LOS ANGELES — Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were the maids of honor at Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, where their Deep South drama “The Help” won them acting prizes and earned the trophy for overall cast performance.

Davis won as best actress and Spencer as supporting actress for “The Help,” while French film star Jean Dujardin was named best actor for the silent film “The Artist” and Christopher Plummer took the supporting-actor award for the father-son tale “Beginners.”

The wins boost the actors’ prospects for the same honors at the Feb. 26 Academy Awards.

In “The Help,” Davis and Spencer play black maids going public with uneasy truths about their white employers in 1960s Mississippi.

“The stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It’s all of our burden, all of us,” Davis said, accepting the ensemble prize on behalf of her “The Help” co-stars.

Accepting her best-actress award, Davis singled out two performers in the audience who inspired her early in her career: “The Help” co-star Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep, Davis’ co-star in the 2008 drama “Doubt” and one of the nominees she beat out for the SAG prize. Streep had been nominated as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” a role that won her the dramatic actress award at the Golden Globes over Davis.

A newcomer to Hollywood’s awards scene, Dujardin played a silent-era screen idol fallen on hard times as talking pictures take over in the late 1920s.

“I didn’t listen in class. I was always dreaming,” he said. “My teachers called me ‘John of the Moon,’ and I realize now that I never stopped dreaming. Thank you very much. Thank you for this dream.”

Backstage, Plummer, 82, joked when asked if he’d like to win an Oscar. He did not even receive his first Academy Award nomination until 2010.

“We don’t go into this business preoccupied by awards,” he said. “If we did, we wouldn’t last five minutes.”

Spencer, who had toiled in small TV and movie parts, had a breakout role in “The Help” as a brassy maid whose mouth gets her in trouble.

“I’m going to dedicate this to the downtrodden, the under-served, the underprivileged, overtaxed — whether emotionally, physically or financially,” Spencer said.

The winners at the SAG ceremony often go on to earn Oscars. All four 2011 acting recipients at SAG took home Oscars — Colin Firth for “The King’s Speech,” Natalie Portman for “Black Swan” and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo for “The Fighter.”

The guild’s ensemble prize, the ceremony’s equivalent of a best-picture honor, has a spotty record at predicting what will win the top Oscar.

While “The King’s Speech” won best picture a year ago, the SAG ensemble recipient has gone on to claim the top Oscar only eight times in the 16 years since the guild added the category.

Though “The Help” won the ensemble prize this time, “The Artist” and George Clooney’s family drama “The Descendants” are considered stronger contenders for the best-picture Oscar.

Mary Tyler Moore received the guild’s lifetime-achievement award, presented to her by Dick Van Dyke, her co-star on the 1960s sit-com “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Star turn in new action film puts Neeson on top 

NEW YORK — Liam Neeson’s “The Grey” topped the weekend box office with $20 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The Alaskan survivalist thriller opened above expectations with a performance on par with previous Neeson thrillers “Taken” and “Unknown.” Those films opened with $24.7 million and $21.9 million, respectively.

But the R-rated “The Grey,” which has received good reviews, drove home the appeal of Neeson, action star. It’s an unlikely turn for Neeson, 59, previously better known for his dramatic performances, like those in “Schindler’s List” and “Kinsey.”

Last week’s No. 1, “Underworld: Awakenings,” the latest installment in a vampire series, came in second with $12.5 million, bringing its cumulative total to $45.1 million.

The unexpectedly large haul for “The Grey,” strong holdovers (such as last week’s No. 2, the World War II action film “Red Tails,” which earned $10.4 million to come in fourth in its second week) and the bump for Oscar contending films following Tuesday’s nominations added up to a good weekend for Hollywood. The box office was up about 15 percent on the corresponding weekend last year.

Romantic comedy “One for the Money” came in third, earning $11.8 million, and action thriller “Man on a Ledge” opened fifth with $8.3 million.