What a weekend! Less than 24 hours after Birdman upset Boyhood to win the top prize at Saturday’s 26th PGA Awards, Alejandro G. Inarritu‘s quirky dramedy held serve by topping Richard Linklater‘s unprecedented 12-year project to win the top prize at Sunday’s 21st annual SAG Awards as well. And, in a development just as surprising as Birdman‘s PGA win, The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne upended Birdman‘s Michael Keaton — the heavy favorite — to win the best actor SAG Award, stopping in its tracks any real threat to his Oscar hopes.
The other winners on the film side were all heavy favorites: Still Alice‘s Julianne Moore won best actress, Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons won best supporting actor and Boyhood‘s Patricia Arquette won best supporting actress.
Why does any of what happened on Sunday tell us anything about what will happen at the 87th Oscars on Feb. 22?
Because the SAG Awards tell us how the acting community feels about the year’s top contenders — winners are chosen by the 120,000-plus members of SAG-AFTRA, the world’s largest actors union, after nominees are chosen by 1,200 randomly selected members thereof — which is useful to know in light of the fact that the largest branch of the Academy is composed of actors (they account for just under 19 percent of the full voting membership of 6,124, more than two times the size of the next biggest branch).
One important thing to note: SAG Award and Academy Award nominees and winners in the four individual acting categories match up far better than SAG ensemble and best picture Oscar nominees and winners do. Consider some recent history.
The two groups both issue 20 acting nominations and overlapped on 18 names in 2008-09 (and three winners), 19 in 2009-10 (and all four winners), 17 in 2010-11 (and all four winners), 16 in 2011-12 (and three winners), 15 in 2012-13 (and three winners), 14 in 2013-14 (and all four winners) and 17 for 2014-15: SAG nominees Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Jennifer Aniston (Cake) and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) were bounced by American Sniper‘s Bradley Cooper, Two Days, One Night‘s Marion Cotillard and Wild‘s Laura Dern, respectively, but I suspect all four SAG winners will repeat at the Oscars.
The best ensemble SAG Award, however, has an iffier track record — its winner has gone on to win the best picture Oscar on only nine of 19 occasions (it wasn’t presented at the first SAG Awards) — perhaps because voters don’t agree on what they’re voting for: Best cast? Best big cast? Best picture? (SAG voters don’t have a best picture category, so many treat it as one.)
While the SAG Awards did “anticipate” the long-shot best picture Oscar wins of Shakespeare in Love in 1999 and Crash in 2006, they also gave false hope to plenty of other films. Still, it is noteworthy that only one film has ever won the best picture Oscar without first earning a best ensemble SAG nom — Braveheart, in 1996 — which is a daunting stat for this season’s three best picture Oscar nominees that were not nominated for it (American Sniper, Selma and Whiplash — although Selma wasn’t finished in time for screeners to reach SAG voters, which probably hurt its prospects).
This year, though, the best ensemble winner looks like as good a bet as any to repeat at the Oscars. Only two films have ever won the top prize of both the PGA and SAG but not the best picture Oscar — 1995’s Apollo 13 and 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine — and it seems as if Birdman, which has led or co-led every major awards group for total nominations, has the sort of across-the-board support that most best picture Oscar winners have possessed. Moreover, like two of the last three best picture Oscar winners — The Artist in 2012 and Argo in 2013 — it is about show business, a subject near and dear to Academy members.
I certainly wouldn’t write off the best picture Oscar prospects of Boyhood (which benefits from being unlike any other nominee of this or any season), or even The Grand Budapest Hotel (it has a ton of noms and is funnier than most other nominees), American Sniper (the one huge hit among this year’s nominees) or Selma (which captures the zeitgeist more than any other nominee). But I believe — and heard other knowledgeable parties saying the same thing — that the likeliest outcome, at this point, is that Birdman wins best picture and Boyhood‘s Linklater wins best director in a split vote like last year’s, with the original screenplay Oscar perhaps going to a third party such as Budapest‘s Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness. (It’s amazing how much can happen in a weekend, huh?)
Meanwhile, Redmayne has lots of cause for celebration and Keaton — who beat him in their first head-to-head matchup at the Critics’ Choice Awards just 10 days ago — lots of cause for consternation after the young Brit, who is still unknown to most Americans, topped the veteran American on what amounts to his home turf. Indeed, no constituency should have been more receptive to a narrative like Keaton’s — a long-toiling member of the community who was finally given a great shot and proved that he was worthy of it — than SAG. But not even his comeback story and familiar name could derail a performance by Redmayne that actors probably recognized as being far more complex and demanding. Each of this category’s last 10 winners (and all but four in 20 years) have gone on to win the corresponding Oscar and, after Sunday night, I would be very surprised if that streak is snapped this year.
As for Moore, Simmons and Arquette — who have now all won Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards — they look unstoppable. Indeed, the only people who have ever won all three prizes and not won an Oscar are Russell Crowe for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, who may have been hindered by his boorish behavior at the BAFTA Awards; Eddie Murphy for 2006’s Dreamgirls, who may have been hindered by Norbit; and Julie Christie for 2007’s Away From Her, who may have been hindered by her aversion to campaigning.
That means that the next big thing to look for — aside from how some of the aforementioned Oscar hopefuls come across at the 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which kicks off on Tuesday — is how things go down at the 67th DGA Awards on Feb. 7. In the meantime, let the nail-biting resume!