Pete Hammond

Though the media often refer to Outstanding Cast In A Motion Picture award as the Screen Actors  Guild’s version of Best Picture, SAG balks at the comparison. The actors say their winners don’t always match up and in fact are strictly an honor for a cast. But Argo‘s big win in SAG’s marquee film category tonight is a Best Picture award. And there can be no question now that Argo is on a roll. Voters just seem to like this picture, and sometimes that’s all it takes. Right now its key rivals are probably beginning to feel like Argo is holding their Best Picture hopes hostage.

Related: SAG Awards To ‘Argo’ Cast, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence

With the PGA win last night, and recent Critics Choice and Golden Globe wins for Picture and Director, Ben Affleck‘s 3rd outing as helmer is so far proving that three’s the charm. Those first two all-important  Guild contests have very good predictive track records when it comes to Oscar. As someone connected with Argo‘s campaign emailed me tonight, “We’re making progress.” That’s an understatement. This morning one Academy voter who was angry after the directors branch snubbed Ben Affleck emailed this to me: “I voted for Argo for a SAG award. And if it wins tonight the world will see the all-powerful wizard: the Academy is not so smart.” Not surprisingly that same voter plans to give a first-place Best Picture vote to Argo – and is often right in line with the way things turn out on Oscar night. In retrospect, I think Affleck being snubbed is proving to be an unexpected boost to Argo just when it was falling behind some more prominent competition in terms of Oscar buzz. The film has definitely rebounded, perhaps in part to all that snub publicity (even though the film did receive 7 nominations including one for Affleck as a producer). Warner Bros also smartly stepped up its campaign spending for the early October release and effectively freshened its materials to compete with the later holiday contenders. Its TV blitz didn’t hurt one bit.

Related: SAG Awards TV Winners Analysis

Some of the other SAG  Cast nominees, notably Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables, and Lincoln really seemed to have their hearts set on this award to gain much-needed momentum. Lincoln’s January 20th Sunday full-page newspaper ad in voter-heavy Los Angeles was dominated with their SAG nominations, emphasizing “Ensemble” at the top. It didn’t even mention the 12 Oscar nominations. Les Miz was prominently using the quote, “The Greatest Ensemble Performance Of All Time“. Silver Linings was also trying to make a connection, using photos of a fairly large cast though outside of the five principals most had just small roles. But Affleck frequently emphasized in interviews Argo’s 150 person cast (something he repeated in his acceptance tonight) – and  that may have sealed the deal. Actors love to be employed and Argo clearly employed a lot of them. It also doesn’t hurt if you and your co-producers (George Clooney and Grant Heslov) are also actors. It shows in a way that the inmates can in fact run the asylum.

So where does the SAG Awards leave us? Lincoln can boast of the most SAG wins with two: for Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis and Supporting Actor Tommy Lee Jones (who was absent due to the flu and could not travel). But last year DreamWorks actually won three Actors including Best Cast for The Help but only cashed in on one for Octavia Spencer on Oscar night. Day-Lewis is a near sure thing to win his historic third Best Actor Oscar. Jones is in a much more competitive contest against four other former winners, and results have been split at earlier awards shows. The SAG win gives him real strength, though, because SAG is usually accurate in at least 3 out of the four acting categories.

Silver Lining‘s Jennifer Lawrence won for Best Actress and that was no surprise. She was heavily favored especially since Sony did not send screeners or make iTune available for Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty which was just beginning its theatrical runs. The Weinstein Company did send screeners, movie cash, iTunes downloads, and anything else they could to SAG’s entire 100,000 members. A rep for Zero Dark Thirty even sent an email earlier today warning of this outcome due to the uneven screener playing field between the two pictures. Oscar nominees Emmanuelle Riva of Amour and Quvenzhane Wallis of Beasts Of The Southern Wild weren’t contending at SAG. So this race could still be strongly competitive though Lawrence’s heartfelt speech and win gives her a definite boost.

But Weinstein’s hopes to gain Best Picture momentum were definitely punctured by not getting the Cast award. Director David O Russell is not nominated at DGA so the last big Guild chance is at the WGA February 17th, two days before Oscar voting closes. Silver Linings also is not in contention for Best Picture or Director at BAFTA February 10th unlike rivals Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Life Of Pi and Lincoln (whose director Steven Spielberg was oddly snubbed there). It’s looking like Harvey is going to have to put all his eggs in Oscar’s basket and  hope for the best after his last two Best Picture wins, The King’s Speech and The Artist. The strong box office success of Silver Linings since going wide last week could bolster its case.

Anne Hathaway’s Les Miz win was completely expected and she should repeat on Oscar night. But any Best Picture hopes weren’t helped tonight. Another Best Picture contender, Life Of Pi, was not a factor at SAG and hopes to turn the race on its head one more time with a possible Ang Lee win at DGA on Saturday.  For Steven Spielberg, the DGA is also key. He is a perennial favorite of that Guild and a much-needed win could help rescue Lincoln from underdog status just days before the Oscar balloting begins on Feburary 8th. Of course Affleck is also a nominee and a win for him would unquestionably put Argo in the driver’s seat.

As for the SAG show itself, it was a fairly flat affair what with the same exact format year after year. It would be nice to shake things up but SAG seems content. Day-Lewis’s speech was the essence of class and only added to his Oscar inevitability. Lawrence and Hathaway also did nicely this time out as did Affleck, clearly excited to win at SAG. But it was Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dick Van Dyke who showed the master touch as the 87-year-old ageless wonder bounded to the stage to a genuinely heartfelt standing ovation, definitely the show’s highlight.

On to the DGA.

(Photos by Getty Images)

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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