'Wrestler' wins the undercard

Aronofsky pic rings up best film at Spirit Awards; Rourke, Leo also honored

Fox Searchlight's "The Wrestler" was named best feature at Film Independent's 2009 Spirit Awards. It also scored trophies for actor Mickey Rourke and cinematographer Maryse Alberti.

"The thing I love about the Spirit Awards is every film here is a passion piece — we all bled to get to this room," director-producer Darren Aronofsky said Saturday as he accepted the award with fellow producer Scott Franklin during the freewheeling ceremony in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica.

"I realized while doing special effects on a space movie that I really loved working with actors more than anything else," Aronofsky said of his decision to make a film about a washed-up wrestler trying to reclaim his life.

In the weekend's first showdown between Rourke and "Milk's" Sean Penn, Rourke triumphed as best male lead.

During a raucous acceptance speech in which he lobbed f-bombs freely to the delight of the crowd, which rose to its feet when his name was read, Rourke exulted in his comeback performance; dedicated the win to his recently departed Chihuahua, Loki; and urged directors to give his pal and fellow actor Eric Roberts a good part, saying, "He deserves a second chance."

Melissa Leo also delivered a rousing speech, praising independent filmmaking as she celebrated her victory for best female lead for her hardscrabble performance in "Frozen River."

"You are my people; you know you are my people," said the veteran actress, who suddenly has been elevated to leading-lady status. After acknowledging writer-director Courtney Hunt and co-star Misty Upham, Leo had special praise for the crew of "River" and the people of Plattsburgh, N.Y., who "made this dream come true."

Tom McCarthy was named best director for his work on immigrant drama "The Visitor."

"Milk" copped two awards as the ceremony got under way.

James Franco took home the afternoon's first trophy as best supporting male for his performance as Harvey Milk's longtime lover in the Gus Van Sant-helmed film, and Dustin Lance Black quickly followed him to the stage when he won the award for best first screenplay.

"This means so much to me," said Black, who thanked Milk's associate Cleve Jones for opening doors and passing his screenplay to Van Sant. "It's been 30 years since Harvey Milk gave his life for this movement, and I've got to say, I don't think we can wait 30 years more" for full civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Accepting his award, Franco said he jumped at the chance to join "Milk" because "before I even started acting, I fell in love with Gus Van Sant's movies, and I'd watch them repeatedly."

Penelope Cruz took the best supporting female prize for her turn in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Among her thank yous, she paid tribute to the film's director, Woody Allen.

"He really is the symbol of independence in our industry," Cruz said. "He really does whatever he wants at all times."

She cracked up the audience with a story about how Allen walked out on one of her love scenes so he could visit a dermatologist about a freckle.

Allen earned the best screenplay prize but was not present to accept it.

After presenter Aaron Eckhart stumbled over the title of "Synecdoche, New York," writer-director Charlie Kaufman joked, "I guess it really is a bad title" as he picked up the prize for best first feature.

Kaufman, casting director Jeanne McCarthy and the movie's ensemble cast also received the Robert Altman Award, given to a director, casting director and cast. "I'm glad I said yes, very glad I said yes," leading man Philip Seymour Hoffman said succinctly.

James Marsh was given the best documentary award for "Man on Wire" as the film's subject, French acrobat Philippe Pettit, smiled approvingly from the audience.

Director Laurent Cantet took the best foreign film prize for "The Class," set in a French schoolroom.

The John Cassavetes Award, for best first feature made for less than $500,000, went to the New Year's Eve-set "In Search of a Midnight Kiss" from writer-director Alex Holdridge and producers Seth Caplan and Scoot McNairy.

Lynn Shelton, director of "My Effortless Brilliance," received the Acura Someone to Watch Award, recognizing a talented filmmaker who has "not yet received wider recognition."

The Lacoste Truer Than Fiction Award, for an emerging director of nonfiction films, went to Margaret Brown, helmer of "The Order of Myths." The Piaget Producers Award went to Heather Rae, producer of "River" and "Ibid."

Fox Searchlight, headed by Peter Rice, and the Sony Pictures Classics duo of Michael Barker and Tom Bernard got plenty of shout-outs from winners. Searchlight received three nods for "Wrestler," and SPC was represented by five awards spread among "River," "Synecdoche" and "Class."

British comic actor Steve Coogan was the ceremony's host, and Alec Baldwin served as honorary chair. "I want to get back into the movie business so bad," Baldwin joked during his trip to the microphone.

The ceremony, executive produced by Diana Zahn-Storey, aired live on the Independent Film Channel. (partialdiff)