SAG Awards: 'Trumbo' and 'Beasts' Surge, 'Spotlight' Actors and Matt Damon Left Behind (Analysis)

Helen Mirren, Trumbo Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Helen Mirren, Trumbo Still - H 2015

On Wednesday morning, some 2,250 actors who normally have to beg for the attention of Hollywood's bigwigs like everyone else instead had their undivided attention. That's because the former, in their capacity as members of the SAG Awards nominating committee for film awards, had determined and were revealing the nominations for the 22nd SAG Awards, which could shape the Oscar prospects of the latter's top contenders.

So which of this year's top contenders are being embraced by actors? Well, it's actually more appropriate to use the past tense — were — since voting, which closed on Dec. 7, began way back on Nov. 18, long before anyone saw The Hateful Eight or Joy, among other closely-guarded later releases. And since some SAG nom-com voters don't like to go to the cinema, or live in places between New York and Los Angeles where advance screenings are not held, screeners — or the lack thereof — also sometimes shape their decisions. (Screeners never went out for The Hateful Eight, for instance.)

With those caveats firmly in place, I can note that SAG-AFTRA really spread its love around this year — 16 different productions were represented in the 25 non-stunt-related slots for film work — which basically is consistent with the still-existing perception that this is a wide-open year in virtually every major category.

That's not, however, to say that all of these noms were widely anticipated.

The morning was greater than anyone expected for Bleecker Street's Trumbo, which landed one of the five coveted ensemble noms, plus noms for lead actor Bryan Cranston and supporting actress Helen Mirren; a year after Birdman's big showing, perhaps we should have remembered how much the industry loves stories about itself.

It turns out the industry also loves stories about far-away places, at least when they can watch them on Netflix, as was the case with Beasts of No Nation, which Bleecker Street distributed theatrically while the streaming service made it available on VOD. That Africa-set drama also bagged an ensemble nom, along with a nom for supporting actor Idris Elba, a major boost for its prospects.

In addition to the Beasts ensemble and Elba, the diverse ensemble of Universal's Straight Outta Compton was also nominated. SAG-AFTRA is a more diverse group than the Academy and, for its open-mindedness, deserves a positive hashtag (#SAGNotSoWhite) just as the Academy's aversion to color at last year's Oscars merited a negative one (#OscarsSoWhite). But the reality is that the Compton cast, which is led by three actors nobody had heard of at this time last year, has gotten to this point because they earned it.

Other big winners today include Paramount's The Big Short, which got an ensemble nom and a supporting actor nom for Christian Bale; Universal's Steve Jobs, which many had left for dead after its box-office underperformance, but which landed noms for lead actor Michael Fassbender and supporting actress Kate Winslet; and Room, which also got two acting noms, only one of which (lead actress Brie Larson) was assured. The supporting actor nom for the film's nine-year-old scene-stealer Jacob Tremblay, who becomes the youngest male nominated for a film SAG award, is significant not only because of his age, but because it also cues Academy members about which category to vote for him in (at least in the hopes of distributor A24). 

Also, Helen Mirren got a ringing endorsement from her peers, with a lead actress nom for the February release Woman in Golddon't complain to these people, Harvey Weinstein — to go with her supporting actress nom for Trumbo.

And who couldn't be happy for two underdogs who earned their acting noms — the only noms their very indie films received today — the old-fashioned way: not just through campaigning (although they have tried their best to keep up with the big guns), but through busting their asses and giving career-best performances. I'm speaking, of course, of I Smile Back's lead actress Sarah Silverman and 99 Homes' supporting actor Michael Shannon — both promoted by Broad Green Pictures, which has done a terrific job on their behalf.

Now, inevitably, for every feel-good story, there were instances of people whose parades were rained upon.

Fox's The Martian, which many of us had in our pole position for the best picture Oscar, took a bad hit this morning: unlike The Hateful Eight and Joy (for which not even Jennifer Lawrence was nominated), this movie was widely seen, but still was shut out — no nom for its ensemble or for its lead actor Matt Damon — which means that it will have to defy a lot of history to still pull off the top Oscar. Indeed, in the 21 years in which the SAG ensemble award has existed alongside the best picture Oscar, only one film that wasn't even nominated for the former still won the latter — Braveheart, 20 years ago. (Encouragingly for Team Martian, that film also garnered zero SAG acting noms.)

The day brought mixed news for Spotlight, which got a best ensemble nom — probably the most assured nom of the day, in fact — but landed only one individual acting nom, for supporting actress Rachel McAdams. In other words, its worst nightmare came true: its wealth of supporting actor options, led by Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, may have canceled out each other's prospects. Between now and the start of voting for Oscar noms on Dec. 30, Open Road may have to more clearly throw its support behind some members of its ensemble for individual acting noms.

Oddly, The Revenant might have felt better had it been entirely shut out this morning, as opposed to landing a single nom (for lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio), since its backers then could have argued that not enough voters saw it to give it a fair hearing. They have been downplaying expectations for it, noting that screeners of it were mailed with a watermark (to guard against piracy for a movie not yet in theaters) and that some nom-com members refuse to accept watermarked DVDs (not wanting to assume risk). Concussion was in the same vote, which may partially explain Will Smith's absence. But, in the end, SAG-AFTRA members thought Leo was the big takeaway from his project, which may well be the conclusion of the Academy, as well.

Black Mass' Johnny Depp was nominated with DiCaprio in the lead actor category, but like DiCaprio's acting partner Tom Hardy, Depp's sidekick Joel Edgerton was left out in the cold.

The roughest morning of all, though, was had by films that were completely shut out. Regrettably, I'm talking about Creed (many thought supporting actor Sylvester Stallone had a shot here), 45 Years (although lead actress Charlotte Rampling, as an older Brit, suits the Academy's demo more than SAG-AFTRA's), Concussion (I'm confident that lead actor Smith will fare better with the Academy), Love & Mercy (I could still see supporting players Paul Dano and/or Elizabeth Banks rebounding at the Oscars), Sicario (what happened to supporting actor Benicio Del Toro?), Mad Max: Fury Road (an ensemble nom was within reach), Suffragette (lead actress Carey Mulligan was widely thought to be in front of Mirren and Silverman, among others), Truth (although buzz has been fading for a while for this Blanchett-Robert Redford vehicle), Youth (I've never quite believed that voters feel compelled to nominate supporting actress Jane Fonda, a two-time Oscar winner, for essentially one scene), Mr. Holmes (this result undoubtedly hurts for lead actor Ian McKellen, who has been beating the pavement, although older Brits like him and Youth's Michael Caine stand a better chance with the Academy) and The End of the Tour (ditto for supporting actor Jason Segel).

Thursday morning will bring the announcement of the 73rd Golden Globe nominations, which will look very different from Wednesday morning's announcement, not only because there will be categories specifically allocated for musicals and comedies, but because the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, unlike SAG-AFTRA, does not leave it up to distributors and actors to determine their own category placements. For instance, the HFPA has designated The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander, Carol's Rooney Mara and The Big Short's Christian Bale — all nominated on Wednesday for supporting work — as leads. (Segel also was eligible as a lead).

I expect the Globes to brighten the week for the male members of Spotlight's cast, to champion The Big Short even more than SAG-AFTRA did and, as usual, to throw in a few wild-cards, such as an acting nom for Trainwreck's lead actress Amy Schumer. But there will be plenty of time to pore over that in 24 hours. For now, it's time to head back to bed!