Critic's Notebook: SAG Awards Turn Gender Equality Into Gimmick

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After a refreshingly relevant Golden Globes telecast, the SAG Awards' focus on female empowerment felt perfunctory — and a predictable set of winners only compounded the sense of staleness.

If the Golden Globes were Time's Up's impressive debut, many watched the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday night in hopes of the movement's second act. 

But Time's Up sat out the SAG Awards. And the award ceremony — which was headlined by inaugural host Kristen Bell, presented by an all-female lineup, and took place the day after the second Women's March — largely turned the issue of gender equality into an attention-seeking gimmick that did little to advance the urgent conversations in the industry.

The most powerful moment of the (rather dull) night came when Marisa Tomei and Rosanna Arquette took the stage to pay tribute to the "silence breakers" who came forward with their stories of abuse. "Rosanna, you are one of those voices," said Tomei as the crowd cheered, "and we all owe you a debt of gratitude." A visibly moved Arquette thanked other performers for coming forward: Asia Argento, Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd, Daryl Hannah, Mira Sorvino, Anthony Rapp and Olivia Munn.

And notably, Sam Rockwell, who took home the Best Supporting Actor trophy for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, became the first male winner to support Time's Up on the podium, if obliquely. After calling his Billboards co-star Frances McDormand a "powerhouse," he declared, "I stand shoulder to shoulder with you and all the incredible women in this room trying to make things better."

The rest of the ceremony's two hours ranged from blandly self-congratulatory to strikingly tone-deaf. Bell attempted to spice up some of the award show's "for actors, by actors" mushiness with her trademark sardonic humor. She introduced herself at the top of the show with, "I am Kristen Bell, and I'm a narcissist — sorry, I'm an actor," a cobwebbed quip that only worked because of her veteran comic timing. But from her too-brief opening monologue on, The Good Place actress was constantly let down by the award show writers, as were virtually all the presenters.

And because the presenters were given so little meaningful or entertaining banter, the spectacle of watching women introduce the award categories became just that: a spectacle. The unexpected chemistry between a few pairs, like Olivia Munn and Niecy Nash (who, let's face it, is such a born superstar she could conjure up sparks with a dust mop), made for an unexpectedly spiky moment. (Nash called dibs on announcing Sterling K. Brown's name if he won the best actor in a drama series category; "you can say anybody who's Asian that's nominated," said the Claws actress to Munn, pointedly alluding to the relative lack of Asian representation in the film and TV industries.)

And any awards show producer worth their salt would get on the phone the next morning to book Molly Shannon and Leslie Mann as a co-hosting duo. But because these women were the presenters, their time on stage was limited and scripted to flatter someone else, thus seemingly reinforcing the role of women as supportive and nurturing of others.

The predictability of the winners added to the night's stodgy mood, with Oscar frontrunner Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri trouncing the competition with best actress, best supporting actor and best ensemble triumphs. Other mainstays of this award season made their way toward the podium: Gary Oldman for The Darkest Hour, Allison Janney for I, Tonya, Nicole Kidman for Big Little Lies, Sterling K. Brown for This Is Us and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the Veep cast for the celebrated HBO comedy.

Kidman practically begged for "writers, directors and financiers" to give stories about women over 40 a chance in a moving if familiar speech. "We have proven that we can do this," said Kidman of the actresses in her demographic. "We can continue to do this. But only with the support of the industry and that money and passion."

It's a sentiment that one imagines McDormand in agreement with; she's said as many words during her publicity tour for her 2014 HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge. But when McDormand went on stage to pick up her best actress trophy and let everyone in the Shrine Auditorium know that she had something to say about "representation," she was only referring to her agent, her manager and her publicist. Considering the controversies surrounding Three Billboards for its racial and less-than-feminist issues, the dramatic pause before and after the word "representation" felt worthy of Bell's gentle jabs about actorly self-involvement.

Hollywood's crankiest actress then proved how she got the title by ending her speech with this half self-aware, half callously dismissive statement: "I come out of the woods every few years and you invite me to the party, but there is a lot of young ones coming up, and they need doorstops, too. Let's think about that."

Indeed, working and struggling actors received multiple shout-outs from the stage, including one from SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. In her time in the spotlight, she pivoted the conversation from #MeToo to the importance of unions, affirming the sense that the SAG Awards' feel-good union boosterism kept getting in the way of its show of solidarity with its most vulnerable members. I suspect that the women of Hollywood, with their collective showmanship, are saving the meaty #MeToo stuff for the Oscars. That's fine; everyone in that auditorium knows the importance of rising and falling tension. But it sure made Sunday night feel like a bandwagon rider at best — and a grasping miscalculation that exploits a real scarcity of female representation at worst.