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#SAG Awards Analysis: What the Results Tell Us About the Oscar Race

A jam-packed weekend of last-gasp Oscar campaigning — the film Academy’s final round of voting opened on Feb. 22 and will close on Feb. 27 — kicked off on Saturday night with the 30th SAG Awards, the first major awards show ever to be streamed on Netflix. But do Saturday night’s results actually provide reliable clues about what will happen two weeks from Sunday night at the 96th Oscars?

I would argue that they probably do.

SAG Award winners are determined by the roughly 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA, the world’s largest union of actors, whereas Oscar winners are determined by the roughly 9,500 voting members of the film Academy, 86 percent of whom are not actors, which would suggest that any overlap is purely coincidental.

But it is quite a statement that SAG-AFTRA members voted best actor in a film — which has long looked to be neck-and-neck between Cillian Murphy for Oppenheimer over Paul Giamatti for The Holdovers — to Irishman Murphy over American Giamatti, given that SAG-AFTRA members are overwhelmingly American (whereas 25 percent of Academy members are now based outside of the U.S.). Plus, Giamatti is in every way more like your average SAG-AFTRA voter, which might explain why he has previously won three SAG awards for individual performances (best supporting actor in a film for 2005’s Cinderella Man and best actor in a TV movie/miniseries for 2008’s John Adams and 2012’s Too Big to Fail) and another as part of a winning ensemble (2004’s Sideways).

In other words, if Murphy can beat Giamatti with SAG-AFTRA (on the heels of a best actor BAFTA win), it’s hard to imagine that he can’t/won’t win it with the Academy.

As for the best actress race, it has long looked like a close contest between the two “Stones,” Poor ThingsEmma Stone and Killers of the Flower Moon‘s Lily Gladstone. Stone recently won the BAFTA Award, for which Gladstone was not even nominated, so Gladstone badly needed a SAG Award win to at least create the appearance that it is still a toss-up — and she got it, making history in the process by becoming the first Native American to ever win a SAG Award for an individual performance.

But here’s where things get tricky. When the acting picks of SAG-AFTRA and the Academy have differed in recent years, it has often been a situation in which the more diverse/populist guild rewarded a person of color, whereas the Academy did not. Recent examples include the SAG Award going to Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but the Oscar going to Anthony Hopkins for The Father, the SAG Award going to Viola Davis for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but the Oscar going to Frances McDormand for Nomadland, the SAG Award going to Denzel Washington for Fences but the Oscar going to Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea, the SAG Award going to Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation but the Oscar going to Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies and the SAG Award going to Viola Davis for The Help but the Oscar going to Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady.

And yet, in each of the last two years, the SAG Awards and the Oscars picked the exact same four winners, including two people of color in each year. So perhaps the gap is closing?

There’s also a wild-card heading into the Oscars. At the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, Stone and Gladstone did not have to compete against each other. And at the Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG awards, Stone and Gladstone did not have to compete against someone else with whom they are currently competing on Oscar ballots: the star of best picture Oscar nominee Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra Hüller. I am hearing an unmistakable level of enthusiasm for Hüller from Academy members, which makes me wonder whether she is likelier to pull votes from Stone or Gladstone — or perhaps even beat them both. That would be a massive and odds-defying upset, but not an unprecedented one: three people have won acting Oscars without having won at the Critics Choice, Golden Globe, BAFTA or SAG awards (Marcia Gay Harden won best supporting actress for 2000’s Pollock, Denzel Washington won best actor for 2001’s Training Day and Adrien Brody won best actor for 2002’s The Pianist).

As for the supporting acting Oscar categories, those seem to be locked down. The SAG Award for best supporting actor went to Robert Downey Jr. for Oppenheimer and for best supporting actress went to Da’Vine Joy Randolph for The Holdovers, just as they did at every other major awards show, so there is literally no basis for predicting anyone else to win on March 10.

The same is almost certainly true for Oppenheimer in the best picture Oscar race, following its best cast SAG Award win over American Fiction, Barbie and Killers of the Flower Moon, which are also nominated for the top Oscar, and The Color Purple, which is not. To be clear, the best cast SAG Award does not have a great track record of presaging the best picture Oscar — except in years in which an upset happens for the latter. Indeed, virtually every major best picture Oscar upset started with a best cast SAG Award win: Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, Crash over Brokeback Mountain, Spotlight over The Revenant and Parasite over 1917. (The Revenant and 1917 weren’t even nominated for the best cast SAG Award.) The fact that Oppenheimer won every top precursor award leading up to the SAG Awards, and then won the best cast SAG Award, indicates pretty clearly that it is comfortably in the pole position for the top Oscar.

Anyway, the rollercoaster ride continues on Sunday with Film Independent’s Spirit Awards during the day and the Producers Guild of America’s PGA Awards at night. Rest up, Oscar-watchers, we’re not at the finish line yet!

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