Pete Hammond

Now it gets serious. After a flood of critics awards and nominations in the last week, the Screen Actors Guild this morning became the first peer group to realistically match what might happen for the Oscar nominations. SAG has a good track record in generally summing up the sentiments of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences because its actors branch is the largest. Last year, for instance, there was a remarkable correlation between the two groups SAG and the Academy, matching 19 of the 20 nods in the four acting categories they share. All four SAG winners repeated at the Oscars. So what’s raising eyebrows this year?

In the hotly competitive Best Actress race, SAG matched the Golden Globe and CCMA lists closely with expected nods to Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman and Annette Bening – but threw in a ringer with their fifth choice, Hilary Swank in Fox Searchlight’s Conviction. The movie has been quiet at the box office and Swank, though on the long lists of contenders, had not figured in any contests so far. This SAG nomination, coming from her fellow SAG actors who seem to share the same mindset as the actors who vote in the Academy, gives a huge boost to her chances of landing a third Oscar nomination next month. She turned her first two – for Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) — into gold — in both instances beating Bening. Interesting how the two only seem to get nominated in the same years.

This time Bening also has to compete against Portman. They both are the early co-favorites particularly since both their films, Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right were also nominated in the Outstanding Cast category, SAG’s version of Best Picture. Notably snubbed was Blue Valentine’s Michelle Williams who earlier this week had snagged Golden Globe and CCMA noms and seemed to be on a roll. The SAGsters also bypassed a strong foreign contingent of hopefuls including I Am Love’s Tilda Swinton, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace and particularly Another Year’s Lesley Manville who has been blanked ever since starting this awards season as the National Board Of Review’s Best Actress winner two weeks ago. Globe nominees Halle Berry (Frankie & Annie), Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs) and Bening’s The kids Are All Right co-star Julianne Moore also failed to make the cut though Moore is included in the ensemble cast nod.

SAG’s Best Actor choices Jeff Bridges (True Grit) and Robert Duvall (Get Low) have had an up-and-down week: Nominated for CCMA awards, snubbed by the Golden Globes, and now up for SAG and likely to repeat at the Oscars. The rest of the contenders — Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), James Franco (127 Hours), and Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) – were frontrunners, and Firth is widely expected to be crowned in this category when the SAG awards are handed out on January 30. But among those overlooked actors were Leonardo DiCaprio, who had recently done turnaway Q&A sessions for the SAG nominating group separately for Shutter Island and Inception but likely cancelled himself out.

It also has to be disappointing for The Fighter’s leading man, Mark Wahlberg, to miss out here even though all his co-stars received supporting bids though he is included in the film’s Best Cast nomination. Cannes Best Actor winner Javier Bardem has been on a losing streak all week and must be starting to wonder if his very dark Spanish language Biutiful may be just too tough for some voters to screen all the way through. If it is any comfort to Bardem, he was also snubbed by SAG in 2000 for the Spanish language Before Night Falls but went on to a Best Actor Oscar nomination anyway. Foreign language acting nominees are rare at SAG, and only Life Is Beautiful’s Roberto Begnini has ever won. Golden Globe nominees Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) and Kevin Spacey (Casino Jack) also didn’t pass SAG’s muster.

As expected, Christian Bale (The Fighter) and Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech) are both in contention for Supporting Actor and one of them will likely prevail at SAG and the Oscars. The rest of the field seems fairly predictable with The Town’s Jeremy Renner getting his third straight supporting bid this week and New York Film Critics and CCMA nominee Mark Ruffalo steamrolling along for The Kids Are All Right. The fifth slot went to Indie Spirit nominee John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, a bit of a surprise. But Hawkes is the kind of dues-paying actor’s actor the SAG group loves to acknowledge. They did so in lieu of higher profile contenders like The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake, True Grit’s Matt Damon. Golden Globe nominee Michael Douglas might have made the list for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps but Twentieth Century Fox did not send out screeners on that and may have hurt what chance he might have had. His illness prevented him from doing the obligatory SAG Q&A sessions in Los Angeles, although he did appear in New York. Also, considering Swank’s recognition by SAG, it’s surprising her critically praised co-star Sam Rockwell was shut out. Of all the Conviction stars, he was thought before to have the best shot at a nod.

The Supporting Actress field offered up no shockers. True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld (obstensibly a lead, but entered in the supporting category) grabbed a nomination even though the size of her role dwarfs the competition. Two years ago, Kate Winslet won in this category for The Reader but was later nominated for – and won – the leading actress Oscar in the same film. Rules differ between the two orgs. With SAG, actors are entered into specific categories. With Oscar, it’s up to the Actors branch to decide where the thesps belong. Just based on the weight of her role, 13-year-old Steinfeld could be a major contender to take this prize at SAG, particularly if The Fighter’s nominated co-stars Melissa Leo and Amy Adams split the vote. Due to the popularity of The King’s Speech, Helena Bonham Carter could be a spoiler. The fifth contender, Black Swan’s Mila Kunis, should be happy. But not her veteran co-star Barbara Hershey. Or Rabbit Hole’s Dianne Wiest who inexplicably has been overlooked this week by voting groups. Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver has been on a big awards roll this season but SAG stopped that cold. Although if Oscar voters can be convinced to watch the little-seen Australian crime thriller, Weaver could easily sneak back into contention there.

Finally, the Best Cast category given to an ensemble of actors is often thought to be a category that favors Best Picture contenders. Certainly, the SAG list backs that up this year with Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, and The Social Network all good shots to make Oscar’s Top 10 as well. The winner here, though, doesn’t always match Oscar. Last year, SAG’s nominated cast for The Hurt Locker was beaten by Inglourious Basterds even though Locker went on to prevail at the Kodak. This year, it may be too close to call where SAG’s sentiments ultimately lie. It’s a real dogfight.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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