Sunday, January 29, 2012

Oscar 2012: SAG Award Winners

Let me get this out of the way: Octavia Spencer and Christopher Plummer will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. They just won in their respective categories at the Screen Actors Guild Awards tonight, having also swept through the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards and each winning a packet of critics’ notices. The die has been cast, those races are officially over. Now let’s turn out attention to the three big winners and see if we can read the Oscar tea leaves from them.

Best Ensemble: The Help. Six years ago, a small independent film premiered at a major film festival, where it won top honours. It then played at major festivals in the fall, swept through the critics prizes, was named Best Picture at the Golden Globes and also won the Producers and Directors Guild of America awards. This was in spite of (or maybe because of) the film’s high concept that drew critics and very enthusiastic fans. Darkening the then clear-waters, however, was a SAG Ensemble win to its chief rival for the Best Picture Oscar, a racially-charged drama featuring a big cast, some good critical notices and some controversy about the film’s point of view and how accurate / enlightening / patronizing it allegedly is. The small independent darling was Brokeback Mountain, and the racial drama that was named Best Picture was Crash.

Flash-forward to today, and you’ll see a parallel if you substitute Brokeback Mountain for The Artist and Crash for The Help. Do you see a possible upset in the Best Picture Oscar race?

But then you point out: Crash had wider support due to its corresponding nominations for Best Director, Screenplay and Film Editing, none of which The Help has despite its many acting citations. This is true, but what The Help has is insane popularity among audiences and the guild. This is important because the Academy is 1) largely comprised of actors, and 2) love to honour a big box office hit. While I’m not saying that The Help will win Best Picture, it certainly made a very strong case by sweeping Best Ensemble and both Actress awards at SAG. The last film to do so was Chicago, which swept through the 2002 Oscars and danced away with six prizes including Best Picture. This is not to say that The Artist will not win Best Picture, either. This is simply to point out that if The Help is named the year’s best film, there is precedent for it.

Best Actor: Jean Dujardin in The Artist

This is not to say that the incredibly-reviewed silent French comedy will walk away without a major Oscar. It’s the front-runner for Best Director, with its helmer Michel Hazanavicius taking the Directors Guild of America prize just last night, and its star’s unexpected triumph at SAG over the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt just turned this category from a match-up between the two megastars into a genuine three-way race. Dujardin already has a Golden Globe and Cannes Best Actor notice, and a win here could forecast an upset in Best Actor. This was supposed to have been a slam-dunk for Clooney’s work in The Descendants, but this is no longer the case.

There’s precedent for such an unorthodox win for a foreign actor with limited English skills (he spoke little to no English when the film was made). In 1998, Roberto Benigni brought his now-classic Holocaust dramedy Life is Beautiful to Cannes, where he won a major prize, tore through the festival circuit, and then bagged the SAG Award a month before taking home a shock Best Actor award. While the win was considered in hindsight by some critics to be an example of the Academy’s sometimes questionable taste, it made sense at the time. Who did Benigni overcome to win that year? Oh, only Nick Nolte and the future Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellan, who seemed amused (and a tad bitchy) during an after-party interview. Maybe he knew that not winning didn’t matter, since Benigni’s next project was the reviled Pinocchio and he has been ridiculed for his over-enthusiastic acceptance speech and future works ever since.

This is not to say that either Clooney or Pitt will lose, but Dujardin’s unexpected win over the two stars just made this into a three-way race, much like …

Best Actress: Viola Davis in The Help

Let’s first eliminate Tilda Swinton, who was unjustly not nominated for an Oscar (but who looked like she just made a new best friend in Angelina Jolie, so let’s call it even). Let’s also forget about Rooney Mara, who didn’t get a shot at a SAG Award this go-round. Glenn Close’s gender-bending role in Albert Nobbs didn’t get any critical traction and was viciously reviewed, even if she got some excellent notices, and she sorely needed a SAG win in order to stay in the conversation for the Best Actress Oscar.

Up until the SAG Awards, the two presumed front-runners were Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady and Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn. Each has a Golden Globe and critics’ group awards, and a SAG win would have tipped the scale in either’s favour. Davis’s win at SAG, combined with her Critics Choice trophy in the same category, just leveled the playing field. Best Actress has just become a three-way race for the Oscar. All things being equal, however, the balance must necessarily shift heavily to Davis more because unlike any of her fellow nominees, she’s the star of a Best Picture front-runner, whereas both Streep and Williams have the indignity of having their work transcend the lesser films in which they appear. The same might be said for Davis, but given the box office bonanza and Best Picture nomination accorded The Help, the Academy is inclined to disagree. Streep once said in an acceptance speech that “someone must write a part!” for her good friend Davis. Guess what, Meryl? They did, and it just might have cost you an Oscar.

In just a matter of minutes, with these three prizes, suddenly the major Academy Awards categories have changed from rubber-stamping the winners like in previous years (2008: Slumdog Millionaire; 1994: Forrest Gump; 2003: Lord of the Rings, etc.), we may have genuine suspense during the ceremony!

In the coming weeks, I will spotlight each of the major categories for the Oscars in separate posts as I continue to read the tea leaves and the picture becomes clearer (or murkier, for that matter). And remember, as Sasha Stone at Awards Daily writes, “The trick is not minding”.