SAG Awards: Handicapping the Ensemble Contenders

With criteria vague, noms could go to casts big (i.e. 'Grand Budapest Hotel') and small (i.e. 'Boyhood')—and surprises (i.e. 'Guardians of the Galaxy') are possible

A version of this story first appeared in the November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The one SAG Awards category that has no equivalent at the Oscars is best ensemble, or, as the prize, which goes to a film's actors who received a single card in their film’s end credits, is officially known, "the SAG Award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture."

Interestingly, even those at SAG-AFTRA who vote for the award (nominees are determined by a nominating committee and winners by the full membership) are not quite sure what it aims to recognize. Some take it literally and seek to reward casts that performed the most cohesively together; others only consider films with large casts; and still others back the casts of the film's they liked best, since there is no SAG Awards equivalent for best picture.

The smart money seems to be on the category's five slots going to some combination of eight films — Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods and Selma — but they, and several other contenders, each have various things working for and against them, as you can read below.

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The nominations for the 21st annual SAG Awards will be announced by Eva Longoria and Ansel Elgort on Dec. 10.

Birdman

Pros: It’s hard to imagine a better acting showcase than the one that this film about actors provides for Michael Keaton and its large and diverse supporting cast.

Cons: Some don’t know what to make of its surrealist plot, tone or ending, and may look elsewhere.

Boyhood

Pros: Few actors are more liked and respected by their peers than Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and other small but acclaimed films have been nominated (i.e. The Station Agent and In America).

Cons: It was a summer release, and half of its principal cast (youngsters Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) were and remain total unknowns.

Chef

Pros: Its cast is star-studded, diverse and could appeal to a wide-range of actors—comedic (Jon Favreau), TV (Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara) and theatrical (Bobby Cannavale).

Cons: The May release may be overshadowed by more recent films, plus many members of its big names appear only in glorified cameos (Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson).

Foxcatcher

Pros: It is centered around three likable actors—the always strong Mark Ruffalo, plus Steve Carell and Channing Tatum playing against type—plus Vanessa Redgrave, all of whom generated raves.

Cons: It’s long, dark and doesn’t offer the clear answers that some demand.

Fury

Pros: It’s a box-office hit about a diverse group of comrades that features fine work by big stars (Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf), fine character actors (Michael Pena) and an up-and-comer (Logan Lerman).

Cons: The much-better-received Saving Private Ryan and The Hurt Locker are the only war pics ever nominated here.

Gone Girl

Pros: The huge hit has something for everyone: A-listers Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry, Brit Rosamund Pike, vet Sela Ward, character actors Carrie Coon, Patrick Fugit, Scoot McNairy and Miss Pyle and even the “Blurred Lines” babe!

Cons: The movie itself is incredibly divisive.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Pros: Its cast epitomizes “ensemble,” with a ton of highly-regarded thesps—who have 16 Oscar noms (and three wins) between them—popping up in substantive roles, not unlike another upstairs-downstairs pic’s, past winner Gosford Park.

Cons: No Wes Anderson film’s cast has ever been recognized in this category, and this one’s lack of diversity won’t help it.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Pros: Big hits with lots of humor have been recognized before, including Boogie Nights, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bridesmaids, Silver Linings and American Hustle.

Cons: Those others were more a part of the wider awards discussion—including the Oscars—than this one is.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Pros: All three of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, which featured some of the same actors, were nominated; the third won.

Cons: The first two Hobbit films were not nominated, suggesting that some may have tired of Jackson’s fantastical films.

The Imitation Game

Pros: Its stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are popular, plus Harvey Weinstein has had one of his films nominated in all but five years that this award has existed (his last miss was back in 2008) and this is his best shot this year.

Cons: The supporting cast is largely unknown and have little to do.

Inherent Vice

Pros: Actors love Paul Thomas Anderson films, and this one, which boasts a cast of respected vets like Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin, plus impressive newcomers, has already been tapped for the Spirit Awards' Robert Altman Award, which goes to an ensemble, casting director and filmmaker.

Cons: Reviews are very mixed.

Into the Woods

Pros: The casts of many other musicals of varying quality have been nominated, including Rob Marshall’s Chicago (which won) and Nine.

Cons: Sight-unseen, it’s a little disconcerting that so many singing roles are played by actors who aren’t known for their voices.

Interstellar

Pros: It wouldn’t be the first critically divisive film with a big cast (15 SAG noms and five wins between them) to make the cut—see Bobby, Hairspray and last year’s August: Osage County.

Cons: No cast of a Christopher Nolan-directed film has ever been nominated.

Selma

Pros: An incredible David Oyelowo is surrounded by great actors—black and white, old and young, famous and newcomers—in small but memorable parts.

Cons: Period pieces about race in America have been made and nominated a lot lately (12 Years a Slave and The Butler in 2014) and Paramount's inability to mail screeners (due to its very recent lock date) could prove problematic.

The Theory of Everything

Pros: Biopics have done really well in this category—see Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Ray, Capote, Frost/Nixon, Milk and past winner The King’s Speech.

Cons: None of its cast—including young British stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones—are well-known in America.

Unbroken

Pros: Based on a fantastic true story, it offers plum parts for a wide cross-section of international actors including Brit Jack O’Connell and Japanese singer Miyavi.

Cons: Garrett Hedlund is its biggest 'name' star and its late release may preclude some nom-com members from seeing it before casting their ballots.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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