The 29th Screen Actors Guild Awards: Six Key Takeaways
Tonight, the 29th Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards honored the best in film and television acting over the past year. Here, I recap the show and reflect on what the winners mean (and don’t mean) for the upcoming Oscars and Emmys.
What are the SAG Awards and why are they important?
The SAG Awards are comprised of 15 competitive categories that honor to individual actors and acting ensembles across film and television. The nominations are voted on by a subset of the membership of SAG-AFTRA, a labor union that represents approximately 160,000 film, television, and radio performers. The full membership then votes for the winners. By their very nature, the SAG Awards are a star-studded affair and over the past quarter century they have evolved into a highly esteemed awards ceremony.
SAG’s television winners have a fairly weak convergence with the eventual winner of the Primetime Emmys (the top award for television). There are several reasons for this, including the massively different eligibility period (i.e., SAG follows the calendar year, while the Emmys goes July through June) and markedly different acting categories (e.g., the Emmys have supporting and guest acting races, whereas the SAG lumps everyone into one category regardless of the size of their role).
On the film side, however, the SAG Awards have a strong track record as a bellwether for the Academy Awards (the top award for film). Since their inception, the SAG winner has gone on to win the corresponding Oscar 79% of the time in Best Actor, 71% of the time in Best Actress, 68% of the time in Best Supporting Actor, and 71% of the time in Best Supporting Actress. The top SAG award (Best Performance by an Ensemble in a Motion Picture) has corresponded with the top Oscar (Best Picture) 48% of the time. This number may seem fairly low (and it is), but SAG has but in many cases when SAG does presage Oscar it is usually a hotly contested ratce that results in an upset (e.g., Shakespeare in Love, Crash, Parasite, CODA).
Below, I list 6 key takeaways from this year’s SAG Awards.
SIX KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE 29th SAG AWARDS
#1. SAG Solidified Some Oscar Races, but Obscured Others
The Best Picture and four acting categories at the upcoming Academy Awards are more competitive than they have been in many years. While the SAG race seemed to solidify a couple of races, it added to the chaos and confusion of some others.
First and foremost, the unprecedented SAG sweep of the genre-defying independent film Everything Everywhere All At Once crystallized its status as the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture. The film became the first film in history to pick up 4 SAG Awards and when you combine its record-breaking showing here with its recent big wins from the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA), you have yourself a clear frontrunner. In fact, since the advent of SAG’s Best Film Ensemble category in 1995, only 1 film has ever won the top award from SAG, PGA, and DGA and failed to win Best Picture — the inaugural winner Apollo 13. (The Ron Howard-Tom Hanks astronaut drama famously lost to Mel Gibson’s Scottish war epic Braveheart, which has the rare distinction of not having a single major precursor win for Best Picture before taking the Oscar in the category.) Everything Everywhere All At Once could still be upset in the Best Picture category, but it is increasingly hard to figure out who would win instead. All Quiet on the Western Front got cited by the BAFTAs, The Banshees of Inisherin and The Fabelmans got cited by the Golden Globes, and Tár was cited by a number of critics’ organizations, but none of them seem to have the support of recent “surprise” Best Picture winners Parasite and CODA. If it were to lose at this point, it would be an upset of massive proportions.
The most solid of the 4 acting categories is undoubtedly Ke Huy Quan, who had a historic SAG win tonight as he became the first Asian actor to win Best Supporting Actor. The actor’s wonderful narrative is hard not to root for — after great success as a child actor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, he retired from acting for 25 years before making his comeback recently. He has virtually steamrolled his way through awards season, only losing one high-profile race (the BAFTAs chose Barry Keoghan for The Banshees of Inisherin).
The next most solid bet is Brendan Fraser taking Best Actor for his performance as a gay, morbidly obese English teacher in The Whale. Although the film has its fair share of detractors (including me), it’s hard not to be won over by Fraser’s narrative as well — he had an enormously successful career in his 20s only to be virtually blacklisted from Hollywood following a sexual assault at the hands of a powerful industry insider. However, he faces stiff competition from Austin Butler, whose turn as rock and roll legend Elvis Presley was recently anointed by the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes. This one will be a nail-biter up until Oscar night.
Similarly competitive is Best Actress, which is a cutthroat two-way race between Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once and Cate Blanchett in Tár. Blanchett has won more awards than Yeoh so far, having received honors from BAFTA, the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics, and Los Angeles Film Critics. However, Blanchett already has 2 Oscars (Best Supporting Actress for 2004’s The Aviator and Best Actress for 2013’s Blue Jasmine) and her film has not received nearly the awards love that Yeoh’s has. It’s hard for me to comprehend that the Oscars wouldn’t give Yeoh a history-making Oscar (she would be the first Asian woman in history to win Best Actress) after nearly 4 decades of great, largely unrewarded work in favor of giving Blanchett her 3rd. But, as Frances McDormand’s win for Nomadland proved, if the performance is impressive enough the Oscars will anoint it no matter how many times the person has won. And Blanchett’s work is mightily impressive.
The biggest surprise of the night in any category was undoubtedly Jamie Lee Curtis winning Best Supporting Actress for Everything Everywhere All At Once. She had yet to win a single award for the performance and most critics felt that her co-star (and co-nominee) Stephanie Hsu gave the stronger performance. However, Jamie Lee Curtis is the kind of likable Hollywood legend that the film industry has likely been eager to feat for years. (And she has recently had a Hollywood comeback of sorts with the blockbuster Halloween sequel trilogy.) She is now a strong contender to take home the Oscar. However, she will have to defeat presumed frontrunner Angela Bassett for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (who won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice) and Kerry Condon for The Banshees of Inisherin (who won the BAFTA). It’s now a three-way race with Bassett’s once-wide lead seeming to narrow by the day.
Click here for my article on this year’s Academy Award nominations
#2. The White Lotus and Abbott Elementary are the Shows to Beat at the Next Primetime Emmys
As mentioned above, the convergence between the SAG television winners and the eventual Primetime Emmy winners is fairly low. However, major love from SAG can certainly portend Emmy glory.
The White Lotus won the award for Best Ensemble in a Drama Series over some mighty contenders, including the final seasons of Ozark and Better Call Saul and awards favorite The Crown. It also picked up Best Actress for Jennifer Coolidge, who continues her awards season dominance (and absolutely joyous late-career breakout). It seems a strong contender for the top awards at the next Primetime Emmys, where it will now compete in the Drama Series categories. (The first season of the show won in the Limited Series category but it is now being categorized as an ongoing series as it now has multiple seasons with some cast continuity.) However, at the Emmys it will have to compete against some shows it didn’t here, like the final season of Succession and the inaugural season of The Last of Us. Jason Bateman’s 3rd SAG win for Best Actor in a Drama for Ozark will certainly have no bearing on the Emmys given that the show is no longer eligible for the Emmys due to its end date.
The top comedy award went to Abbott Elementary, the brilliant and heartwarming ABC sitcom about Philadelphia school teachers. It seems destined to win Outstanding Comedy Series this fall, unless we see a truly stellar third season from Ted Lasso (which won the last 2 years). Best Actor went to Jeremy Allen White for The Bear (which he seems likely to repeat at the Emmys this fall) and Best Actress went to Jean Smart for Hacks (whose performance is so good she seems unwise to bet against for the remainder of the show’s run). In the Limited Series categories, Jessica Chastain’s win for the Showtime Limited Series George & Tammy definitely boosts her Emmy chances this fall, but Sam Elliott’s win for 1883 won’t mean much given that his performance was eligible for last fall’s Emmys and failed to reap a nod.
Click here for my recap of last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards
#3. The Winners Featured Historic Diversity (But Much Less Than Last Year)
Last year’s SAG winners were perhaps the most diverse and inclusive list ever. Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon took Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, in the TV drama categories, making them the first Asian people to do so. On the film side, Will Smith (King Richard) became the fifth black actor to win the SAG in the Best Actor category. Best Supporting Actress winner Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) became the first queer person and first Afro-Latina to win an individual film acting award. And Best Supporting Actor winner Troy Kotsur (CODA) is deaf, as was the majority of the cast of the film (who were all feted by SAG with the Best Film Ensemble award).
This year, we saw a predominantly Asian film win the top award for the 2nd time (following 2019’s Parasite). Additionally, we saw Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan become the first Asian winners in their respective categories. On the TV side, however, all 6 individual acting categories went to white actors, as did the Drama Ensemble category. The lone exception was the predominantly black cast of Abbott Elementary.
#4: The Show was Elegant and Entertaining
The SAG Awards have never been a television “event” in the ways that other award shows like the Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Golden Globes, or even Tonys have been. They have always been straightforward and workmanlike. Nevertheless, they have always been one of my favorites because they rarely come in at more than 2 hours (and are thus much shorter than all of the others) and with all of the awards going to actors, the ceremony is very cohesive and star-studded.
This year’s ceremony was yet another delight. For me, the best aspect of it was that in lieu of cloying commercials we were treated to inspired and entertaining clip packages about great moments in SAG history (of which there have been many despite its relative youth). This change was possible because after decades of airing on TBS/TNT, Netflix now owns the broadcast rights. (The SAG Awards will air live on the streaming service starting next year, but this year streamed live on Netflix’s YouTube channel).
The show also featured well-appointed presenters that were had to do little in the way of cringe-inducing banter, well-selected clips, and a bevy of memorable speeches (particularly Jamie Lee Curtis, Jennifer Coolidge, James Hong, and Ke Huy Quan). And with the exception of some presenters having to shush the crowd after breaks and Michelle Yeoh’s dress causing mic static, there were no technical glitches.
#5: Sally Field is a Legend and a Class Act
Sally Field became the 60th recipient of the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award. (SAG started giving out the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1962 and with a few exceptions have continued to give them out annually since then.) In a somewhat odd choice, English heartthrob Andrew Garfield presented her with the award. (The link between them is that Sally Field played Aunt May to his Peter Parker/Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel.) He did a beautiful job extolling her many virtues before introducing a clip package that truly showcased what an amazing talent she is. Among the moments included were her early TV work on The Flying Nun and Gidget, her later TV work on ER and Brothers and Sisters, her Oscar-winning turns in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart, and her many other memorable big screen turns (including Smokey and the Bandit, Absence of Malice, Steel Magnolias, Soapdish, Mrs. Doubtfire, Forrest Gump, and Lincoln).
Field, looking lovely and elegant at age 76, then took the stage and gave a sharp and heartwarming speech. She was humble, grateful, and expressed sheer joy at the fact that she was able to earn her living as an actor. She also discussed her hard-fought battle to become a serious film actress after her frothy TV work and, in a particularly powerful moment, noted how much harder it has undoubtedly been for the marginalized groups currently fighting for inclusion. Every now and then, the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award ends up being the highlight of the night for me. This was one of those years. It got me itching for a Sally Field movie marathon.
Click here for my tribute to the life and career of recent SAG Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mary Tyler Moore
#6: The Losses This Past Year Were Unfathomable
As the show entered the final stretch, Don Cheadle took the stage to introduce the annual “In Memoriam” segment, which highlight the great actors that died since the last ceremony. I feel like I say this every year, but the sheer number of iconic actors that died in the past year feels devastating and unfathomable to me. Although this year’s ceremony did not come on the heels of the death of one of the most famous movie stars (Sidney Poitier) and most famous TV stars (Betty White) in history, it nevertheless featured a number of legends. This year’s list included, but was certainly not limited to, Dame Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote), William Hurt (The Kiss of the Spider-Woman), James Caan (The Godfather), Kirstie Alley (Cheers), Olivia Newton-John (Greece), Ray Liotta (GoodFellas), Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek), Leslie Jordan (Will & Grace), Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley), Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C.), Gina Lollobrigida (Beat the Devil), Anne Heche (Wag the Dog), Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Charles Kimborough (Murphy Brown), Robert Morse (Mad Men), Irene Cara (Fame), Gregory Itzin (24), Robbie Coltraine (Harry Potter), Richard Belzer (Law & Order), Mary Alice (I’ll Fly Away), Pat Carroll (The Little Mermaid), Gilbert Gottfried (Aladdin), and Estelle Harris (Seinfeld). Damn, I got sad just writing that list out.
29th SAG Awards Film Winners:
- Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture: Everything Everywhere All At Once (A24)
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture: Brendan Fraser, The Whale (A24)
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture: Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once (A24)
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture: Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All At Once (A24)
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture: Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All At Once (A24)
- Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture: Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount)
29th SAG Awards Television Winners:
- Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series: The White Lotus (HBO)
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series: Jason Bateman, Ozark (Netflix)
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series: Jennifer Coolidge, The White Lotus (HBO)
- Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series: Abbott Elementary (ABC)
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series: Jeremy Allen White, The Bear (Fx)
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series: Jean Smart, Hacks (HBO)
- Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Limited Series: Sam Elliott, 1883 (Paramount+)
- Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Limited Series: Jessica Chastain, George & Tammy (Showtime)
- Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Comedy or Drama Series: Stranger Things (Netflix)
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