The SAG Awards: Business, Not As Usual

The 2008 Screen Actors Guild Awards were like an out-of-the-way general store that suddenly enters the news because it sold a $200 million winning lottery ticket, or because of a double murder in its parking lot. They aren't used to the attention, and it showed during last night's ceremony. Where the Academy Awards and Emmys have glamor and prestige, and the Golden Globes bring a sense of fun, the SAG Awards merely sagged.

Of course, the only difference between this year's Saggies and every other year's was the amount of general public notice. When the Writers Guild of America issued a waiver to the Screen Actors Guild as a thank you for its vocal support of its strike, meaning they could use WGA labor for their awards and attendees wouldn't face a picket line, it insured greater public scrutiny for the SAG Awards than ever. With the Golden Globes a washout and a settlement of the strike pre-Oscars still only speculation, there was a possibility that this might be the one and only major gathering of Hollywood talent during awards season.

But for viewers watching at home, there simply wasn't the sense of a major event. There were no production numbers or significant banter from the podium. The fashions on display made it seem that everyone was holding the big guns in reserve for a possible Oscar appearance. Julie Christie even wore pants. Most of the men didn't seem any better dressed than they would be for a night out at an elite restaurant.

The show itself didn't make many allowances for the fact that it likely had a bigger audience than ever. This was put on by SAG, for SAG members, and if anyone was bored by it, that was their problem. The ceremony was interspersed with pre-taped bits by Blair Underwood extolling the importance of the union, and SAG head Alan Rosenberg paid tribute to the WGA by saying that the writers taught SAG how to stick up for themselves. The longest element in the show by far was the lifetime achievement tribute to Charles Durning, who turns 85 in a month. Durning is a beloved figure who enhances everything he appears in, but it is unlikely that you would ever see the Emmys or Academy Awards bringing everything to a halt so that a character actor could get his due.

These SAG Awards will be remembered as the last great haul for The Sopranos, which took home the award for its ensemble cast as well as for leads James Gandolfini and Edie Falco. Gandolfini, whose new beard and waistline has him looking like Luciano Pavarotti, was terse as he tends to be whenever he's not on the set. Falco won for the third time in nine nominations. The Sopranos ensemble won for the second time, and Tony Sirico, not exactly the epitome of range (he'll never not be Paulie, not matter what else he does in his life), was tapped to speak for the group.

Tina Fey won the award for best actress in a comedy, and while this is an historically weak category, her victory has to be considered a mild surprise given that she's essentially a writer first and foremost. Fey gave a shoutout to the WGA and paid tribute to Alec Baldwin, saying that her scenes with him are "like watching Fred Astaire dancing with a hat rack." Baldwin himself won the best actor in a comedy award minutes later, though he was not on hand to accept.

Even though 30 Rock would seem to have had a leg up on the ensemble award for comedy considering its two leads were winners, that award went instead to The Office, a defensible choice considering that its individual episodes are often dominated by supporting players. The Office has been out of production for nearly three months, as its cast of writer-performers hit the picket lines almost as soon as the WGA called the strike. Speaking for the cast, Jenna Fischer paid tribute to the show's crew and said she hoped they would all be back to work soon.

There was a strange moment as the final TV-oriented awards of the evening approached, the trophies for acting in a movie or miniseries. Mickey Rooney came on to hand out the best actress award, and the 87 year-old legend, a SAG member for an incredible 74 years, seemed to lose track of exactly why he was there, at one point even introducing his wife in the audience (it's always nice to see a guy who has been married eight times praise his wife's loyalty). Finally, Rooney got on with the business at hand and presented the award to Queen Latifah, who beat a field that included three Oscar winners, an Oscar-quality actress in Gena Rowlands, and, er...Debra Messing. So for those of you who had always wanted to hear Mickey Rooney say the words "Queen Latifah," Sunday was your lucky day.

The best actor in a movie or miniseries category was weaker than usual, considering that two of the nominations, Oliver Platt and John Turturro, came from ESPN's exceedingly mediocre The Bronx is Burning. Kevin Kline won for As You Like It, written by William Shakespeare, who is still waiting on his residuals.

With progress being made in the strike talks, and growing rumors that the WGA might decide to offer a waiver to the Academy Awards in four weeks as a token of good faith, there's a chance that the SAG Awards won't be as good as it gets for the 2008 awards season. Let's hope so, because things were just entirely too tasteful.