SAG Awards: 'Hustle' Wins Endorsement of First Guild to Weigh in on Race (Analysis)

American Hustle SAG press room - H 2014
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

This is certainly one of the more wide-open and interesting awards seasons in recent memory: it appears that the three best picture Oscar nominees with the most nominations to their name -- American Hustle (10), Gravity (10) and 12 Years a Slave (9) -- may each head into the Oscars with one of the major guilds' prizes under their belts.

Those matter even more than last Sunday's Golden Globes (at which Slave and Hustle took home best pic prizes) and last Thursday's Critics' Choice Awards (where Slave won best pic) because they are determined entirely by people who actually make movies, just like the members of Academy, and therefore offer great insight into how those 6,028 people may be thinking.

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The first of the big three guild awards was claimed on Saturday night when Hustle, David O. Russell's dramedy, was announced as the winner of the best ensemble prize at the 20th SAG Awards. Why is this significant? Because the result was determined by the roughly 120,000 members of SAG-AFTRA, the world's largest union of actors, and actors comprise the Academy's largest branch -- indeed, one-sixth of the entire membership -- so we now have a greater sense of where their allegiances may rest.

But, over the course of the next week, the other two will be announced, and they may well champion other films. On Sunday night, the Producers Guild of America will announce its PGA Award, which is determined by a preferential ballot, and it is thought that Steve McQueen's Slave will prevail there. And then next Saturday, the Directors Guild of America will announce its DGA Award, and most people in the know believe they will back Gravity, in the form of its director, Alfonso Cuaron.

So where does that leave us? With a real race on our hands.

While the Hustle team certainly deserves to celebrate a victory that wasn't shocking but also wasn't assured, it should also remember that the SAG ensemble award is the least reliable of the three big guild prizes. It has predicted the best picture Oscar in only half of the 18 previous years in which it has been presented (it was only instituted at the second SAG Awards), anticipating some surprises, like Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Crash (2005), but also falsely raising the hopes of other contenders, such as Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and The Help (2011). Hustle won despite the fact that Jennifer Lawrence was the only member of its cast to receive an individual SAG nom -- and she lost to Slave's Lupita Nyong'o.

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Nyong'o beating Lawrence was a very uncertain proposition thanks to Lawrence's popularity with the masses and Nyongo's newcomer-status. But Nyong'o clearly has major and varied support -- since losing to Lawrence at the star-fawning Golden Globes, she beat her at the Critics' Choice Awards and now here -- and, with her performances on-screen and at podiums accepting awards (always poised, eloquent and speaking from the heart), has proven herself a worthy alternative to 23-year-old J-Law, who is vying to become the youngest person to ever win a second acting Oscar.

The results in the other competitions on the film side were unsurprising. Blue Jasmine's lead actress Cate Blanchett and Dallas Buyers Club's lead actor Matthew McConaughey and supporting actor Jared Leto continued their unbeaten streaks -- each had already won a Golden Globe and a Critics' Choice Award before picking up a SAG Award on Saturday. In the 21st century, the only acting Oscar hopefuls who won those three prizes and then lost the Oscar were Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind (2001), who assaulted a BAFTA employee during the Oscar voting period; Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls (2006); and Julie Christie for Away from Her (2007).

In other words, as long as McConaughey, Blanchett and Leto don't commit any major faux pas between now and the close of Oscar voting at 5pm PST on February 25, they should be golden -- or at least taking home gold. My only reservation about McConaughey, who is up against some serious competition -- including fellow Oscar-less thesps Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio and Chiwetel Ejiofor -- is that he was not even nominated for a BAFTA Award, which is usually a strong bellweather for Oscar success. (It was eligible.) In the end, though, I suspect that he'll still be -- forgive me -- alright, alright, alright.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg