SAG Awards: What the Nominations Mean for the Oscar Race

THR's awards analyst reads between the lines
Liam Daniel
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in 'The Theory of Everything'

The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything in, Foxcatcher and Into the Woods out? Cake's Jennifer Aniston in, The Homesman's Hilary Swank out? St. Vincent's Naomi Watts in, Wild's Laura Dern out? Boardwalk Empire and Homeland in, True Detective and The Good Wife out? Brooklyn Nine-Nine in, Parks and Recreation out? Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi in, The Blacklist's James Spader out? Shameless' William H. Macy and Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet in, Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor and House of Lies' Don Cheadle out? Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany in, Scandal's Kerry Washington out?

This morning's announcements of the 21st SAG Award nominations were watched closely by much of Hollywood, despite coming well before sunrise, because they are the season's first set of noms chosen by people who might also be in — and are certainly represented in — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which determines the Oscar nominees, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which determines the Emmy nominees.

The SAG Awards' film nominees and TV nominees are chosen by separate nominating committees, each consisting of 2,100 people chosen at random from the 100,000-plus overall membership of SAG-AFTRA, the largest union of actors in America. (The full body will determine the winners, which will be announced in a nationally-televised ceremony on Jan. 25.)

Meanwhile, the film Academy's acting branch, which solely determines the acting Oscar nominees, is comprised of roughly 1,200 individuals, most of whom also belong to SAG-AFTRA, and the former's nominations have frequently been anticipated by the latter.

Read more FEINBERG FORECAST: Scott's Picks for the 21st SAG Award Nominations (Film & TV)

Indeed, in the years since the SAG Awards were first handed out in 1995, the guild's acting nominees and winners have predicted the Academy Awards' acting nominees and winners more consistently than any of the many other accolades that collectively constitute the awards season. The two groups both issue 20 acting noms — four categories with five individuals in each — and overlapped on 18 names in 2008 (and three winners), 19 in 2009 (and all four winners), 17 in 2010 (and all four winners); 16 in 2011 (and three winners); 15 in 2012 (and three winners); and 14 in 2013 (and all four winners).

The best ensemble SAG Award, however, has not proven to be particularly predictive of best picture Oscar nominations — even though there can be as many as five more best picture Oscar nominees than there are SAG ensemble nominees — probably because of confusion over what the category is intended to recognize. (Most cohesive cast? Best large cast? Cast of the best picture?) Four SAG ensemble nominees from 2008 and 2009 went on to land best picture Oscar noms (Doubt and Nine, respectively, missed), five from 2010 (the only other time all five made it was the year honoring films from 2001), four from 2011 and 2012 (Bridesmaids and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, respectively, missed) and only three from 2013 (August: Osage County and Lee Daniels' The Butler missed). Still, it is noteworthy that only one film has ever won the best picture Oscar without first earning a best ensemble SAG nom, and that was 19 years ago: Braveheart (1995).

So what do today's noms mean for the Oscars?

In the best ensemble category, the three presumptive top contenders — Birdman, which is all about actors, Boyhood, an unprecedented acting opportunity and The Imitation Game, which is filled with popular British actors — all made it. But then things got weird.

Many, including me, assumed that Into the Woods would make the cut, partly because it has a large and star-studded cast, but mostly because SAG has demonstrated a strange fondness for musicals over the years, nominating even mediocrities like Hairspray (2007) and Nine in this category, perhaps because so many SAG-AFTRA members also work in or come from the theater. Alas, it was not to be for the Disney movie version of Stephen Sondheim's oft-produced muscial.

I anticipated that the other spot would go to Gone Girl — a film that I think is going to prove problematic with the Academy in the best picture race, but which I thought might click here, being a film that has been widely seen (it's a runaway hit) and boasting as it does a large and diverse ensemble — while many others slotted in Foxcatcher, which has already received best ensemble accolades at the Hollywood Film Awards and the Gotham Independent Film Awards. (Few predicted either of Paramount's big Oscar contenders, Selma or Interstellar, since screeners of those films were not ready in time to send to SAG nom-com voters, who instead were invited to four screenings and Q&As of the former, all of which were well very received, and received "movie cash" to see the latter in regular theaters.)

Instead, the final two nominees were The Grand Budapest Hotel, which boasts of one the bigger casts ever to be nominated in this category (and marking the first time that a Wes Anderson film has been recognized in it), and The Theory of Everything, which boasts one of the smaller principal casts ever to be recognized.

Read more SAG Awards: Handicapping the Ensemble Contenders

In the best actor category, four top favorites all made it — Foxcatcher's Steve Carell, The Imitation Game's Benedict Cumberbatch, Birdman's Michael Keaton and The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne — but the fifth spot was always thought to be wide open, with Selma's David Oyelowo and Interstellar's Matthew McConaughey handicapped by their films' screener situation. That left American Sniper's Bradley Cooper (who has been forced to promote his film solely from New York since he's now appearing on Broadway), Unbroken's Jack O'Connell and Whiplash's Miles Teller (both saddled by youth and lack of name recognition), Get On Up's Chadwick Boseman (not helped by a late summer release date), A Most Violent Year's Oscar Isaac (the National Board of Review's best actor winner) — and Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal, who pulled it out in the end, capping a great week for his genre film, which landed spots on the AFI's and NBR's top 10 lists.

The best actress category also had four clear frontrunners — The Theory of Everything's Felicity Jones, Still Alice's Julianne Moore, Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike and Wild's Reese Witherspoon — who wound up being joined by Cake's Jennifer Aniston. The Friends star-turned-serious actress beat out the likes of The Fault in Our Stars' Shailene Woodley (a fan favorite), Hilary Swank (whom SAG nominated a few years ago for Conviction even when the Academy did not) and Amy Adams (although she was snubbed last year too en route to an Oscar nom for American Hustle). Aniston's nom is a testament both to her stirring performance and to the aggressive campaign that has been mounted on her behalf, which has been extraordinary.

Meanwhile, the best supporting actor category went exactly as expected, with noms going to The Judge's Robert Duvall, Boyhood's Ethan Hawke, Birdman's Edward Norton, Foxcatcher's Mark Ruffalo and Whiplash's J.K. Simmons. And supporting actress appeared to be heading in the same direction, with noms for Boyhood's Patricia Arquette, The Imitation Game's Keira Knightley, Birdman's Emma Stone and Into the Woods' Meryl Streep — only to then have contenders who were thought to be on-the-bubble (Wild's Laura Dern, and Jessica Chastain for either Interstellar or A Most Violent Year) upended by someone who was on no one's radar, Naomi Watts, for her portrayal of a Russian stripper in St. Vincent.

Leave it to the Weinsteins, I guess.

Over on the television side, there were a few other big surprises — like HBO's True Detective, probably the year's most critically-acclaimed cable show, and CBS's The Good Wife, probably the year's most critically-acclaimed network show, both being shut out of the best drama ensemble category in favor of two shows that most feel had off years, HBO's Boardwalk Empire and Showtime's Homeland. The two that made it in — joining PBS's Downton Abbey, HBO's Game of Thrones, Netflix's House of Cards — certainly do have big ensembles, though, so perhaps that's what voters were thinking. Also missing: Mad Men, five prior seasons of which were nominated in this category.

The comedy ensemble category was a bit more predictable, with two highly-rated network shows, CBS's The Big Bang Theory and ABC's Modern Family, being joined by cable's Veep and streaming sensation Orange Is the New Black. The fifth slot — which some thought could go to NBC's Parks and Recreation (even though it has never before been nominated in the category), ABC's Blackish (a new show) or even Amazon's edgy breakout Transparent — instead went to Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

The SAG Awards do not distinguish between leading and supporting performances on the TV side (but rather by genre), meaning that examples of the latter sometimes creep into categories dominated by the former.

This year that was the case when Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage landed his second consecutive best actor in a drama nom alongside True Detective's Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, House of Cards' Kevin Spacey and Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi (a character actor who SAG-AFTRA seems to love more than any other awards-dispensing group, having nominated him for all five seasons of the show and twice awarding him the prize). Missing out were The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels (a nominee in each of the last two years), Masters of Sex's Michael Sheen (who was also snubbed last year) and Clive Owen, star of the critically-acclaimed new series The Knick.

The supporting actor who cracked it in lead in the best actor in a comedy grouping was Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet, who was left out of the race last year but now rejoins his costar Ty Burrell, along wth The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons and Louie's Louis C.K., both of whom were also nominated in each of the last two years. This is the first year in which Shameless has been pushed as a comedy, which paved the way for William H. Macy to nab the fifth slot over House of Lies' Don Cheadle, a nominee last year.

The only real surprise in the best actress in a drama category is that, even though there were six nominees due to a tie, American Horror Story: Freak Show's Jessica Lange was not among them. (She was nominated in each of the last three years for earlier installments of the anthology series, winning three years ago.) The Good Wife's Julianna Margulies and House of Cards' Robin Wright were always a given, and Homeland's Claire Danes clearly had her supporters. It was nice, but not shocking, to see Viola Davis make the cut for the first season of ABC's new hit show How to Get Away with Murder and Tatiana Maslany make it for the second season of BBC America's cult favorite Orphan Black (particularly after two consecutive Emmy snubs).

As for the best actress in a comedy list, four were repeat-nominees from last year: Modern Family's Julie Bowen, Nurse Jackie's Edie Falco, Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler and Veep's Julia Louis-Dreyfus. As for the fifth spot, which was open because 30 Rock's Tina Fey was out of the running for the first time in eight years, many expected it to go to Orange Is the New Black's leading lady Taylor Schilling, but it instead went to her scene-stealing costar Uzo Aduba, in what has to be regarded as one of the day's biggest — and hardest-to-be-against — surprises.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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