The honor -- presented at the 54th Annual DGA Awards -- establishes Howard as a strong favorite to win the Oscar for best director. Since the DGA started handing out prizes for top feature film directors in 1948, the winner has gone on to take Oscar every year but five.
Coincidentally, one of the exceptional years was 1995, when Howard won the DGA award for "Apollo 13" but was not even nominated for the Oscar.
Another exception occurred just last year, when Ang Lee won the DGA award for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but watched Steven Soderbergh accept the Oscar for "Traffic" -- a moment Lee referred to as he presented the award in ceremonies in Los Angeles.
"One note of caution to tonight's winner," said Lee, "don't get overconfident at the Oscars."
Howard accepted the honor with a note of grace toward the other nominees -- Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"), Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge"), Christopher Nolan ("Memento") and Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down").
"It was a tough selection," he told his fellow directors, "I'm very happy with the one you made."
Howard joins a list of two-time DGA feature winners that includes Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Milos Forman, Robert Wise, David Lean, Fred Zinneman, George Stevens and Joseph Mankiewicz.
Asked whether he thinks he will benefit from the historical tendency of Oscar voters to echo the DGA choice, Howard said he wasn't sure.
"I honestly don't know whether that connection holds anymore," he said. "It's been so erratic in the past few years."
Howard gave much of the credit for the success of "A Beautiful Mind" to others, including co-stars Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Crowe received his third straight nomination for the best actor Oscar, and Connelly is up for best supporting actress.
"The effectiveness of 'A Beautiful Mind' cannot be separated from the artistry and the power of Russell's performance," said Howard.
The DGA gave its top TV movie award to Frank Pierson for the HBO movie "Conspiracy," starring Kenneth Branagh in an account of the businesslike meetings that officials in Nazi Germany held as they planned the program of exterminating Jews.
The top award for TV primetime drama series directing went to Alan Ball for the pilot episode of the HBO hit, "Six Feet Under."
The top prize for TV comedy went to Todd Holland for the "Bowling" episode of the Fox series "Malcolm in the Middle." Holland won an Emmy for the episode last November.
Joel Gallen and Beth McCarthy-Miller won the musical-variety award for "America: A Tribute to Heroes," which was simulcast on every major network and virtually every cable channel days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The show -- which raised tens of millions of dollars for the September 11 Telethon Fund -- featured musical performances by top recording artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Neil Young, as well as spoken appeals by such actors as Tom Hanks and Kelsey Grammer.
In his acceptance speech, Gallen thanked "the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked not for a paycheck but for a purpose."
The DGA presented one of its top honors to veteran director Delbert Mann ("Marty"), making him an honorary lifetime member. Other honorary lifetime members include Chuck Jones, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, Frank Capra and D.W. Griffith.
DGA president Jack Shea ("Sister, Sister," "Designing Women," "Golden Girls") told the audience at the Century Plaza Hotel that he had turned in his resignation, and that guild executives had elected Martha Coolidge ("Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," "Lost in Yonkers") to succeed him.
Shea said he was making good on a promise during his election campaign only to serve long enough to see the DGA through its most recent negotiations on a new contract with producers. DGA members recently ratified the new deal.