Feinberg Handicaps SAG Ensemble Contenders (Analysis)

2012-43 FEA Awards Django Unchained H

Jamie Foxx (left), as the title character, faces off with Leonardo DiCaprio's plantation owner in "Django Unchained."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

There is one category at the SAG Awards that has no comparable category at the Oscars -- and that one is harder to predict than any other race at either show: the best ensemble category, or, as it is officially known, the SAG Award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture. (Only actors who receive a single card in their film's credits can be included in the ensemble list submitted for consideration.)

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Even those who vote for it are not quite sure what it aims to recognize. Some take it literally and select the film that they feel features the best cast; others select the film that they feel features the best large cast; and still others select the film that they feel is simply the best of the year, since there  is no SAG Award for best picture. This year, based on precedent and conversations with studios and SAG nominating-committee members, it looks likely to me that four films will be among the nominees announced Dec. 12: Les Miserables, Argo, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. So now there is a scramble underway for the fifth slot.

Here are the top contenders, listed alphabetically and alongside the list of actors who were submitted to SAG as part of their ensemble, as well as the strongest arguments for and against their prospects.

Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith

Pros: This film's plethora of British vets should help it win large portions of the U.K. and senior vote, just like past winner Gosford Park.

Cons: Gosford's cast featured a few prominent Americans, whereas this one does not. Since SAG is predominantly composed of U.S. folk, that could be a problem.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Doona Bae, Zhoun Xun

Pros: Other films with truly massive ensembles that opened to mixed or negative reviews, like Bobby and Hairspray, have been nominated in this category.

Cons: People tend to feel strongly about the movie -- they love it or hate it -- and while that could help it under the Academy's voting system, which rewards passion, SAG's methods reward consensus.

Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman

Pros: A cast packed with A-listers from virtually every generation -- who have 16 Oscar nominations and five wins among them -- plus a rising star or two offers something for everyone.

Cons: The Dark Knight, which got even more acclaim, was not nominated four years ago.

Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Dana Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Miriam F. Glover, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley

Pros: Quentin Tarantino's similarly violent and star-studded Inglourious Basterds won this prize.

Cons: The film has not yet been widely screened, and in a year that saw the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo., voters night shy away if they deem its violence to be gratuitous.

Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Melissa Leo

Pros: Apart from doing great business and featuring a bona fide star in Washington, it has a likable cast of unusual diversity and might also benefit from the participation of well-liked TV vets Goodman and Tunie.

Cons: It's so focused on Washington's character that the many other characters, including his love interest, are left with very little screen time.

Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow

Pros: You might think that biopics focusing on one or two actors wouldn't have much of a chance here, but in fact past nominees have included Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Ray, Capote, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The King's Speech.

Cons: Since lots of SAG members are quite young, they might not fully appreciate who the real people were who have been brought back to life in this film.

Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Manu Bennett, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Barry Humphries, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Bret McKenzie, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Conan Stevens, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner

Pros: All three Lord of the Rings films, featuring many of the same actors, were nominated here, and the third won. It doesn't hurt to have a massive cast.

Cons: Like Django, the film has been kept under wraps. Plus, SAG voters might regard it as one visit too many to the same well.

Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

Pros: Paul Thomas Anderson's ensembles, always full of great actors, have a decent track record here: There Will Be Blood (2007) was snubbed, but Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) made the cut.

Cons: It's a divisive film, and a considerable number of people might not get on board, finding the storyline too weird and hard to decipher.

Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban

Pros: This charming film stars young unknowns who fall in love and fight to be together, not unlike 2009 winner Slumdog Millionaire, and features several big-name actors as well.

Cons: It came out in May and probably has been overshadowed by more recent releases. Plus, no ensemble from a Wes Anderson film has been nominated.

Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Elizabeth Moss, Danny Morgan, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen

Pros: SAG has often found room in this category for tiny indies, among them The Station Agent and In America -- and they didn't have the relatively big names that this film has.

Cons: It played the fall fests and has been screened for SAG, but, as a small film that needs plenty of word-of-mouth, it will be hurt by the fact that it will go into limited release 11 days after SAG nomination voting ends.

Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Judi Dench

Pros: The 23rd James Bond movie has been such a commercial and critical hit that it's hard to imagine that many SAG voters won't see it or like it.

Cons: Popcorn movies always face an uphill climb, and no Bond film has ever been nominated in this category.

Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini

Pros: Kathryn Bigelow has gathered a terrific group of actors' actors, if not major stars, just as she did for The Hurt Locker, which was nominated.

Cons: It's another late arrival this season, and it didn't begin screening until Nov. 25, so it will have to play some quick catch-up.