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Surprise At The SAG Awards

The directors have honored the directors, the actors the actors and the writers the writers. Now the Oscar picture is as clear as it's going to get.

Saving Private Ryan appears to have the inside track on winning best picture at the Academy Awards on March 21, in light of Saturday night's Directors Guild of America award to its director, Steven Spielberg.

Gwyneth Paltrow of Shakespeare in Love is the favorite for best actress, after her award Sunday night at the Screen Actors Guild ceremony. But when a reporter asked the actress if she thinks that means she has a better shot for the Oscar now, Paltrow brusquely replied, "Not going there mentally. But thanks for the question."

A surprise SAG award to Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful gave a huge boost to his chances, previously seen as remote, for an acting Oscar.

Benigni, the Italian director-actor-writer who created the comic-tragic story of a father trying to shield his son from the horrors of Holocaust, lifted SAG presenter Helen Hunt and spun her around, then said in broken English he was so happy that "every organ of my body is moving in a very bad way."

Benigni's award was the biggest surprise and suggested the best actor Oscar later this month is a toss-up. He beat such strong nominees as Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters) and Nick Nolte (Affliction.)

The prospects for supporting acting Oscars for Kathy Bates for Primary Colors and Robert Duvall for A Civil Action are also looking brighter after their Screen Actors Guild victories.

And the screenwriters of Shakespeare In Love and Out of Sight, honored last month by their peers, are the front-runners for the original and adapted screenplay Oscars.

Spielberg's Directors Guild win was his third. He also was honored for The Color Purple (1985) and Schindler's List (1993).

Only four times has the Directors Guild winner not repeated at the Academy Awards. The winner of the directing Oscar also usually sees his film take a best picture award.

Although the Screen Actors Guild awards are still young , in their fifth year, they are becoming a strong predicator of Oscar winners because of a significant overlap of the membership of the actors' union and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Paltrow, awarded for her role as the heiress who falls in love with a young William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love, paid tribute to her mother, Blythe Danner, as "the most brilliant, beautiful, profound actress I know."

"This is just such an honor to be recognized by my peers. You'll never know quite what this means to me," said Paltrow, nominated along with Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, Jane Horrocks in Little Voice, Meryl Streep in One True Thing and Emly Watson in Hilary and Jackie.

The Screen Actors Guild showed its affection for Shakespeare in Love in yet another way, voting it the best movie ensemble cast as well. (In the television categories, the "best ensemble" trophy for drama went to the cast of E.R, and for comedy, to Ally McBeal.)

In other film categories, Bates, the politically savvy campaign troubleshooter in Primary Colors, and Duvall, the tough, baseball-loving corporate attorney in A Civil Action, won awards.

"I'm just thrilled, absolutely thrilled," supporting-actress winner Bates said backstage.

The other supporting actress nominees were Brenda Blethyn for Little Voice, Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love, Rachel Griffiths for Hilary and Jackie and Lynn Redgrave for Gods and Monsters.

Duvall won for supporting actor, beating David Kelly for Waking Ned Devine, Geoffrey Rush for Shakespeare in Love and Billy Bob Thornton for A Simple Plan.

Last year, four of those receiving SAG awards went on to pick up Oscars: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Robin Williams and Kim Basinger. Only Gloria Stuart, who shared the supporting actress SAG award with Basinger, didn't get an Academy Award.

Winners at the fifth annual Screen Actors Guild awards Sunday:

MOTION PICTURES

ACTOR: Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful)

ACTRESS: Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Robert Duvall (A Civil Action)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kathy Bates (Primary Colors)

CAST PERFORMANCE: Shakespeare in Love

TELEVISION

ACTOR IN A TV MOVIE OR MINISERIES: Christopher Reeve (Rear Window)

ACTRESS IN A TV MOVIE OR MINISERIES: Angelina Jolie (Gia)

ACTOR IN A DRAMA: Sam Waterston (Law & Order)

ACTRESS IN A DRAMA: Julianna Margulies (ER)

ACTOR IN A COMEDY: Michael J. Fox (Spin City)

ACTRESS IN A COMEDY: Tracey Ullman (Tracy Takes On)

ENSEMBLE IN A DRAMA SERIES: ER

ENSEMBLE IN A COMEDY: Ally McBeal

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: Kirk Douglas