Acting Showdown: Prepare for a Shakeup

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Now It's the actors' turn to take center stage, and this relatively open awards season could veer down yet another path. While the Golden Globe Awards trained a spotlight on The Descendants and The Artist, which were named best drama and best comedy or musical, respectively, the 18th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, when it hands out its five film awards, could well usher The Help into the limelight.

SAG, which holds its awards ceremonies Jan. 29 at the Shrine Exposition Center in Los Angeles, does not crown a best picture winner per se, but its award for "outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture" is viewed by some SAG members as a best picture surrogate, and they vote accordingly. Most SAG voters, though, take the award's designation more literally and simply vote for the best good movie with a big ensemble cast. SAG also tends to celebrate casts that are diverse in terms of age, race and/or nationality, just like the membership of SAG itself. All of which leads me to believe that The Help, with its collection of vivid performances by a wide array of women -- also one of sleeper contender Bridesmaids' greatest attributes -- will edge out The Artist here, if not at the Oscars.

Both of SAG's actress categories also could tilt in favor of The Help.

Among the lead performers, Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) is certainly a SAG favorite. She has eight noms under her belt and also was nominated this year as best TV drama series female actor for Damages. But this contest is probably going to come down to Golden Globe winner Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), who has received nine individual SAG noms and won twice, and Critics' Choice winner Viola Davis (The Help), who lost her one prior SAG nom (for best supporting actress in Doubt) three years ago. While there is an outside possibility that Golden Globe winner Michelle Williams could pull off an upset for her work as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, I would pick Davis, primarily because her film was seen and liked by more of SAG's nearly 100,000 eligible voters than any of the other contenders'.

On the supporting side, prior to this year, most voters probably hadn't even heard of any of the nominees except Nobb's Janet McTeer, a best actress SAG nominee 12 years ago for the mother-daughter drama Tumbleweeds. Berenice Bejo (The Artist) is charming and could ride her film's coattails to a win. Jessica Chastain, who seemingly burst out of nowhere this year with a quintet of strong performances, was nominated for The Help, but her work in the film is outshined by that of her co-star Octavia Spencer. So I suspect that this will come down to two women who starred in movies that everyone saw and who were responsible for most of those movies' laughs: raunchy Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and cheeky Spencer. Either would be a feel-good pick, but Globe winner Spencer would be seen as the more respectable choice.

Turning to the men: One thing is certain. One of the lead actor category's five nominees will pick up his first individual SAG Award. For Demian Bichir (A Better Life), receiving his first nomination has to be considered a win in itself. Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) and Brad Pitt (Moneyball) are probably out of the running because their films either weren't seen or liked enough to earn one of SAG's ensemble nominations, for which they were certainly contenders. That leaves Jean Dujardin (The Artist) and George Clooney (The Descendants), whose films were nominated in that category and who also were the two best actor winners at the Golden Globes. Give the edge to Clooney, who is certainly on a roll.

Among the supporting men, Armie Hammer (J. Edgar) and Jonah Hill (Moneyball) are young, first-time nominees who don't pose much of a threat of winning. Nick Nolte (Warrior) has put together a nice comeback, but he's still seen as a divisive figure, and it's hard to envision him at the podium. Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn), playing another actor, Laurence Olivier, is the sort of revered actor's actor who might have won in any other year. But, this time around, I would be shocked if 82-year-old veteran Christopher Plummer (Beginners) doesn't pick up his first SAG Award to add to his rapidly growing collection of statuettes.

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What the SAG-AFTRA Merger Could Mean for Future Shows

Forget the stars. It's the SAG-AFTRA merger that everyone will be buzzing about on the red carpet. At the ceremony itself, when SAG president Ken Howard steps to the podium, he'll probably be accompanied by AFTRA president Roberta Reardon. Howard is expected to kick off the mailing of merger ballots to SAG's 125,000 members. If the merger passes, the next question will be whether next year's ceremony becomes the "SAG-AFTRA Awards," with additional statuettes for outstanding performances in AFTRA fields like soap operas or radio newscasting. The unions won't comment, but new categories are likely a no-go: Why change a format that works? Another possibility: The newly merged union could expand the scope of the lower-profile AFTRA AMEE Awards, which take place in February.

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