Sunday, January 24, 2010

SAG awards are Oscar harbinger

A week ago, I wrote in this space assessing how much the Golden Globes are an indicator of the Academy Awards. Short version: Not very much.

Last night's Screen Actors Guild Awards, though are different. Unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which is basically a phantom organization, the SAG is the powerful actors union. Like the Producers Guild, Directors Guild and Writers Guild, these groups' awards are notable because of the overlap with Academy voters.

People who are members of one of these guilds are often (though certainly not always) also voting members of the Academy. The SAG awards are especially notable because actors make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy.

So as the guild awards go, so often go the Oscars.

There wasn't too much surprise in last night's awards: Jeff Bridges won Best Actor for "Crazy Heart," Christoph Waltz took supporting actor for "Inglourious Basterds," Mo'Nique won supporting actress for "Precious."

At this point, those three should be considered heavy favorites to win the Oscar. Colin Firth didn't get a lot of traction for "A Single Man," mainly because few people saw it. And everyone loves George Clooney in "Up in the Air," but I think there's a sense floating around that he was playing a version of himself -- or at least his star persona.

Whereas Oscar voters love to award actors (actresses, not so much) lifetime achievement awards. So, often a respected actor will take home the statue for a movie most reasonable people would agree is not their best work. Thus, Paul Newman finally won for "The Color of Money" and Al Pacino for "Scent of a Woman" -- fine movies and fine performances, but hardly the pinnacle of their careers.

Essentially, there's a movement underway pushing the idea that it's Jeff Bridges' time. I don't mind, since in this case I think "Crazy Heart" does represent some of his finest work.

The real surprise was Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for "The Blind Side." Her SAG win is starting me to changing my mind that she can't win the Oscar.

Unlike the Globes, the SAG awards and Oscars don't split up the acting category into dramas and comedies/musicals. So the fact that Bullock won over award favorite Meryl Streep is an indication of genuine respect for Bullock's performance. I think we could dismiss her Globe win to her film's excellent box office performance -- the Globes are the epitome of favoring the most popular over the best films. Not SAG.

The other big contender, Carey Mulligan, appears to be sliding. Not very many people saw "An Education," which was a critical darling. And given Mulligan's youth and inexperience -- "An Education" represents her first starring role -- there may be a willingness to view an Oscar nomination as its own reward for a rising star. Even Hilary Swank, who seemed to come out of nowhere a decade ago to win for "Boys Don't Cry," had headlined a couple of small movies prior to that.

This is one occasion where it helps to be the established actress in her 40s rather than the ingenue in her early 20s.

Personally, I still think Streep gave the best performance of the year. But it's starting to look more and more like Bullock's turn in "The Blind Side" has come out of nowhere to take the lead.

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