behind the Candelabra," and Helen Mirren for the biopic "Phil Spector," also on HBO.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been a mainstay at award shows recently, both for her acclaimed HBO series "Veep" (for which she won an Emmy) and the romantic comedy "Enough Said" (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe). She won a SAG trophy for female actor in a comedy series for "Veep," and slyly mocked the award season crush by first thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press and then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
"It's hard you know because it's awards season and things get confusing, much like elections," said Louis-Dreyfus. It's the sixth SAG Award for the former "Seinfeld" star, whose "Enough Said" co-star James Gandolfini was nominated posthumously for his supporting performance.
The ABC sitcom "Modern Family" enjoyed another round of awards, winning for ensemble in a comedy series and taking the male actor in a comedy series honor for Ty Burrell.
SAG and the academy don't always agree. Of the five outstanding cast nominees, neither "August: Osage County" nor "The Butler" ("Dallas Buyers Club" joined them) were nominated for best picture, and "The Butler" was snubbed entirely. The effects-heavy, sparsely peopled "Gravity" was predictably overlooked by SAG, except for an actress nomination to Sandra Bullock.
The SAG outstanding cast awards have lined up with Oscar best-picture winners, including "Argo," ''The King's Speech," ''Slumdog Millionaire" and "No Country for Old Men." But SAG diverged in the past with picks like "The Help," ''Inglourious Basterds" and "Little Miss Sunshine." The actors did foretell one of the biggest Oscar upsets in 2005, choosing "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain."
Emma Thompson, a surprise snub in Thursday's Oscar nominations for the "Mary Poppins" making-of tale "Saving Mr. Banks," was just as much the witty, winning award-show attendee she's been all season. As a presenter, the lead actress nominee noted the show's cheesy elevator music soundtrack: "Is this music available on CD?"
SAG's lifetime achievement award was given to Rita Moreno, the 81-year-old "West Side Story" actress whose career has spanned Broadway, television and music. Introduced by Morgan Freeman, the much-honored Latina legend danced to the podium before a standing ovation and let out a gleeful expletive.
"I hope the man with the button was there," she said. (He was.)
Moreno serenaded the SAG audience with a few bars from "This Is All I Ask":
"And let the music play/ As long as there's a song to sing/ And I will stay younger than spring."
Associated Press writers Beth Harris and Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle