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Exactly one month before the 94th Academy Awards, the 28th SAG Awards — held in-person Sunday night at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica — confirmed widespread suspicions about some Oscar races, but completely upset the apple cart for others.
SAG Award nominees are chosen by a relatively small nominating committee — some 2,500 randomly selected members of the roughly 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA, America’s largest union of actors. But SAG Award winners are chosen by the entire membership, and given that the film Academy’s largest branch, by far, is comprised of actors, most of whom are members of SAG-AFTRA, it has always been wise to pay attention to SAG-AFTRA’s preferences.
This dynamic has grown a little murkier in recent years, as SAG merged with AFTRA and the likes of TV weathermen, radio hosts and TikTokers — constituencies which, of course, are not represented in the Academy — acquired the right to vote, and as the Academy became a significantly more international organization. Even so, the members of the film Academy often fall in line with the decisions made by the awards groups which precede it, especially those which are well received.
On Sunday night, SAG’s top film award, best ensemble, was won by CODA, Apple’s moving dramedy about a family of four, three of whom are deaf and the fourth of whom is hearing. The cast of CODA — the first primarily deaf cast ever to win this honor — held off the casts of fellow best picture Oscar nominees Belfast, Don’t Look Up and King Richard, as well as House of Gucci, and was very warmly received in the room. (The film’s Troy Kotsur also won the best supporting actor award, becoming the first deaf person ever to win an individual SAG Award.)
So what are we to make of this?
On the one hand, three of the last four best picture Oscar winners — The Shape of Water, Green Book and Nomadland — were not even nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award, so that’s good news for The Power of the Dog (the most nominated film at the Oscars), as well as, theoretically, fellow best picture Oscar nominees West Side Story, Licorice Pizza, Dune, Drive My Car and Nightmare Alley.
Moreover, when the best ensemble SAG Award and the best picture Oscar diverge, it’s usually because the former, a particularly diverse body, has chosen to honor a film centered on an underrepresented group — The Help, Hidden Figures and Black Panther — whereas the latter opted to go in a different direction, which could spell trouble for CODA.
On the other hand, the best ensemble SAG Award has “predicted” all four of the major best picture Oscar upsets that have occurred since the establishment of the former prize at the second SAG Awards ceremony 21 years ago (one per decade): Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan in 1999, Crash over Brokeback Mountain in 2006, Spotlight over The Revenant in 2016 and Parasite over 1917 in 2020.
Keeping in mind that the Academy employs a “preferential ballot” to choose its best picture, which benefits movies which most people at least really like, versus polarizing movies which some love and others hate, I think that CODA is well-positioned moving forward. Losing to CODA on Sunday night was undeniably a blow to the prospects of Belfast, but the latter should also play well on the preferential ballot and therefore cannot be counted out against The Power of the Dog.
The other guilds which will weigh in over the coming weeks — particularly the Producers Guild Awards, the only Oscar precursor ceremony which employs a preferential ballot just like the one the Oscars uses — could help to further clarify the lay of the land. (The Power of the Dog’s helmer Jane Campion looks almost certain to win the Directors Guild Awards’ top prize.)
As for the individual acting races, I suspect that we will see three of the four — and possibly all four of the — SAG Award winners repeat on Oscar night, as was the case in two of the last four years.
Kotsur’s performance and his personal narrative feel irresistible in the best supporting actor race, and in the best supporting actress race West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose looks increasingly unstoppable for her triple-threat performance in the same part for which Rita Moreno won that same award exactly 60 years ago.
Meanwhile, the best actor win of King Richard’s Will Smith — and his heartfelt, tearful acceptance speech — has probably solidified his frontrunner status; if Tick, Tick… Boom!’s Andrew Garfield was going to have the mojo to beat Smith at the Oscars for his portrayal of a creative artist — specifically, Jonathan Larson, a playwright who worked closely and beautifully with actors — I think we would have first seen that on Sunday night, given who the votes were cast by.
Which brings me to best actress. Sunday night’s field included three of the five Oscar nominees — The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s Jessica Chastain, The Lost Daughter’s Olivia Colman and Being the Ricardos’ Nicole Kidman — as well as Lady Gaga for House of Gucci, which was popular enough to land a best ensemble SAG Award nom, and Jennifer Hudson for Respect. The fact that Chastain prevailed over this formidable field is, to me, highly noteworthy. Can she next hold off Colman and Kidman, as well as Parallel Mothers’ Penelope Cruz and Spencer’s Kristen Stewart? I think it’s a very real possibility.
Of the Oscar-nominated quintet, none hails from a best picture Oscar nominee, and only two — Chastain and Stewart — haven’t previously won Oscars. Chastain, unlike the others, also underwent a huge physical transformation for her part, which, to many — particularly to non-actors, who account for 85 percent of the people who will choose the acting Oscar winners — is synonymous with Acting-with-a-capital-A. Cases in point this century: best actress Oscar winners Monster’s Ball’s Halle Berry, The Hours’ Kidman, Monster’s Charlize Theron, The Queen’s Helen Mirren (who picked up a SAG life achievement award on Sunday night), La Vie En Rose’s Marion Cotillard, The Reader’s Kate Winslet, The Iron Lady’s Meryl Streep and Judy’s Renee Zellweger. Also noteworthy: Cotillard, Streep and Zellweger’s wins were accompanied by best makeup/hairstyling Oscar noms (which turned into wins for La Vie En Rose and The Iron Lady). The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s only nomination aside from Chastain’s? You guessed it, best makeup/hairstyling.
And, perhaps most significantly, Chastain’s SAG Award win will put her top of mind when Oscar voters peruse their ballot. Others have now deemed her worthy. She gave a good speech. And there is no obvious alternative to coalesce behind. So she is your new frontrunner.
That’s the power of a SAG Award.
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