SAG Awards: How Do Voters Decide What Makes a Motion Picture Cast Truly Outstanding?

What Makes a Motion Picture Cast Truly Outstanding
Prom: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix (3). Miami: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios (2). Mank: Courtesy of Netflix (2). Chicago: Nico Tavernise/Netflix (2).

With films like 'Mank' and 'The Trial of Chicago  7' boasting impressive lineups of acting talent, SAG-AFTRA’s voters will have to sort through the competing ensembles to decide who deserves their big award.

When the final award of the night, Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, is announced at SAG-AFTRA's 27th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, the resulting headlines will inevitably hail it as the night's best picture winner. But that's not exactly the right nomenclature for the prize, which subtly shifts the emphasis away from the overall film — whatever the merits of its direction, lighting, editing, music — to focus on its actors and how well they relate to one another.

The SAG rules themselves don't offer much guidance as to what qualities its members should consider in their vote, noting only that "those actors with single card billing in the main titles" are eligible to receive a trophy, while the remainder of a cast whose names are credited in the cast crawl will receive a certificate. The question of what constitutes a genuine ensemble and what makes it outstanding is an open one.

Since it was introduced in the 1990s, the prize has tended to honor movies with big casts. Robert Altman's 2001 Gosford Park, with its sprawling upstairs/downstairs intrigue, sported the biggest gang to be honored, with a named cast of 20. And Emilio Estevez's 2006 Bobby, about the Robert Kennedy assassination, had the largest cast, 24, ever to be nominated.

But there have been more intimate winners, too. Alexander Payne's 2004 Sideways had the smallest cast to carry home the prize — the California wine country odyssey had just four principal players. And movies with just three title-card actors each, like Million Dollar Baby and Beasts of No Nation, have been nominated.

Still, SAG sometimes overlooks smaller movies that, fairly or not, are perceived as two-handers. In recent years, the voters denied an ensemble nom to the celebrated La La Land, with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone headlining its cast, and didn't include the eventual Oscar winner Green Book among its ensemble nominees.

This year, there are plenty of films with impressive casts that will be vying for attention. The question that will need to be sorted out is which can boast of true ensembles.

David Fincher's Mank, for instance, features a lineup of pedigreed actors, from Gary Oldman, in the title role as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, to Charles Dance as press baron William Randolph Hearst. But it's Oldman who's clearly the star, anchoring the movie and commanding the most screen time. While there are scenes, like that disastrous San Simeon dinner party, where a large part of the cast sits down together, much of the movie involves Oldman's one-on-one encounters with the various characters in Mankiewicz's orbit.

Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7, on the other hand, treats its cast much more democratically. While some of the onscreen defendants — such as Sacha Baron Cohen's Abbie Hoffman and Eddie Redmayne's Tom Hayden — are more prominent than others, virtually the entire cast appears together for the film's extensive courtroom scenes. And, in their bids for other awards, rather than divide themselves into a couple of best actor hopefuls surrounded by a host of supporting players, the actors themselves have declared they should all be considered for supporting laurels.

There's often a special thrill in watching a roomful of actors playing off one another, and so it's not surprising that some of this season's strongest ensemble contenders come from films based on stage plays, like One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The four Black icons who come together to debate their roles in the burgeoning Black Power movement in Miami and the quartet of musicians surrounding Viola Davis' blues singer in Ma Rainey confront one another in various combinations as their dramas play out. Similarly, the actors playing gay men celebrating a birthday in The Boys in the Band — a cast that honed their roles on Broadway — each has a turn center-stage as the rest of the ever-present ensemble looks on and bears witness to their confessionals.

Even with a stage-to-screen adaptation, casting can shift an ensemble's focus, though. On stage, for example, The Prom featured a cast of journeymen Broadway actors, rather than marquee names, but Ryan Murphy's Netflix version employs superstars like Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman in lead roles, which shifts the emphasis slightly given that they automatically command the limelight each time they step in front of the cameras. By contrast, in a chamber piece like Steven Soderbergh's HBO Max film Let Them All Talk, Streep goes head-to-head with contemporaries like Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest, resulting in an ensemble that brings more balance into the equation.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.