Preview: SAG Awards (And Why the Oscars Should Have an Ensemble Category)

Meet our new awards expert Joe Reid — keep up with his column for the predictions, news and opinions you'll need to sound well-informed at parties for the entire awards season.

One of the keys to getting through -- even enjoying! -- the extended pre-Oscar season is to find aspects of the various precursors that you won't find in any of the others. For the Golden Globes, that might be the Best Musical/Comedy categories, or the tables full of drunk and mingling celebrities. For the Critics' Choice, that might be their numerous and increasingly sad attempts to claim that they're an influence on the Oscars. The Screen Actors Guild Awards offer one of my favorite unique categories of the season: Best Cast. Sure, yes, in many ways the SAG membership treat the award like a de facto Best Picture award. But they just as often step away from the Oscar frontrunner to give some love to movies with big ensembles full of great performances. And I think the Oscars should follow their lead.

For as many categories as there are at the Oscars, they don't cover the full spectrum of movie-making, now do they? Where's the love for Main Titles Design? Or location scouting? Or, in this case, casting. (I would give anything for a Best Trailer category, but I realize that's probably going too far.) For as much importance as we put on the acting categories, casting the right performer for the right part is a HUGE part of the battle. So what's wrong with a category that honors the casting director and the ensemble of actors together? This year especially, films like "Lincoln" and "Argo" relied on deep casts full of celebrated character actors.

How great, then, that the SAG Awards are giving us a chance to recognize the year's great ensembles. Of course, nothing's ever simple. This year, as in every year, the bizarre process by which the films choose which actors are included in the Ensemble nomination is beyond puzzling. Basically, everybody who gets a solo name credit in the film gets included. The problems are evident by even a casual glance at the nominees:

"Argo": Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Cranston, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Chris Messina.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel": Judi Dench, Celia Imrie, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Ronald Pickup, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton.

"Les Misérables": Isabelle Allen, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Daniel Huttlestone, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Tveit, Colm Wilkinson.

"Lincoln": Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, David Strathairn.

"Silver Linings Playbook": Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher.

The "Lincoln" ensemble includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Spader but not Gloria Reuben or Tim Blake Nelson? Hal Holbrook but not Lee pace or Michael Stuhlbarg? Neither Julia Stiles, John Oriz, nor Shea Whigham is nominated for "Silver Linings Playbook." Sheila Vand, as the fairly crucial supporting character of the maid in "Argo," isn't on the list. It's a bummer and the process should be fixed.

Will these omissions play into who will win? Maybe. "Les Mis" has the most complete accounting of its cast on the ballot, and everyone gets their little moment to shine. It's proved to be a divisive movie, but the cast (give or take a Russell Crowe) has been well-received. Still, I think it's coming down to "Argo" versus "Lincoln," and with SO MANY "Lincoln" cast members left off the ballot, the cast-of-thousands aspect of the film could be lost on the voters.  I think that gives "Argo" the edge.

As for the individual categories ...

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper - "Silver Linings Playbook" as Pat Solitano

Daniel Day-Lewis - "Lincoln" as Abraham Lincoln

John Hawkes - "The Sessions" as Mark O'Brien

Hugh Jackman - "Les Misérables" as Jean Valjean

Denzel Washington - "Flight" as Whip Whitaker

I've gotta start finding other things to talk about beyond the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis is winning all of these awards. I could always pretend that Denzel stands a better chance at SAG because he's never won one before and could be seen as "due." Yeah, let's take that one out for a spin, see how it feels.

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain - "Zero Dark Thirty" as Maya

Marion Cotillard - "Rust and Bone" as Stephanie

Jennifer Lawrence - "Silver Linings Playbook" as Tiffany Maxwell

Helen Mirren - "Hitchcock" as Alma Reville

Naomi Watts - "The Impossible" as Maria Bennett

Chastain and Lawrence were in separate categories at the Globes, so here's our first chance to see them head-to-head (and with no Emmanuelle Riva to play spoiler, as she might at the Oscars). Jennifer Lawrence would seem to have the advantage, since "Silver Linings" got the ensemble nomination and "Zero Dark Thirty" didn't. But a Chastain win would absolutely put her in the Oscar driver's seat.

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role

Alan Arkin - "Argo" as Lester Siegel

Javier Bardem - "Skyfall" as Raoul Silva

Robert De Niro - "Silver Linings Playbook" as Pat Solitano Sr.

Philip Seymour Hoffman - "The Master" as Lancaster Dodd

Tommy Lee Jones - "Lincoln" as Thaddeus Stevens

Golden Globe-winner Christoph Waltz isn't around here, and I think the absence of Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams in the other categories indicate that Hoffman is working at a disadvantage. It's worth noting that, while all five of these men have won Oscars, only two (Hoffman and Bardem) have won SAG awards. I'm not sure that sense of history matters as much at the SAGs as it does at the Oscars, but it's worth noting. Anyway, I think this one comes down to Jones vs. Arkin vs. DeNiro, and I'll take a chance on Alan Arkin.

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role          

Sally Field - "Lincoln" as Mary Todd Lincoln

Anne Hathaway - "Les Misérables" as Fantine

Helen Hunt - "The Sessions" as Cheryl Cohen-Greene

Nicole Kidman - "The Paperboy" as Charlotte Bless

Maggie Smith - "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" as Muriel Donnelly

It's Anne Hathaway, guys, let's not kid ourselves. All that's left is to hope that they air clips from the movies when the nominees are read, and Kidman's is the clip we all hope it is.

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This year's Oscar predictions, SAG Awards coverage and news come from the eerily prescient mind of our Academy Awards expert, Joe Reid.