March 23, 2003 10:00 AM

The IFP Independent Spirit Awards, generally considered the Oscars of the indie-film world, held their 18th annual ceremony in Santa Monica Saturday, but the usual beach-party atmosphere was supplanted by one more in keeping with a political rally.

Sure, Brad and Jennifer were there, given her nomination as best female lead for “The Good Girl” (she lost to Julianne Moore in “Far From Heaven,” which won five awards, including best feature). But the real newsmaker of the afternoon appeared to be “Bowling for Columbine” best documentary winner Michael Moore.

In his acceptance, Moore said: “To receive an honor for a non-fiction film when we live in such fictitious times is pretty amazing. We have a fictitious president who won a fictitious election conducting a war for fictitious reasons.”

Backstage in the press tent, Moore — wearing a badge he made that read, “Shoot Movies, Not Iraqis” — continued his invective against President Bush in earnest, and said that the war “teaches an immoral lesson to the children of Columbine, it says that violence is acceptable.”

Easing up just a bit, Moore concluded with, “Any time you got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, you aren’t long for the White House.”

Following a number about peace, love and understanding performed by Elvis Costello, the show’s host, cult filmmaker John Waters, attempted to keep the mood light in his opening remarks.

Waters said that he may have once been called “the pope of trash movies, but no one has ever called me an expert in world politics. So, while I do have strong opinions on the scary situation in the world, I think I will keep them to myself.”

He was one of the few who did. Speaking to the crowd from the stage, Dawn Hudson, executive director of IFP Los Angeles, encouraged those present to express their opinions loudly and clearly at the event and in their art.

Actor Don Cheadle read a statement prepared by the IFP, which, he said, felt compelled to react to current world events. “We have a right to be heard,” he said, “a right to demand peace.”

“The Good Girl”‘s winning screenwriter, Michael White, picking up his trophy, declared, “The Independent Spirit Awards … let’s use a little of our spirit to get Bush out of office.”

Best foreign film director Alfonso Cuaron, who won for “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” also expressed his opposition to the war when he spoke in the press tent.

Julianne Moore made her point in a more subtle way. Referring to Bart Freundlich, the man in her life, she said, “We’re parents, and we teach our children not to fight. Fighting is not the answer.”

Not that everyone made a political statement. Best debut performance winner, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”‘s Nia Vardalos, didn’t make a statement at all. She was a no-show. (Her absence was blamed on her having to shoot her new sitcom until late Friday night.)

And then there was, by the reaction of the audience, the afternoon’s most popular winner: male lead Derek Luke, for “Antwone Fisher.” Bringing his beautiful wife, Sophia, onstage with him, the actor told the crowd that he’d be nothing without her, so he handed her the award, saying, “This is for you,” and hugging her tightly — as she burst into tears.

“Four years ago,” he said, “I was waiting table — right here.”

There were other highlights of the afternoon: Leslie Ann Warren — of all people — stopped the show with a parody of “Stand By Your Man” called “Cheat on Your Man,” before introducing a clip for the nominated film “The Good Girl.” (It stars Jennifer Aniston as an unfaithful wife.)

As far as movies went, “Far From Heaven” emerged the big winner. Besides the win for Moore, the homage to the ’50s movies of director Douglas Sirk also took the prize for best film, best cinematography, best director (Todd Haynes) and best supporting male (Dennis Quaid).

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