January 31, 2005 08:00 AM

Clint Eastwood solidified his chances to take home the Best Director Oscar on Feb. 27 by being named the Directors Guild of America’s filmmaker of the year on Saturday, for the stark boxing drama Million Dollar Baby.

Given that 50 of the past 56 winners of the Directors Guild award have gone on to win the Academy Award, Eastwood’s victory dampens the chances for fellow nominee Martin Scorsese, who is getting a reputation as the Susan Lucci of the Oscars, being a perennial bridesmaid. (Lucci, of course, finally won her Emmy for All My Children in 1999, after 18 nominations.)

Scorsese, 62, nominated this year for his high-flying Howard Hughes biography The Aviator (which is still favored, albeit slightly, to win the Best Picture Oscar), has been up for the guild prize six times, losing every time up at bat. Two years ago, however, he received a lifetime achievement award – while losing the best director’s nod for his Gangs of New York.

Eastwood, meanwhile, previously won his union’s award and the Oscar for 1992’s Unforgiven, which also went on to become the Academy’s Best Picture.

“This is a surprise. … I got to say this is a real pleasure. I am as pleased as punch,” said Eastwood, 74, tipping his hat to costars and fellow DGA dinner guests Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, who, like Eastwood, are also in the running for acting Oscars.

“I’ve worked with Hilary and Morgan, just fabulous people to be making a picture together. All I have to do is just sort of stand there and guide it,” Eastwood said at the ceremony.

In other prize news leading up to the Oscars, The Incredibles swept Sunday’s 32nd annual Annie Awards, presented by the International Animated Film Society. The Disney-Pixar release won in such categories as best animated feature, best directing and best voice acting for Brad Bird, the film’s director who provided the voice for the outspoken seamstress Edna Mode, the Associated Press reports.

Like the Directors Guild winner, the Annie victor typically goes on to grab the Oscar for outstanding animated feature.

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