Guillermo del Toro's bid for Oscars glory was boosted Saturday as he took top prize at the Directors Guild of America honors -- a key predictor for the Academy Awards.
The Mexican filmmaker was crowned best director for his Cold War-era fantasy romance "The Shape of Water," a month ahead of the glittering culmination of Hollywood's annual awards season.
The 53-year-old has already scooped a Golden Globe for directing the movie, starring Sally Hawkins as a janitor in a top secret government laboratory who falls in love with a mysterious merman-like sea creature.
"This movie particularly took me to do things I was very afraid of," Del Toro told fellow filmmakers at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.
"It was a movie that was full of many reasons why it shouldn't work, and those are the reasons why it works."
A feature of speeches during the awards season has been defiant rejection of the culture of sexual harassment and gender inequality, and the DGAs were no different.
"What Harvey Weinstein ruined was robes. If I wear one now, my wife says 'ewww,'" quipped host Judd Apatow -- a reference to the mogul's habit of appearing before young actresses in his hotel room wearing only a bathrobe.
Dozens of Hollywood women -– including Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale and Salma Hayek -- have accused Weinstein and numerous other powerful men of acts ranging from sexual harassment to rape.
- 'Grateful and proud' -
Comedian Amy Schumer said she was "so grateful and proud" of victims of sexual abuse who had spoken out, singling out "Kill Bill" actress Uma Thurman, who accused Weinstein in an interview published Saturday of attacking her and threatening her career.
Del Toro, who lives in Los Angeles, has alternated between big-budget Hollywood popcorn fare such as "Blade II" and more personal Spanish-language projects such as "Love Lies" (1989) and "Cronos" (1993).
Monsters and the supernatural have been a recurring theme of his movies, which include "Mimic" (1997), both "Hellboy" films and his 2006 masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth."
"The Shape of Water" was nominated for seven Golden Globes in January, eventually taking home two, and was awarded best picture by the Producers Guild. It is up for 13 Oscars.
Alexandre Desplat, the movie's Oscar-winning composer, told AFP on the red carpet of his "amazing relationship" with Del Toro, describing the director as "so generous, passionate, and inspiring."
Del Toro edged out Christopher Nolan, nominated for World War II thriller "Dunkirk" -- another film seen as a top contender for Oscar glory on March 4.
The DGA Awards are seen as a reliable bellwether of Academy Awards success -- particularly the best director prize, as 13 of the last 14 winners went on to win the Oscar for best director.
- 'When everything aligns' -
Presenters at Saturday's star-studded event for 1,600 guests included Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Kevin Bacon, Allison Janney and Damien Chazelle, who won the top prize at the last ceremony.
The other nominees for best director were Greta Gerwig for coming-of-age story "Lady Bird," Martin McDonagh for dark crime comedy "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and Jordan Peele for racial satire "Get Out."
Peele walked away with a medallion for best first-time feature, and said the reaction to the movie had made for "the best year of my life, hands down."
"The fact that I had never seen a film that addresses the fears of the modern African-American experience was a signal to me that the conversation about race was broken," he said.
On a night of expressions of solidarity for women, Reed Morano was a popular winner in the dramatic series category for directing "Offred," an episode of Hulu's dystopian sci-fi series "The Handmaid's Tale," about the subjugation of women in a totalitarian near future.
"They were trying to get this show made for a long time, like way before we knew what the political climate was going to be," she told AFP.
"It is just a very odd moment. In this business things don't get going right when you want them to, they get going when everything aligns."