Guilds better bet than critics in best pic race

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Guild gold: Although the awards season begins with an avalanche of critics votes in early December, as the New Year gets under way the Oscar outlook tends to change significantly as Hollywood's guilds start making nominations.

With the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America having kicked off the New Year with their noms, it's clear that some of the critics' favorites are not resonating nearly as well with guild members, many of whom also, of course, are members of the Academy. The Directors Guild of America's nominations will be announced Tuesday and, as always, will be seen as a bellwether for Oscar's best directing nominations.

Keeping track of who's nominated what films is almost a full-time job as the awards season presses on. In case you haven't yet committed all of this to memory yet, here's a quick cheat sheet to refer to in trying to assess who's likely to collect guild gold on their way to the Oscars.

SAG's award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture is its equivalent of a best picture award. Last year, of course, it famously went to "Crash," giving it the push that propelled it to Oscar victory over "Brokeback Mountain," the critical darling. This time around SAG's nominees are "Babel," "Bobby," "The Departed," "Dreamgirls" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

Four of those films -- "Babel," "The Departed," "Dreamgirls" and "Sunshine" -- also are PGA best picture nominees, which clearly gives them a leg up as likely best picture Oscar nominees. Over the past 17 years, on 11 occasions the PGA winner has also won the best picture Oscar.

The PGA also nominated "The Queen" for best picture while SAG went for "Bobby." That's a difference that makes a lot of sense since "Bobby" is truly an ensemble cast film the same way "Crash" was while "Queen" is driven by clearly defined starring and supporting performances the way "Brokeback" was. SAG's members did, however, declare their admiration for Helen Mirren's performance as Elizabeth II by nominating her for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role.

Where the PGA and SAG both departed from the critics was with regard to Clint Eastwood's, "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Flags Of Our Fathers" and Paul Greengrass's "United 93," all three of which were critically acclaimed. On the other hand, the PGA and SAG lists are a much better fit with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globes nominations. The HFPA's best picture-drama contenders are "Babel," "Bobby," "The Departed," "Little Children" and "The Queen" and its best picture-musical or comedy nominees are "Borat," "The Devil Wears Prada," "Dreamgirls," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Thank You for Smoking."

All five PGA nominees are also Globe nominees as are all five SAG nominees. The Globes did not nominate "Letters," "Flags" or "United 93" and neither did the PGA or SAG. With the Globe noms having preceded the guild noms by several weeks it can be argued that the HFPA has considerable influence over what films get consideration from other major awards givers. This can translate into pulling a DVD out of a tall stack of screeners and watching a film for the first time or, perhaps, deciding to take the time to look at a movie a second time to focus on a performance or the direction or screenplay.

There also are close correlations between the Globes nominees for best actor and actress (particularly in the drama category) and SAG's own nominations. The Globe nominees for best actor-drama are: Leonardo DiCaprio for both "Blood Diamond" and "The Departed," Peter O'Toole for "Venus," Will Smith for "The Pursuit of Happyness" and Forest Whitaker for "The Last King of Scotland." SAG's lead actor nominees include: DiCaprio for "Diamond," Ryan Gosling for "Half Nelson," O'Toole for "Venus," Smith for "Happyness" and Whitaker for "Scotland."

On the lead actress front, the HFPA drama category nods went to: Penelope Cruz for "Volver," Judi Dench for "Notes On A Scandal," Maggie Gyllenhaal for "Sherrybaby," Helen Mirren for "Queen" and Kate Winslet for "Little Children." The HFPA's musical or comedy category best actress nominees were: Annette Bening for "Running With Scissors," Toni Collette for "Little Miss Sunshine," Beyonce Knowles for "Dreamgirls," Meryl Streep for "Prada" and Renee Zellweger for "Miss Potter."

Once again, even allowing for the Globes' broader field of nominees because of the dual drama and musical or comedy categories, there's a strong enough crossover here to suggest that the smartest thing any would be Oscar contender can do is campaign vigorously for a Globe nomination.

Looking back at some of the major critics groups awards earlier this season, here's how they match up with the actors and producers guilds:

The New York Film Critics Circle named "United 93" best picture, Mirren best actress and Whitaker best actor.

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association voted "Letters" best picture, Mirren best actress and split its best actor vote between Whitaker and Sacha Baron Cohen for "Borat."

The Chicago Film Critics awarded best picture to "The Departed" and named Mirren best actress and Whitaker best actor.

The Boston Society of Film Critics called "The Departed" the year's best film and awarded best actress to Mirren and best actor to Whitaker.

The San Francisco Film Critics Circle gave best picture to "Little Children," best actress to Mirren and best actor to Cohen.

The National Board of Review voted "Letters" best picture and named Mirren best actress and Whitaker best actor.

The Toronto Film Critics Assn. awarded best picture to "Queen," best actress to Mirren and best actor to Cohen.

The Broadcast Film Critics Assn. nominates 10 films for best picture in its Critics Choice Awards without limiting itself to five dramas and five musicals-or-comedies as the HFPA does: "Babel," "Diamond," "Departed," "Dreamgirls," "Letters," "Children," "Sunshine," "Scandal," "Queen" and "United 93." That broad list encompasses all the titles that resonated with the PGA and SAG other than "Bobby," which is a SAG and Globe nominee. The BFCA's best actress nods went to Cruz, Dench, Mirren, Streep and Winslet. Its best actor nominations were given to DiCaprio for both "Diamond" and "Departed," Gosling, O'Toole, Smith and Whitaker.

While the critics generally match up with the guilds in recognizing Mirren for "Queen" and Whitaker for "Scotland," for the most part they're not applauding the same titles for best picture. There are, needless to say, big differences between the critics and the filmmakers who belong to guilds like the PGA and SAG so it makes perfect sense that they should see things from different perspectives when they vote for the year's best movies.

Why then does the media persist year after year in giving so much weight to the critics' best picture votes? Timing plays a key role in that process. Since the critics' awards are unveiled starting in early December, that enables the syndicated tabloid TV shows, the wire services and consumer newspapers and their online sites to start following the awards season story. In the age of the never-ending news cycle there's always a need for updated information, which the unending wave of critics' votes provides.

Because many critics bring the same type of professional training, cultural background, education and taste in movies to bear when they review films and then decide what's best, it's not unusual for titles to sweep critics votes across the country. "Brokeback Mountain" and "Sideways" are two good examples that immediately leap to mind. Neither, of course, won the best picture Oscar.

When the media sees multiple wins for a movie, that constitutes a trend and that's the kind of story that makes sense to editors around the country. But, frankly, the guilds are typically a better indicator than the critics groups of what to expect on the Oscar front. Unfortunately, Hollywood makes key decisions about how much marketing money to put into supporting films and stars for Oscar campaigns on the basis of the early results from the critics groups. By the time the guilds have announced their votes in early January the money to compete for Oscars has frequently already been allocated and that means it's too late to give late bloomers a shot at the Oscar campaigns they suddenly deserve.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 17, 1988's column: "Working producer that she is, Gale Anne Hurd typically carves out time for interviews between takes wherever she's filming. That's harder than usual for her to do on her new production 'The Abyss,' which James Cameron wrote and is directing, since it takes place largely underwater and Hurd has been busy diving with her cast and crew.

"'I think it's, perhaps, technologically the most difficult film ever conceived,' Hurd told me the other day from her production site in South Carolina. 'It's proceeding so much better than I ever expected -- which is not to say that it's easy, but that we have the best possible people on the production and an incredible cast both in terms of their dramatic ability as well as their personalities. Since every aspect of the underwater shooting is so complicated, they have to be extremely well versed in safety procedures in diving as well as (enduring) the amount of time it takes to set any specific shot up.'

"'Abyss,' which 20th Century Fox will release next summer, stars Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio and Michael Biehn. It is, Hurd points out, a demanding shoot with filming starting around Noon and running till Midnight. 'Because of the complicated (nature of the production), a lot of our crew members don't really get out of the tanks until 2 or 2:30 in the morning and yet everyone still shows up for dailies at 2:30 or 3 a.m. That gives you an idea of the kind of enthusiasm that people have sustained over the first eight weeks of shooting. I've never seen this level of enthusiasm for any picture, especially one as complicated and full of potential technical problems ...

"'We will be done with the underwater shooting in a week, which is a great relief to me,' notes Hurd, who learned to dive in order to make 'Abyss.' 'I've been diving for three years in anticipation of commencing work on this project. So it's a film that's been at least three years in the making in that sense.' Actually, the movie's origins were even earlier. 'Jim originally conceived of the story when he was in high school,' says Hurd, referring to her husband (at the time), James Cameron, the co-writer and director of 'The Terminator' and writer-director of 'Aliens.' That was, she laughs, more than a few years ago. 'So it's been a long time in gestation.'"

Update: "The Abyss" opened Aug. 11, 1989, to $9.3 million at 1,533 theaters ($6,079 per theater) and went on to gross $54.3 million domestically. It was the year's 24th-ranked film at the boxoffice.
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