SAG Awards: What the Noms Do (and Don't) Tell Us About the Oscar Race

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Still Sam Rockwell - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

If you've ever sat through — or, in my case, moderated — a post-screening Q&A for members of SAG-AFTRA, the world's largest union of actors, then you've quickly learned not to be surprised by anything that happens there. There are a lot of eccentric characters within this body of 160,000 film, television and radio performers, so it's no surprise that a subset of 2,500 of them, randomly selected to serve on a nominating committee for the SAG Awards, might march to its own beat as well. Add to that the fact that this year's nom-com began voting almost a full month ago (this year's balloting was open from Nov. 16 through Dec. 10), before several top contenders were even unveiled, and it's no wonder the resulting noms, which were announced Wednesday morning, featured unexpected inclusions and omissions.

So why do we still pay such close attention to SAG Awards noms? Because, while not all members of SAG-AFTRA are also members of the Academy, a huge portion of the actors branch of the Academy — the only one that determines acting Oscar noms, and the largest one involved in the selection of best picture Oscar noms — are members of SAG-AFTRA. Therefore, SAG Awards noms tend to offer helpful hints about how the Oscar race will play out, often more so than the Critics' Choice Awards or the Golden Globe Awards (since there are no critics and only a couple of journalists in the Academy). To that point, it has been 22 years since a film won the best picture Oscar without first being included among the five SAG Awards nominees for best ensemble. Last year, many (including me) doubted that stat when La La Land was not among the best ensemble nominees, but sure enough, it held true.

This year — a fiercely competitive one for the best ensemble category — that stat is going to cause a lot of agita for the teams behind the films that did not make the cut. Those include Dunkirk (which scored no other noms, either), Phantom Thread (totally shut out, even venerated actor Daniel Day-Lewis), The Shape of Water (though it did bag noms for actress Sally Hawkins and supporting actor Richard Jenkins) and Call Me by Your Name (it landed an actor nom for Timothee Chalamet, but, shockingly, no supporting actor nom for either Armie Hammer or Michael Stuhlbarg). Perhaps most stunningly, The Post was completely blanked — not just no ensemble nom, but no actor nom for Tom Hanks (bounced, presumably, by Roman J. Israel, Esq.'s Denzel Washington, a SAG favorite who won the category last year for Fences) and no actress nom for Meryl Streep (Victoria & Abdul's Judi Dench registered a somewhat unexpected nom instead).

Meanwhile, some films that heretofore have hovered a bit under the radar moved to the forefront. While three of the five nominees do not come as surprises — Get Out, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (the early giveaway that the nom-com really loved this movie was a supporting actor nom for Woody Harrelson, along with one for Sam Rockwell and an actress nom for Frances McDormand) — the other two were far from assured: The Big Sick (which I suspected was getting in when I saw its understated cast receive an explosive standing ovation following a SAG Awards nom-com screening) and Mudbound (marking the second time that a Netflix film has registered in this category, after Beasts of No Nation two years ago, which I think is a testament to the reach of the streaming platform). The latter two, along with Get Out, are also, perhaps, reflections of the considerable diversity of SAG-AFTRA, at least in relation to the Academy.

(For what it's worth, I think that I, Tonya — which scored noms for actress Margot Robbie and supporting actress Allison Janney — didn't miss a best ensemble nom by much, and is one of the few films that is still gaining momentum, so look out.)

It must be noted that there are usually two or three SAG Awards ensemble nominees who don't wind up with best picture Oscar noms and two or three SAG Awards acting nominees who don't wind up with acting Oscar noms. They tend to be casts or individuals whose work was made available to the nom-com early (making it more likely they got seen and considered), and they tend to be replaced by casts or individuals whose work reached the Academy later. In other words, late-breakers like The Post and Phantom Thread should not be written off for the Oscars, nor should All the Money in the World or The Greatest Showman, which SAG nom-com voters didn't have much of an opportunity to see, but Academy members will.

For most of the on-the-bubble ensembles and actors who have been in the conversation for months, though, Wednesday may well have been D-Day. Those feeling a shot of confidence this morning include The Disaster Artist's James Franco (although actors will surely love this performance more than any other constituency), Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya, Battle of the Sexes' Steve Carell, Mudbound's Mary J. Blige and Downsizing's Hong Chau. And, conversely, those who may have reached the end of the road today include Stronger's Jake Gyllenhaal, Good Time's Robert Pattinson, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool's Jamie Bell and Annette Bening, Wonder Wheel's Kate Winslet, Molly's Game's Jessica Chastain, The Big Sick's Ray Romano, The Shape of Water's Octavia Spencer, The Florida Project's Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite and Girls Trip's Tiffany Haddish.

We'll know for sure when nominations for the 90th Academy Awards are announced on Jan. 23.