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Will SAG Be a Game-Changing Kingmaker (or Unmaker)?

Melissa Leo in 'The Fighter
Paramount Pictures

Screen Actors Guild Awards could give the Oscar race a nudge, only nobody knows which way. But if Annette Bening upsets Natalie Portman, all hell will break loose. And Colin Firth's Cristal had better already be on ice.

Just before Saturday's DGA Awards and Sunday's SAG Awards maybe change everything, here's our Oscar race story so far: The Social Network stole The King's Speech's crown by making critics plotz en masse, then by grabbing the Golden Globe. But Steve Pond, 2011's nom-predicting champ, suggests the Globe was maybe illusory -- if not for the HFPA's shame spiral over risible noms (The Tourist) and alleged scandals, they might've voted for what they really liked, The King's Speech, instead of grabbing for gravitas by choosing The Social Network. Toby Young, the Brit author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, buys this theory. "HFPA is a pitiful outfit. If it wasn't for the Golden Globes telecast, the organization would be reduced to appealing for loose change on Hollywood Boulevard." Young unconvincingly speculates that somebody "sent them all a free hash pipe."

Anyway, the more respectable PGA Awards blew all minds, put The King's Speech back in the lead, and made every big pundit who'd defected to the Social Network's side instantly recant. PGA has had a 75 percent record of predicting Oscar noms, 60 percent for best picture. On Saturday, DGA (80 percent predictive of best picture Oscars)  will probably vote for David Fincher, edging SN ahead.

Then, on Sunday, Colin Firth, Melissa Leo, and Natalie Portman will probably win at SAG, though Annette Bening is fighting a last-minute campaign she might have started a lot sooner. "It's fun to watch Hollywood get frantic about lobbying," says humorist Henry Alford. "The usually discreet Annette Bening suddenly doing Leno and making lots of other personal appearances: it's almost as if she's hitting the 'Like' button on Hollywood's Facebook page. 'Still here. Love ya!'" He thinks Julia Roberts' lobbying for Oscar but non-SAG nom Javier Bardem was classier. "If the low-tide mark of Hollywood lobbying was the year that Miramax handed out chocolate feet at screenings of My Left Foot (THIS REALLY HAPPENED), the Roberts screening was as far from that as possible--a lovely gesture that was neither fattening or perverse."

But the big question is who wins SAG's cast award, considered a best picture analogue. I think SAG will go for a big, actory, actor-employing ensemble film, The Fighter, and be cooler to the cucumber-cool Social Network, full of young bloods who aren't made guys in the acting mafia. "I keep hearing, 'I don't LOVE Social Network,'" says one consultant. But on the Gold Derby pundit poll, my faction is outvoted 8 to 7 by Social Network predictors (or advocates -- these polls are thown off by the presence of fans frantically trying to fan the flames of their passionate fave and dispassionate people like me, who only want to beat Steve Pond as much as Annette yearns to beat Natalie.) 

Four big pundits think The King's Speech's superb duo (sorry, superb Helena Bonham Carter, it's not a trio), plus incredible bench strength of acting legends (Michael Gambon, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom) will take the day and turn the tide. Others informally polled by THR suggest that The King's Speech is the love that dare not speak its name. It's terminally unhip, loses cool friends, alienates esthetes. But in private, actors do indulge their vices.

But only a little. SAG is only about 50 percent predictive of best picture. It went for the actor's dream Crash -- a squeaker that may prove more about smart marketing than general trends -- and Oscar agreed, but it also swooned for actor-intensive Gosford Park (and hash-fancying lion in winter Robert Altman) and Little Miss Sunshine, and Oscar said nyet.

"SAG actors were important in getting a writing Oscar for actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for Good Will Hunting," says one big campaign consultant, "but they also went for Inglourious Basterds and it didn't win a goddamn thing at the Oscars except for the guy who was gonna win anyway [jaunty Christoph Waltz, about the best screen Nazi ever]. PGA is more of a kingmaker. If King's Speech wins, I'm gonna look at PGA as more important. I've never considered SAG as the place to campaign. It's like high school, with its pecking order."

As E.M. Forster said, actors are "rather nervous people." And never more so than on SAG and Oscar nights.

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