Pete Hammond

The Help’s Viola Davis certainly got a leg up in her fierce Best Actress race against The Weinstein Company’s duo Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams, and Help’s Octavia Spencer continued on her supporting actress roll that started in earnest with the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards. But the Outstanding Cast award that also went to The Help let that Dreamworks film rack up one of the biggest single film hauls in the Screen Actors Guild Awards’ 18-year history. Only two other films, American Beauty in 1999 and Chicago in 2002, match Help’s three wins out of five film categories. Interestingly, both went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. A good omen? In this case it probably doesn’t lend as much weight for the Oscar Best Picture race as pundits normally give to SAG’s cast award, which is often thought of as their version of Best Picture.

The Oscar nominations earlier this week showed no love throughout the individual branches of the Academy except the large actors group which gave it three nominations (Davis, Spencer and another supporting actress contender Jessica Chastain) to go with its Best Picture nod. With no directing, writing or editing (not to mention song, costumes, art direction where it also might have competed) the odds are very long that The Help can use its impressive showing at SAG to propel it into a dogfight with frontrunner The Artist. With Oscar ballots shipping on Wednesday though, Dreamworks and Disney may just be emboldened enough to give it a go. Warning: no film since 1930′s Grand Hotel has managed to win the Academy’s top prize without at least one directing, writing or editing nod and no film has won where its director wasn’t at least nominated for a DGA award. Of course precedents like these are made to be broken but a Best Picture win at this point would rank as one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. It would have to be driven by an extremely large majority of the powerful actors branch — easily the Academy’s biggest pool of voters with 1,183 members (nearly three times as many as the Producers which are the next largest group).

Is it possible? Well The Help is  by far the only film of Oscar’s magnificent 9 to gross more than $100 million (well over that with $169 million domestically). Academy voters might want to pick the most popular kid in class this time especially since the front-running Artist (with 10 nominations) has made just $16 million so far. And Hugo with 11 nominations is inching toward $60 million since being released at Thanksgiving. Does the Academy, worried about TV viewers’ interest in their February 26th show, want to use this SAG sweep as impetus to put some weight behind the only smash hit in their Best Picture lineup? Or would they rather stick with historical patterns and conventional Oscar thinking, placing box office fairly low on the list of considerations? Judging by the majority of Oscars-past, voters generally don’t put popularity ahead of their own feelings. The victory two years ago of The Hurt Locker over Avatar made that crystal clear.

Certainly director Michel Hazanavicius’s big DGA win Saturday night, on top of the highly predictive PGA win last weekend and previous wins from the New York Film Critics, Golden Globes and Critics Choice Movie Awards among others strongly position The Artist to sail toward a Best Picture win at this point. The DGA winner has failed on only six occasions to go on and win Best Director at the Oscars and the winner of Best Director usually is also winner of Best Picture. The somewhat surprising Best Actor win for The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin at SAG also indicates there was much love for his movie even though it didn’t take the Cast prize. Plus there is no indication that The Artist has lost any of its apparent rank and file voter appeal in the Academy despite some vocal naysayers who dismiss the black-and-white silent as too slight to win the big prize. In other words, while The Help had a big night it doesn’t seem to be at the expense of The Artist which is splitting the headlines with its rival for this very important weekend.

This does not seem to be the same situation as in 2005 when eventual surprise Best Picture victor Crash was able to use a SAG cast win to derail the surging momentum of PGA and DGA winner Brokeback Mountain. The former also had those key directing, writing and editing nominations (winning the latter two in addition to Best Pic). But it does add a bit of intrigue.

Speaking of French superstar  Dujardin his SAG win is reminiscent of Italian Roberto Begnini’s surprise SAG win in 1998 , a victory that began his march to Oscar. Even though he had won a Golden Globe in the less competitive Musical or Comedy category, beating favored George Clooney and Brad Pitt was no small feat. But in hindsight it’s not too surprising to think that an actors union might favor the kind of challenging silent performance Dujardin had to deliver. After all it’s the essence of screen acting. He won Best Actor at Cannes from a jury that included his peers and Oscar and SAG voters like Robert De Niro, Jude Law and Uma Thurman. The Dujardin win at SAG turns this Best Actor race into the same kind of barnburner we have been seeing in the Best Actress contest. Now it gets fun.  But whether the SAG victories of Davis and Dujardin drive viewer interest in the Oscars to see if they can repeat is questionable since they are far less known to fans than the superstar actors they defeated.

Finally the one person sitting pretty after SAG is Beginners Supporting Actor winner Christopher Plummer who has been sweeping the field. His string of eloquent and witty acceptance speeches aren’t hurting his chances a bit as he now goes forward against a stellar group of nominees in that category.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.