The industry offered us a first whiff of where it leans as the Oscar race continues down that increasingly steep hill. The Screen Actors Guild nominations were released just yesterday, marking the first significant industry nomination announcement of the season. It’s that time of year when we note that the Academy’s acting branch is its largest, and that there is a significant crossover contingent among the SAG membership. That’s not to say the two are one-to-one matches – in fact, SAG is huge, with a membership number over 100,000, although that’s post-AFTRA merger. Nevertheless, we got our first indication of the industry temperature on Wednesday, which revealed some interesting results.
For the first time this season, I won’t be telling you La La Land led all nominees. In fact, Damien Chazelle’s film failed to garner a nomination in SAG’s Best Cast category, its equivalent to a Best Picture prize. Obviously, the SAG Awards are acting-centric, so any love the film would otherwise garner for directing, writing, and tech disciplines isn’t on the docket. And yes, maybe the voters viewed the film as a two-hander and opted instead for nominating larger ensembles (and they obviously love those two hands, since both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling received nominations). But the would-be Best Picture frontrunner missing out on the first “Best Picture” nomination on the industry calendar does merit discussion. After all, the last time a film won the Best Picture Oscar without earning a SAG Best Cast nomination was Braveheart…20 years ago, in the first ever iteration of the SAG Awards. So to be completely fair, history isn’t necessarily on La La Land’s side in that regard. I would note, however, that the film is a pretty unique case, insomuch as the bulk of its acting is between just two people. Its dominance as an Oscar contender sets in when you consider how it encompasses so many below-the-line categories with such sufficient glitz. Sure, it could be this year’s Gravity – a film that dominates the tech categories but comes up short in Best Picture. And if we want to extend that correlation, I will note here that Gravity did, indeed, miss out on a SAG Best Cast nomination. But I will also offer this: each passing year offers its own unique way to break ties with historical precedent. Spotlight won Best Picture last year with only one other win on the night, breaking 54 years of history. The year before that, Birdman became the first film since 1981 to win Best Picture without a Best Editing nomination. It seems like each year offers its own separation history, and this year’s potential separation is now apparent.
Plus, SAG’s defining influence tends to occur when the envelopes are opened, not necessarily when the nominations are announced. If someone like Viola Davis or Mahershala Ali win in the Supporting categories, the SAG win will confirm their seasonal dominance. In the lead categories, SAG can function as the Great Decider. Whoever wins in Denzel v. Casey, and Emma v. Natalie, will be viewed as an Oscar frontrunner from that point forward. But when it comes to the nominations, SAG has its own…shall we refer to it as “uniqueness”? We all remember that Trumbo led all nominees last year, don’t we? This year offered a couple of its own oddballs, with Emily Blunt landing a lead actress nomination for The Girl on the Train. While Blunt is the single best part of that otherwise painfully obvious trash noir, inclusion in this category, amid the steepest and most deserving Best Actress field in recent memory, is a head-shaker. It also pushes out the likes of Ruth Negga and Taraji P. Henson, completely white-washing the category while others offer much more diversity.
Overall, six people of color earned nominations across the individual categories, while three of the five Best Cast nominees are films with diverse casts. Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight all made the cut, with additional downstream nominations to boot. Denzel and Viola were the recipients for Fences, as expected. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris got the nods for Moonlight, also as expected. Time to start giving Octavia Spencer due consideration in the Supporting Actress field, as she nabbed a SAG nomination for her work in Hidden Figures, right on the heels of her Golden Globe nomination on Monday. And Dev Patel strengthened his case for an Oscar nomination by landing in the SAG Supporting field, though his standing as a “supporting actor” in Lion are questionable.
I suppose the film to bump La La Land from the Best Cast field was Captain Fantastic, widely expected to garner a lead actor nod for Viggo Mortensen – which it did – but not expected to land in Best Cast, too. Of course, we know SAG loves films about big quirky families on buses…Little Miss Sunshine won Best Cast in 2007.
With La La out of the way, it seems a path has cleared for Moonlight to win Best Cast. That’s not a certainty, but does seem like a solid probability. Overall, Manchester by the Sea led all films with four nominations, adding mentions for Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges to its Best Cast nod. It will likely remain Moonlight’s chief competition for the top prize. Where it gets interesting is if either of those two films beats out La La Land to win the Producer’s Guild, which holds its ceremony one night before SAG’s. If either Moonlight or Manchester can pull a double-dip, that could spell trouble for La La Land. On the other hand, if La La can bookend its SAG no-show with wins at PGA and DGA, then it’s likely still right on track. Or we could repeat last year’s chaos scenario where three films split PGA, SAG, and DGA evenly. Not terribly impossible to imagine a scenario by which La La Land wins PGA, Manchester takes SAG, and Barry Jenkins wins DGA. Or shuffle them a bit…Manchester gets PGA, Moonlight gets SAG, Damien Chazelle gets DGA.
That’s more possible than probable, and there’s still plenty of time to go before we get there. But in this particular frame, where we now face the reality that La La Land will not be sweeping the guild prizes come January, there’s enough of a pause to consider all possibilities. And based on the tumult of recent years, it’s easy to see how we could reach any of them.