By ROB LOWMAN
LOS ANGELES -- On a dreamy night when actors talked about each other, rather than about themselves, the cast of "The Help" and HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" took home top prizes at the 18th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, held Sunday at the Shrine Exposition Center.
It was a night of at least mild upsets with "The Help's" Viola Davis winning the best film actress award over favorites Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams, who had both won Golden Globes, and "The Artist's" Jean Dujardin being named best actor in a film, beating out Hollywood favorite George Clooney.
Davis led the ensemble of "The Help," the drama set in the early 1960s in the South about black maids and their white employers, to the stage and noted that racism and sexism are the problems of everyone.
"I was 8 years old when I decided to be an actress," she said earlier, when accepting her best-actress trophy. She then paid tribute to Cicely Tyson, a co-star in "The Help," and Streep as inspiration. "What is there but a dream," she said. "You can't trade in your dream for another."
Looking genuinely shocked when his name was called, Dujardin, in his heavy French accent, said as a kid he had always been a dreamer.
"My teachers called me Jean of the moon," he said.
Dujardin, who won a Globe as best actor in a comedy, played George Valentine, a silent-film star in old Hollywood in "The Artist."
"Thank you for this dream," he told the audience.
Wearing a red Valentino dress, Williams began the evening presenting the supporting actor in a film award to Christopher Plummer. It was his first SAG award and followed his Globe win for the role in "Beginners" as a man who announces to the world at 75, after his wife dies, that he is gay.
"I just can't tell you how much fun I've had in the world's second-oldest profession," said the 82-year-old Plummer, a red handkerchief peeking from the pocket of his tuxedo.
Octavia Spencer, who plays one of the maids in "The Help," was named best supporting actress in a film. In near tears at first, the actress, also a Globe winner, recovered quickly.
"I have to work out a little more. That guy's heavy," she said, hefting the trophy. She then paid tribute to the women whom she represented in the film and also thanked slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and his family.
Last year, all four individual film winners and the ensemble winner went on to triumph at the Academy Awards, but in the past the SAG Awards haven't always been a good bellwether.
Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," which was given 11 Oscar nods, had no SAG nominations, and the union has a tendency toward giving awards to diverse casts such as "Traffic," ''Gosford Park" and "Inglourious Basterds," none of which went on to win an Oscar as best picture.
So "The Help's" win doesn't necessarily mean a lot when the Oscars roll around Feb. 26. Sometimes taking the top prize may help, though, as it did with "Crash" in 2005.
In general, a SAG award is a so-so predictor of an Oscar. For best cast, it's nine of 16 (none was given out the first year); best actor 13 of 17, including the last six in a row; best actress 12 of 17, although only two of four recently; and in both supporting actor categories it's 10 of 17.
On the television side, HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" took its second straight award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series. Star Steve Buscemi accepted the trophy for the cast who crowded the stage. Buscemi also made it two in a row, winning the award for outstanding performance by a male actor in a drama series.
"It was really an honor to be among all these people in this room today," he said, accepting his award. "And to all the Michael Pitt fans out there -- please stop yelling at me on the street," referring to the fact that his character -- a Prohibition-era mobster/politician -- killed off Pitt's character at the end of season two of the series.
Jessica Lange won the award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a drama series.
"This is such a pleasure coming from the actors," said the veteran actress, who plays a strange, creepy neighbor on FX's "American Horror Story." ''It was a leap of faith to jump into (the role)," she added.
The best actor in a TV comedy category should be renamed the Alec Baldwin award. The "30 Rock" star took home the trophy for the sixth straight year.
"Oh my God," he repeated too many times to count.
"Obviously you love Tina's writing," he said, referring to co-star and writer Tina Fey, before naming many of the other writers on the NBC sitcom.
Last year's darling, Betty White, who turned 90 on Jan. 17, won her second straight award as best actress in a TV comedy for her role in "Hot in Cleveland."
"This belongs to four of us," she said as she accepted the award, referring to her sitcom co-stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick.
"I won't let them keep this, but I'll let them see it," White said, playfully caressing the trophy.
ABC's "Modern Family," a satirical look at three different families, won its second straight award for best TV ensemble comedy, beating out "Glee." The kid actors on the show accepted the award, while the actors who play the parents looked on acting like parents.
When he took the stage, Dick Van Dyke received a standing ovation.
"Hi, I'm what's left of Dick Van Dyke," joked the 86-year-old actor, who looked very spry. He was there to present Mary Tyler Moore, his co-star on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" in the 1960s, with the Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award.
"She is one of the few women who could do a flat-out comedy scene and still be beautiful," he said about the actress, who turned 75 last month.
When she was introduced, Moore received her own standing ovation and then told a story about how she had to add Tyler -- her father's middle name -- to her own name to distinguish it from the other Mary Moores in SAG at the time she joined.
The two old friends and co-stars then kissed each other on the cheek.
Kate Winslet, who wasn't there, completed a trifecta — having taken home a Globe and an Emmy for the title role in HBO's "Mildred Pierce" -- by winning the award for best actress in a TV miniseries or movie.
Outstanding performance by a male actor in a television movie or miniseries went to Paul Giamatti, who played Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in HBO's "Too Big to Fail" and who also wasn't in attendance.
In the category of outstanding performance by a stunt ensemble in a motion picture, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" took home the honors, while on the television side it was HBO's "Game of Thrones." The awards were announced before the show.
It was a no-host evening. So no Ricky Gervais with a beer and caustic quips, though a few more jokes in the ceremony would have been welcome. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph did have an amusing bit playing a drinking game using the word "Scorsese."
The night began as usual with a number of actors testifying membership in SAG, including Amber Riley of "Glee," ''War Horse's" Emily Watson, Jon Cryer of "Two and a Half Men" and "Rose Byrne of "Bridesmaids."
Streep introduced a film clip tribute to the actors who have died since last year's ceremony.
SAG president Ken Howard also gave a shout out to Tinseltown's other unions and singled out Roberta Reardon, president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The two organizations are on the verge of merging, which would create a nearly 200,000-member union.