Rourke gave a prolonged, hilarious, expletive-laden acceptance speech, dedicating the award to Loki, his beloved Chihuahua that died six days earlier, and thanking everyone from his director, Darren Aronofsky, to the wrestling community. He mentioned that he had just talked with the Santa Monica police department, which "gave me a bed to sleep in 10 years ago," when Rourke was in the midst of the bad-boy behavior that made him a Hollywood has-been until his comeback in recent years with films such as "Sin City" and "The Wrestler."
The film stars Rourke as a washed-up former star with a last shot at glory in the ring. It also took the cinematography award for Maryse Alberti. The crowd gave Rourke a standing ovation and he received hugs and backslaps from audience members as he headed to the stage.
"I didn't realize how many closet Mickey Rourke fans there were," Aronofsky said backstage. "That's been the biggest surprise of the whole trip."
Momentarily forgetting co-star Marisa Tomei's name, Rourke later complimented her for her role as a stripper in "The Wrestler," which earned her a supporting-actress Oscar nomination.
"Not many girls can climb the pole," Rourke said. "She climbed the pole, and she did it well."
Right after Rourke's speech, Tom McCarthy won the best-director award for the immigrant drama "The Visitor."
"I feel like we should just stop the show after Mickey, because who could follow that, really?" McCarthy said.
Leo gave a whoop as she took the stage to collect her prize for "Frozen River," which got its start a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the top dramatic honor. She stars as a destitute mother who stumbles into the immigrant-smuggling business with a Mohawk Indian woman along the U.S.-Canada border.
"You are my people. You know you are my people," Leo told the independent-cinema crowd at the awards luncheon in a tent along the Santa Monica beach. "`Frozen River' is a truly independent film."
The supporting honors went to Cruz as a combustible artist in a three-way relationship with her ex-husband and an American woman in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and James Franco as a lover of slain gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's "Milk."
Allen won the screenplay honor for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," his romance that follows the affairs of two American women in Spain.
Cruz thanked Allen "just for letting me be around him. ... He's really the symbol of independence in our industry."
True to his neurotic nature, Allen abruptly departed the set on a pivotal day, when Cruz was to shoot a steamy kissing scene with Scarlett Johansson, Cruz said. Allen had found a freckle on his hand and wanted a dermatologist to examine it, she said.
"He just left, and I love him for that," Cruz said.
Franco said he was a longtime fan of Van Sant's films and signed on because of the talent involved with "Milk."
"When I heard this thing was happening with probably my favorite actor, Sean Penn, and it was such an important story, that was enough for me," said Franco, who added thanks to "everyone that was part of Harvey's life."
"Milk" also received the award for best first screenplay for Dustin Lance Black. The best first feature prize went to "Synecdoche, New York," the directing debut of Charlie Kaufman, who won a screenwriting Oscar for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
"Synecdoche," a sprawling story of a theater director's attempt to re-create New York City on massive stages, also received the Robert Altman Award, given to a film's director, casting director and ensemble cast for following in the spirit of the late maverick filmmaker.
The documentary winner was James Marsh's "Man on Wire," about tightrope walker Philippe Petit and his 1974 mission to walk a rope between the World Trade Center towers. "Man on Wire" is favored to win the documentary Oscar, as well.
Another Oscar contender, the French school drama "The Class," took the foreign film honor. Presented by the cinema group Film Independent, the Spirit Awards honor movies that cost less than $20 million to make, with a significant part of their budget originating from outside the Hollywood studio system. Other criteria for nominations include films' originality and provocative subject matter.