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Stars in high Spirits after scooping pre-Oscar gong

Oscar nominees Woody Harrelson and Mo'Nique took home early prizes at the Spirit Awards, the independent film world's version of the Oscars.

Sitcom veteran Harrelson (48) was honoured for his supporting turn in The Messenger, in which he played a US army captain who must notify soldiers' next-of-kin when they are killed in service.

Harrelson will also vie for an Academy Award tomorrow, although pundits expect the prize will go to Austrian actor Christoph Waltz for his turn as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds.

Comedienne Mo'Nique (42) won a Spirit for her supporting turn as an abusive mother in the urban drama Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire.

Precious also won the Spirit Award for best first screenplay, an honour that went to Geoffrey Fletcher. Along with the Tolstoy drama The Last Station, it led the field with five nominations each, including best picture and director.

Other early winners included Crazy Heart for best first feature.

"He never directed a high school play before," Robert Duvall, one of the Crazy Heart producers, said of first-time director Scott Cooper.

The 25th annual Spirit Awards were held last night underneath a marquee on a rooftop parking garage in downtown Los Angeles, ditching the traditional midday setting at the beach.

Some observers had worried that the famously relaxed and boozy ceremony would lose some of its edge, but organisers have been at pains to say the cocktails would flow and speeches remain unrestricted.


British comedian Eddie Izzard hosted the awards, televised live and uncensored on cable channel IFC.

Each year, a handful of Spirit winners usually go on to earn Oscars thanks in part to the success of low-budget films.

But this year's top Oscar race appears to be a showdown between the mega-budget Avatar and the indie war drama The Hurt Locker, which was not eligible for the Spirits this year because it was nominated last year.

That leaves Precious, which got six Oscar nominations, as the film likely to take the spotlight at the Spirits. It also will compete for best director (Lee Daniels) and female lead (Gabourey Sidibe).

The Last Station also got Spirit nominations for best director (Michael Hoffman), screenplay (Hoffman), female lead (Helen Mirren) and supporting male (Christopher Plummer).

The Spirit Awards honour low-budget American films.

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