LOS ANGELES — Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were the maids of honor at Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards, where their Deep South drama "The Help" won them acting prizes and earned the trophy for overall cast performance.
Davis won as best actress and Spencer as supporting actress for "The Help," while Jean Dujardin was named best actor for the silent film "The Artist" and Christopher Plummer took the supporting-actor award for the father-son tale "Beginners."
The wins boost the actors' prospects for the same honors at the Feb. 26 Academy Awards.
In "The Help," Davis and Spencer play black maids going public with uneasy truths about their white employers in 1960s Mississippi.
"I just have to say that the stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It's all of our burden, all of us," Davis said, accepting the ensemble prize on behalf of her "The Help" co-stars.
Accepting her best-actress award, Davis singled out two performers in the audience who inspired her early in her career: "The Help" co-star Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep, Davis' co-star in the 2008 drama "Doubt" and one of the nominees she beat out for the SAG prize. Streep had been nominated as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," a role that won her the dramatic actress award at the Golden Globes over Davis.
A French film star who is a newcomer to Hollywood's awards scene with "The Artist," Dujardin played a silent-era screen idol fallen on hard times as talking pictures take over in the late 1920s.
"I was a very bad student. I didn't listen in class. I was always dreaming," Dujardin said. "My teachers called me `Jean of the Moon,' and I realize now that I never stopped dreaming. Thank you very much. Thank you for this dream."
Plummer would become the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar at age 82, two years older than Jessica Tandy when she won best actress for "Driving Miss Daisy."
Backstage, Plummer joked when asked if he would like to win an Oscar, an honor so elusive during his esteemed 60-year career that he did not even receive his first Academy Award nomination until two years ago, for "The Last Station."
"No, I think it's frightfully boring," Plummer said. "That's an awful question. Listen, we don't go into this business preoccupied by awards. If we did, we wouldn't last five minutes."
Spencer, a veteran actress who had toiled in small TV and movie parts previously, had a breakout role in "The Help" as a brassy maid whose mouth continually gets her in trouble.
"I'm going to dedicate this to the downtrodden, the under-served, the underprivileged, overtaxed – whether emotionally, physically or financially," Spencer said.
On the television side, comedy series awards went to "Modern Family" for best ensemble; Alec Baldwin as best actor for "30 Rock"; and Betty White as best actress for "Hot in Cleveland."
"You can't name me, without naming those other wonderful women on `Hot in Cleveland,'" the 90-year-old White said. "This nomination belongs to four of us. Please, please know that I'm dealing them right in with this. I'm not going to let them keep this, but I'll let them see it."
The TV drama show winners were: Jessica Lange as best actress for "American Horror Story"; and Steve Buscemi as best actor for "Boardwalk Empire," which also won the ensemble prize.
For TV movie or miniseries, Kate Winslet won as best actress for "Mildred Pierce," while Paul Giamatti was named best actor for "Too Big to Fail."
Before the official ceremony, the Screen Actors Guild presented its honor for best film stunt ensemble to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." The TV stunt award went to "Game of Thrones."
The winners at the SAG ceremony often go on to earn Oscars. All four acting recipients at SAG last year later took home Oscars – Colin Firth for "The King's Speech," Natalie Portman for "Black Swan" and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo for "The Fighter."
The same generally holds true for the weekend's other big Hollywood honors, the Directors Guild of America Awards, where Michel Hazanavicius won the feature-film prize Saturday for "The Artist." The Directors Guild winner has gone on to earn the best-director Oscar 57 times in the 63-year history of the union's awards show.
The guild's ensemble prize, considered the ceremony's equivalent of a best-picture honor, has a spotty record at predicting what will win the top award at the Oscars.
While "The King's Speech" won both honors a year ago, the SAG ensemble recipient has gone on to claim the top Oscar only eight times in the 16 years since the guild added the category.
Though "The Help" won the ensemble prize this time, "The Artist" and George Clooney's family drama "The Descendants" are considered stronger contenders for the best-picture Oscar.
Both "The Artist" and "The Descendants" also were nominated for writing and directing Oscars, categories where serious best-picture candidates generally need to be in the running. "The Help" missed out on nominations in both of those Oscar categories.
Mary Tyler Moore received the guild's lifetime-achievement award, an honor presented to her by Dick Van Dyke, her co-star on the 1960s sit-com "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
SAG President Ken Howard put in a plug during the show for the guild's planned merger with another Hollywood union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The boards of both groups have approved the merger, and ballots will be sent to members of each union.
"As one union, SAG-AFTRA will support a future of great entertainment for all of us," Howard said.
Associated Press Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.