SAG Awards Confirm Tremendous Support for 'The Help' -- and 'The Artist' (Analysis)


On Sunday evening, the Screen Actors Guild disclosed the recipients of its 18th annual SAG Awards, and in so doing revealed a lot about the likely outcome of several close Oscar races, as well.

The Screen Actors Guild has existed since 1933, but has only been handing out end-of-the-year awards since 1995. Over the years since then, the SAG Awards' acting nominees and winners have predicted the Academy's acting nominees and winners better than any of the other many awards that collectively constitute the "Oscar season." (It should be noted, though, that the best ensemble SAG Award has not proven to be predictive of the best picture Oscar).

So why is SAG, which is composed of 120,000 actors from around the world, such a good predictor of the choices of the Academy, which is composed of 5,515 people who work in virtually every facet of the film industry (animators, art directors, cinematographers, directors, documentarians, executives, film editors, makeup artists and hairstylists, musicians, producers, publicists, sound technicians, visual effects artists, and writers)?

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Because, of the Academy's 15 branches, its acting branch is its largest, by far: it includes 1,183 members (the vast majority of whom are also SAG members), more than twice the number of members in any other branch, and more than 21% of the Academy's entire membership of 5,515. Consequently, the tastes of actors not only determine the Academy's acting nominations (for which the members of each branch can vote only for their own area and for best picture), but are also intrumental in determining the winners of every category (since all Academy members are invited to vote for the winners in every category -- which is somewhat odd, considering that they weren't seen as qualified enough to suggest nominees outside of their given branch -- but I digress). In other words, the SAG Awards essentially serve as a giant survey of the same ilk of people who will also be instrumental in determining the outcome of the Academy Awards.

With that understanding, here is what I believe tonight's SAG Awards results inform us about next month's Academy Awards (for which final ballots will be mailed on Wednesday):

1. Not only can Jean Dujardin (The Artist) beat George Clooney (The Descendants) to win the best actor Oscar ... he probably will.
Clooney had this thing in the bag, or so believed the vast majority of informed people. After all, Clooney is a beloved A-lister who gave a great performance in a very good film and has shown up everywhere this awards season on behalf of it, charming multitudes along the way, whereas, prior to just a few months ago, virtually nobody in his country had even heard of Dujardin. (He has been referred to as "the George Clooney of France," but the blunt reality is that he's a nobody here.)

But, sure enough, the Frenchman who won the Golden Globe for best actor (musical or comedy) beat the American who won the Golden Globe for best actor (drama), as well as with the best actor Critics' Choice Award, and in so doing became the new frontrunner to win the best actor Academy Award, just like the last seven best actor SAG Award winners and all but four best actor SAG Award winners ever.

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Perhaps the most instructive case study for Dujardin is one from 13 years ago, when another no-name foreigner (Roberto Benigni) starred in another popular film that was not in the English language (Life Is Beautiful), was nominated for best actor at both the SAG Awards and Academy Awards against a beloved American A-lister who already had an Oscar under his belt (Tom Hanks for Saving Private Ryan, who actually had two), beat Hanks at the SAG Awards, and then, famously, beat him again at the Oscars.

Backstage after his win tonight, I shared the SAG-Oscar correlation stat with Dujardin, as well as another one: over the past 83 years, only three other Frenchmen have ever been nominated for the best actor Oscar -- Maurice Chevalier for The Big Pond (1929) and The Love Parade (1930), Charles Boyer for Fanny (1961), and Gerard Depardieu for Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) -- and none had won. When I asked him how he felt about the now likely possibility that he could be the first person from his country to actually take home the gold in that category, he pretended to plug his ears, as if he couldn't bear to even ponder it; then he began singing "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem; and then he confessed, "Pressure. Big pressure."

2. Viola Davis (The Help) is probably going to win her first best actress Oscar before Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) wins her second.
Like the Academy, SAG really likes Streep -- indeed, she has scored more nominations from both groups than any other woman in history (eight from SAG, 17 from the Academy) and won two awards from each, as well. This year, however, SAG opted for Davis, for the same reasons that I believe the Academy will: all voters received screeners of both The Help and The Iron Lady; they clearly preferred The Help (which scored multiple nominations, including the top one) to The Iron Lady (which was represented by just Streep); they knew that Streep had won before, whereas Davis had not (they like to spread the love around); and many of them were undoubtedly attracted to the unfortunately rare opportunity to reward a person of color (previously, the only black person to win the best actress SAG Award or Oscar was Halle Berry a decade ago).

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Considering that Sandra Bullock, who is far less respected an actress than Davis, was able to beat Streep two years ago at both SAG and the Oscars for a movie that was far less beloved by Academy members than The Help -- Bullock won for The Blind Side over Streep for Julie & Julia -- I have little doubt that Davis can beat Streep too. (The fact that seven of the 10 SAG best actress winners who preceded Davis went on to win the Oscar only reinforces that likelihood.)

3. Christopher Plummer (Beginners) is almost certainly going to win his first Oscar, for best supporting actor, at the age of 82.
This awards season, Plummer has won virtually every major Oscar-precursor best supporting actor award that there is to win: the National Board of Review Award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle Award, the Online Film Critics Society Award, the Critics' Choice Award, the Golden Globe Award, and now the Screen Actors Guild Award. The only thing that keeps me from calling him a total slam-dunk to win the Oscar -- which would make him the oldest winner of an acting Oscar in history -- is that he will be competing there with another revered octogenarian, Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), for the first time anywhere this season (von Sydow is actually slightly older than Plummer). Will the oldies-but-goodies eat into each other's bases of support? It's possible. But my strong sense is that Plummer has won too many times -- and conducted himself too well -- this season to be denied by anyone.

4. Octavia Spencer (The Help) is probably going to win the best supporting actress Oscar even though she's competing against her co-star Jessica Chastain.

It is never helpful to a nominee's prospects of winning to have a co-star competing in the same category because it means that people who might be inclined to vote for the nominee primarily because they liked the nominee's film now have two places where they can register their support, as opposed to just one. That usually results in a dilution of both co-stars' votes -- or "split" -- that causes someone from another film to win who otherwise would not have. Last year, Melissa Leo was up against Amy Adams, her co-star from The Fighter (2010) and still managed to eek out a win; throughout Oscar history, though, most situations of that sort play out more like the two best supporting actress Oscar races that preceded Leo's, in which Doubt (2008) co-stars Adams and Viola Davis, of all people, and Up in the Air (2009) co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick canceled each other out.

Based on the fact that Spencer has already managed to win the three principal Oscar-precursor awards -- the Critics' Choice Award, the Golden Globe Award, and now the SAG Award -- despite competing with Chastain in the same category, I'm inclined to believe that she will do the same at the Oscars. (The fact that eight of the last 10 best supporting actress SAG Award winners repeated at the Oscars is also hard to ignore.) But look out: I wouldn't be totally shocked to see an upset by Berenice Bejo (The Artist) on the coattails of her popular film, or perhaps even Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), who -- like the two most recent best supporting actress Oscar winners for comedies, Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny (1992) and Mira Sorvino for Mighty Aphrodite (1995) -- is nominated for a performance that couldn't be more different from the others in the category.

5. The Help is a deeply loved film... but so is The Artist, which will almost certainly beat it in the best picture Oscar race.
Many people are deducing from the huge showing tonight by The Help -- it tied American Beauty (1999) and Chicago (2002) for the most wins by a single film with three -- that it is now the best picture Oscar frontrunner. That's hogwash. The Help is clearly a very well-liked film, but much more so by actors than by the many other technicians who are also Academy members, and who opted not to nominate it in several major Oscar categories in which it was competing: best director (no film has won best picture without a directing nom in the last 22 years, and only three ever have), best adapted screenplay (no film has won best picture without a screenplay nom in the last 14 years, and only two have in the last 56 years), and best film editing (no film has won best picture without a film editing nom in the last 31 years, and only nine ever have). Most dauntingly of all, only two films have ever won the best picture Oscar without being nominated in any of those categories: Wings (1927) and Grand Hotel (1932), 83 years ago and 79 years ago, respectively.

The Artist, meanwhile, scored Oscar nominations in all of the must-get categories; won the top prizes from the two guilds that most accurately predict the best picture Oscar race, the PGA Award and the DGA Award; and reaffirmed its strength tonight -- in spite of its best ensemble and best supporting actress losses -- with Dujardin's win, which proves that even the most populous and populist guild saw and liked a black-and-white silent movie better than a lot of alternatives that are much more mainstream, something that bodes very well for the film's prospects with the considerably snobbier Academy.