By DAVID GERMAIN
LOS ANGELES — "No Country for Old Men" emerged as the Oscars favorite Sunday by taking top honors for overall cast along with Javier Bardem's supporting-actor prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the lone gathering of A-list stars in an awards season hobbled by the writers strike.
Bardem had kind words for Joel and Ethan Coen, who directed "No Country" and adapted the screenplay from Cormac McCarthy's novel.
"Thank you, guys, for hiring me, and thank you for taking the hard work of choosing the good takes," Bardem said. The native of Spain won the same honor at the Golden Globes, and has been universally praised for his chilling role as a relentless killer tracking a fortune in missing drug money.
"This is Javier Bardem's 497th award," said co-star Josh Brolin in the acceptance speech for the film's cast prize, the equivalent of best picture honors. "It's sad, sad for the rest of us."
Past Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis of "There Will Be Blood" and Julie Christie of "Away From Her" won the lead-acting honors, also giving them a boost to win the same trophies at the Academy Awards on Feb. 24. Day-Lewis dedicated his win to Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old Australian actor who was found dead in his Manhattan loft last week.
"In 'Brokeback Mountain,' he was unique, he was perfect," said Day-Lewis, already an Oscar winner for "My Left Foot." ''That scene in the trailer at the end of the film is as moving as anything I think I've ever seen."
Two weeks after the glam-free Golden Globes "news conference," the presence Sunday night of blue-chip Hollywood stars such as presenter Tom Cruise, a pregnant Cate Blanchett, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (in a flowing, is-she-or-isn't-she dress that did little to quell twins rumors) reminded that the SAGs may stand as the highlight of Hollywood's film-honors season — if the writers strike undermines the Oscars, that is.
But the SAG show itself was generally free of labor talk, with only Christie addressing the matter openly among the winners.
"It's lovely to receive an award from your own union," she said, "especially at a time when we're being so forcefully reminded how important unions are."
Actors bid fond farewell to one of TV's most-acclaimed series ever as "The Sopranos" swept the dramatic categories, grabbing the lead-acting honors for James Gandolfini and Edie Falco and, minutes later, the overall cast award.
Ruby Dee won supporting actress for "American Gangster." She shared fond thoughts of her late husband and frequent acting partner, Ossie Davis, who died in 2005.
"I accept it also for my husband Ossie," the 83-year-old Dee said, "because he's working on things up there."
Though its last episode aired several months ago, "The Sopranos" grabbed all three TV drama categories to open the ceremony.
"Ten years ... I wish for everybody in every walk of life, but particularly for actors, to have the opportunity to have a work experience like I have had with my family here," Falco said. "You're not supposed to get this attached because it's a transient business. I have fallen in love with these people and I don't know how you walk away from that."
Minutes before, Gandolfini took the first trophy of the night in a star-studded ceremony — something of an anomaly in this strike-hobbled awards season.
"This is our last official act as Sopranos together," Gandolfini said. "Here's to you guys. Thank you very much. It's been 10 years. It's been an honor. That's all I can say."
For comedy series, Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey were the lead-acting winners for "30 Rock," while "The Office" won for best ensemble.
Normally a lesser cousin to the Golden Globes and Oscars, the SAG Awards could end up being the biggest celebration this time around: The swanky Globes were canceled because of a strike by the Writers Guild of America, which refused to let its members work on the show, and the fate of the Oscars on Feb. 24 is in question because of the same labor quarrel.
Not so for the SAG honors. The actors union has been steadfast in support of striking writers, who in turn gave their blessing to the SAG ceremony.
Instead of the debacle for the Globes, which were curtailed to a star-free news conference after actors and filmmakers made it clear they would not cross writers' picket lines, the SAG ceremony came off with a full complement of Hollywood A-listers.
"We're really proud of the solidarity we've built with the Writers Guild," said Alan Rosenberg, SAG president. "Our members have understood that and taken it to heart. I was really moved by their decision not to go to the Golden Globes, our nominees. It's tough times, but it's been gratifying, as well."
Backstage, Fey said the writers strike leaves "30 Rock" at risk since the show is a critical success but not necessarily a huge hit with viewers.
"We are exactly the kind of show that's put in jeopardy by the strike," Fey said.
The obligatory package of clips to honor stars who died in the past year took on more immediacy, ending with a moment from "Brokeback Mountain" featuring Ledger. The cause of his death had not yet been determined.
The guild presented its life-achievement award to Charles Durning, whose credits include "The Sting," ''Tootsie" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
"There's nothing more gratifying than having an achievement award from one's peers," Durning said. "Over 50 years ago, I had the honor of working with some of the best actors, directors and writers in our industry. It's been a dream come true."
The guild's first-ever prizes for best stunt ensemble went to "The Bourne Ultimatum" for films and "24" for TV before the ceremony began.
On Saturday, "No Country" won top honors at the Directors Guild of America Awards for the Coen brothers; the winner there usually goes on to take home the directing Oscar.
As with the Golden Globes, the Writers Guild has made it clear that its members would not be allowed to work on the Oscars. While stars generally have said they would skip the show rather than cross picket lines, Oscar organizers insist their telecast will take place as scheduled.
Amy Ryan, a SAG and Oscar supporting-actress nominee for "Gone Baby Gone," said at the Directors Guild awards Saturday that she would not cross a picket line to attend the Oscars.
"I hope it ends but, more, I hope the writers get their due," Ryan said. "I think that, at the end of the day, is more important than a party. But I really hope it works out because I'd like to go to the party."