SAG Awards: 'Spotlight' Victory Confirms We Have an Oscar Race, Folks! (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst explains why Saturday's wins for Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander bode very well for their prospects at the Oscars — and why best pic remains too close to call.
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As if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences needed some more salt thrown into the gaping wound it suffered upon the announcement of this year's Oscar nominations, the 22nd annual Screen Actors Guild Awards produced the most diverse set of winners in the event's history.

With Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs sitting in the audience, Idris Elba was awarded the best supporting actor prize for his performance in Beasts of No Nation — one that the Academy's actors branch didn't even nominate — and there were many other winners of color on the TV side, including Elba, again, for Luther; Uzo Aduba for Orange Is the New Black (which also won best comedy series); Queen Latifah for Bessie; and Viola Davis for How to Get Away With Murder. And in a nod toward gender diversity, Jeffrey Tambor won for his portrayal of a trans woman in Transparent.

It all was enough to make one wonder if the most effective way to reform the Academy might be to invite the thousands of guild members — including the 160,000 who belong to SAG-AFTRA, the largest union of actors in the world — to help pick the Oscar nominees, as they used to do decades ago.

But, for now, enough about what you won't be seeing on the Oscars on Feb. 28. Let's talk about what you probably will be seeing on the biggest show of them all.

Not every member of SAG-AFTRA belongs to the Academy, but almost every member of the Academy's actors branch — its largest — belongs to SAG-AFTRA, which is why the earlier awards often presage the result of the later awards. So, in all likelihood, tonight's three acting winners not named Elba  — best actor Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), best actress Brie Larson (Room) and best supporting actress Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) — will be back in the winner's circle next month.

It has long looked unlikely that anyone could derail DiCaprio's long-awaited meeting with Oscar, but if it was going to happen, in all likelihood it first would have happened tonight. How? Perhaps with an upset by Bryan Cranston, an immensely popular actors' actor who was up for his work in a film that was nominated for best ensemble, unlike DiCaprio's. But that was not to be. Considering that the last 11 winners of this award went on to win the corresponding Oscar, I would bet the farm on Leo.

Larson, too, was a heavy favorite heading into tonight, having also won Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards and, like only one of her fellow nominees, Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan, also hailing from a film nominated for the best picture Oscar. She now hopes to follow in the footsteps of five of the last six winners of this category.

And Vikander, a newcomer who is giving Larson a run for her money as the "It" girl of the season, landed a much needed win for her divisive film. She topped past SAG Award winners Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), who won the Golden Globe and Helen Mirren (Trumbo), as well as Rooney Mara (Carol) and Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), all of whom seemed like plausible winners heading into the night. The last seven winners of this category went on to win Oscars, too, so the Critics' Choice Award winner has got to feel very good.

Who will win the Oscar in the category won tonight by Elba? One still has to assume it will be the sentimental favorite, Creed's Sylvester Stallone, who was not nominated by SAG-AFTRA (his film wasn't thought to be an awards contender when nominations voting got underway), but whose stiffest competitors, The Big Short's Christian Bale and Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance, were SAG nominees — and who lost. The two other Oscar nominees are The Revenant's Tom Hardy and Spotlight's Mark Ruffalo.

And what of the SAG Award that people covet most, best ensemble? It's the one that has proven least predictive of the Oscar, going to the eventual winner on only 10 of 20 occasions, including two of the last three years — but people still pay very close attention to it since many regard it as SAG's equivalent of best picture; it was the only award to anticipate the best picture Oscar upsets of Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Crash (2005); and only one film in 20 years ever has won best picture without at least being nominated for it, Braveheart (1995).

This year, the category's nominees included two best picture Oscar nominees, The Big Short (coming off its big PGA Award win last weekend) and Spotlight (two weekends removed from its big Critics' Choice win). Best picture Oscar nominees that were not nominated for the ensemble award included Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant and Room. Therefore, a win by any one of the three nominees that were not nominated for the best picture Oscar — Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton and Trumbo — would have been welcomed by those rooting for the Oscar nominees that weren't up for SAG honors. Still, all indications suggested the winner would be either The Big Short, with its movie star-studded cast, or Spotlight, with its group of veteran actors' actors, and it in the end it was Spotlight.

Does this mean that Spotlight now displaces The Big Short as the film to beat in the best picture Oscar race? No, just that it has now pulled up evenly alongside it as we head into the final lap of the race. Why? Because, on the one hand, SAG voting continued well after the PGA Awards, so one cannot argue that this result is negated by that one. But, on the other hand, the SAG Awards are not chosen using a ballot like the quirky one the Academy uses, while the PGA Awards are, and the PGA Awards also pitted The Big Short and Spotlight against most of the films they'll face off against on the Oscar ballot (voting starts Feb. 12), whereas SAG did not.

And what, you ask, of The Revenant? The film landed a field-leading 12 Oscar noms, but has yet to win any major prizes for its overall production apart from the dubious Golden Globe Award for best picture (drama). Every time its star, DiCaprio, wins a best actor prize, I get a stronger sense that Oscar voters may regard that as adequate recognition for the film in the major categories and leave the top prize to one of the others. Of course, I could be wrong.

But, for now at least, the race is The Big Short vs. Spotlight — and it's still too close to call.