By Mary Milliken and Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Lupita Nyong'o and Jared Leto won Screen Actors Guild awards for their supporting roles on Saturday as Oscar nominees seek to gather crucial momentum in a competitive race for Academy Awards in six weeks.
The Kenyan actress Nyong'o was recognized for her role as the hardworking slave Patsey in "12 Years a Slave," while Leto won for his turn as transsexual AIDS activist in "Dallas Buyers Club," in honors that actors relish because they are voted by their peers.
Both actors are nominated for Oscars for their best supporting roles and Leto won the Golden Globe last Sunday.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you Steve McQueen," Hollywood newcomer Nyong'o said to the British director who chose her after auditioning 1,000 actresses.
"Thank you for taking a flashlight and shining it under the floorboards of this nation and reminding us what it is we stand on."
In what is widely considered one of the best years for quality film in recent memory, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and other guild awards to be handed out in the next two weeks could collectively steer the race in favor of one film for the industry's highest honor, the best picture Oscar, on March 2.
Vying for the top SAG prize - best ensemble cast - are the films "12 Years a Slave," "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club," "August: Osage County" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
But the last two films were not included in the nine best picture Oscar nominees announced last Thursday.
The slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" is considered an Oscar best picture frontrunner, but faces serious competition from 1970s crime caper "American Hustle" and space thriller "Gravity."
"American Hustle" stands out for receiving Oscar nominations in all four acting categories, but at SAG, only Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for best supporting actress. "Gravity" is basically a one-woman show starring Sandra Bullock and is most recognized for its technical innovation.
INDICATOR OF OSCAR SENTIMENT
The SAG ceremony is one of the most closely watched of the Hollywood awards season because it makes up the largest voting group or around 20 percent of the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that vote for the Oscars.
But in the last decade the SAG awards have a mixed record on predicting the Oscar best picture with their choice of best ensemble cast for film. They have correctly predicted the Oscar in six of the last 10 years.
For best actor, they have tipped the Oscar winner in all of the last nine years, and for best actress, they have predicted six out of the last nine.
The Producers Guild of America, which will hand out their awards on Sunday night, has correctly selected the best picture Oscar winner with their outstanding film producer prize for the last six years.
Last year, both SAG and the PGA anointed Iran hostage drama "Argo," by director Ben Affleck, which went on to win the Oscar.
One factor complicating predictions for Oscars is the abnormally long lag time between nominations and the end of voting for the March 2 awards. Voting will occur from February 14 to February 25.
Actress Rita Moreno, 82, will receive the lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild on Saturday. Moreno has been performing for years as an actress, singer and dancer and won an Oscar in 1962 for her supporting role as the sassy Anita in "West Side Story," a character she informed with her own upbringing in a Bronx "barrio."
Born in Puerto Rico, Moreno is the only Hispanic to have won the four major awards in the entertainment industry - the Emmys, the Grammys, the Oscars and the Tonys - and one of only 11 artists to have done so.
The SAG honors are chosen by some 165,000 actors working in the United States and also reward acting in television drama and comedy as well as stunt work.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)