SAG Awards: Has a 'Hidden' Threat to the Oscar Prospects of 'La La Land' Emerged? (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst also dissects the meaning of Denzel Washington's upset win over Casey Affleck in the best actor race, among other results.
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The cast of 'Hidden Figures' accepts the best ensemble SAG Award

La La Land had a big night Saturday at the 28th PGA Awards, where it won the top prize, and everyone knew, even then, that some other film was going to have its big night Sunday at the 23rd Screen Actors Guild Awards. That's because La La Land was not nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award, the closest thing that SAG-AFTRA, the actors' union, has to a best picture award.

How could a film about a struggling actress, which got as many Oscar nominations as any in history, not even make the final five for that prize with this group? In all likelihood, because a lot of guild members took the category's title literally and felt that the film is essentially a two-hander that could not be classified as an ensemble.

History suggests that such an omission will preclude La La Land from winning the best picture Oscar — in the 21 previous years in which the best ensemble SAG Award was presented, only one film that wasn't nominated for it still managed to win the best picture Oscar, 1995's Braveheart — but I strongly suspect that history will be defied Feb. 26 because of the way the SAG Awards did play out.

The film most widely regarded as the greatest threat to La La Land in the best picture Oscar race, Moonlight, was not able to seize this opening, but instead was vanquished — in an upset anticipated by virtually no one — by another, much more profitable film about the African-American experience, Hidden Figures.

This obviously is a demoralizing setback for Moonlight and very exciting for Hidden Figures, considering that the final result was determined by some 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA. While most members of SAG-AFTRA don't belong to the Academy, almost every member of the Academy's actors branch — its largest — belongs to SAG-AFTRA, so this is as sizable a sample size as we're going to get about how the Academy feels.

Even so, it's extremely premature to write off La La Land and Moonlight or crown Hidden Figures. Only 11 of the 21 previous best ensemble SAG Award winners went on to win the best picture Oscar. The SAG prize did anticipate surprise best picture Oscar winners Shakespeare in Love (1998), Crash (2005) and Spotlight (2015), but it also gave false hope to Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and The Help (2011).

To me, the most notable thing about Hidden Figures' win is that it happened without the aid of hard-copy screeners, without which few films have won best ensemble since Lionsgate pioneered the (expensive) practice of sending them to the entire guild 11 years ago and was rewarded with a surprise win for Crash that propelled it on to another surprise win at the Oscars. Of this year's best ensemble nominees, only Fences, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight sent hard copies to everyone; Hidden Figures and Captain Fantastic made do with digital links, which are far less coveted. The fact that Hidden Figures overcame this and won means it has deep and passionate support (reflected in the standing ovation that greeted its win and the end of Taraji P. Henson's acceptance speech), and probably should be regarded as an Oscar threat to La La Land comparable to Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, which heretofore have been regarded as the only films with a real shot at winning best picture.

All that being said, the four SAG Awards that recognize individual acting in films have a far better track record at anticipating Oscar wins than the best ensemble prize does.

As was universally expected, best supporting actress went to Fences' Viola Davis over all four of the same women she's pitted against at the Oscars — Moonlight's Naomie Harris, Lion's Nicole Kidman, Hidden Figures' Octavia Spencer and Manchester's Michelle Williams. Davis thrice before has won individual SAG Awards (once for The Help, twice for the TV show How to Get Away with Murder), and, in Fences, she won for a role for which she previously won a Tony (you can bet that SAG-AFTRA's large New York contingent was behind the stage and screen pro).

Mahershala Ali, a star of both Moonlight and Hidden Figures, solidified his standing as the man to beat for the best supporting actor Oscar by winning the corresponding SAG Award for Moonlight. Revered veterans long have done well in this category, which boded well for Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges, but Ali, despite very brief screen time, held off him and two other fellow Oscar nominees, Lion's Dev Patel and Manchester's Lucas Hedges, as well as Florence Foster Jenkins' Hugh Grant.

Both of SAG's supporting awards have been presented 22 previous times, and the winner of each went on to win the corresponding Oscar on all but nine of those occasions.

Best actress, not surprisingly, went to La La Land's Emma Stone, who certainly portrayed the character most guild members can relate to. She defeated fellow Oscar nominees Natalie Portman (Jackie) and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), as well as Amy Adams (Arrival) and Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train). Only six times in the 22-year history of this SAG Award has its winner not gone on to win the corresponding Oscar, most recently five years ago.

And then there was perhaps the most significant result of the night, in the best actor race: Manchester's Casey Affleck, who heretofore has won virtually every best actor award, was upended by Fences' Denzel Washington, who gave a far showier performance, in an upset that few saw coming. Only four times in the 22-year history of this SAG Award has its winner not gone on to win the corresponding Oscar, most recently 13 — again, 13 — years ago. In other words, there's now real reason to believe that Washington may collect his third Oscar before Affleck collects his first.

I'll close with two fun facts: (1) People who lost at tonight's SAG Awards should not totally despair. Only six times in the 22 years in which the SAG Awards previously were bestowed did all four winners of their individual film acting prizes go on to win Oscars — the years honoring work for 1997, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014. (2) This year marks only the second time in the history of the SAG Awards that as many as three of those four awards went to people of color — the last time was a decade ago when Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson (both Dreamgirls) won. Never, in the 89-year history of the Oscars, have people of color won three of the four acting awards. After two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite brouhaha, that now is a very real possibility.

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