Nearly all the actors we spoke with before the SAG Awards offered up the same name for their favorite performance of the year: Benicio Del Toro in Traffic.
That collective thumbs-up translated into a best actor prize for Del Toro, who won a Golden Globe Award and is nominated for an Oscar in the supporting actor category. Del Toro collected another SAG Actor statuette, as part of the large ensemble cast of Traffic.
Nineteen of Traffic's 100-plus actors received the SAG ensemble award of those, 12 were on-hand to accept their prize, including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, and Luis Guzman.
Peers Crown Julia Roberts
If SAG is a big high school and the awards ceremony a prom, as best actress Julia Roberts joked in her teary, rambling acceptance speech, then her acting peers truly named her the prom queen.
In the most emotional acceptance speech we've seen since Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar-fueled breakdown, a seemingly insecure Roberts said, "Now I feel so much better about my level of talent than I did this afternoon. I'm a fraud to stand here alone." She thanked the "invisible people
who make me look like I know what I'm doing."
The actress, who is favored to win the same prize March 25 at the Oscars, called director Soderbergh, "my own personal God," and also thanked "Benjamin, honey," a.k.a. her boyfriend Benjamin Bratt.
Bratt also picked up his first SAG award, as part of the Traffic ensemble. As a beaming Roberts joked backstage, "Come to our house, we're happy all the time."
Experience Before Beauty
In the supporting actor and actress in a motion picture categories, SAG members chose experience over "it" status, favoring Finney over Gladiator's Joaquin Phoenix and Chocolat's Judi Dench over Golden Globe winner Kate Hudson (Almost Famous). Since he had a small role in Traffic, Finney also received two awards this evening. His individual win was made easier by the promotion of Oscar rival Del Toro to the lead actor category in this awards race. Neither Finney nor Dench were on-hand to accept their awards in person.
A third British winner who was absent from the Shrine Auditorium was Vanessa Redgrave, who was named best actress in a TV movie or miniseries for HBO's If These Walls Could Talk 2.
Clean Sweep for West Wing
While Traffic and Erin Brockovich cleaned up in the film categories, NBC's The West Wing swept the dramatic television awards. The White House drama picked up awards for Allison Janney (best actress) and Martin Sheen (best actor), and for best ensemble.
Janney said the individual award was "a wonderful, wonderful surprise." She added backstage, "It's harder to accept an award for your own work, especially in this category, where the other women really carry their shows.
I love to be part of a team and that's where I shine the best
ensemble is my favorite word."
Accepting the ensemble award on behalf of the 14-member West Wing cast in attendance, John Spencer said, "We wanted this so badly because it's been given by you, our peers also because we are an ensemble."
Everyone's a Comedian
A flustered Sarah Jessica Parker, who was named best actress in a comedy series for Sex and the City, said, "I've been a proud card-carrying member [of SAG] for so long. Acting is the only thing I ever wanted to do." Backstage, she said she was surprised at the win and hadn't prepared a speech, and proceeded to apologize for the one she did give.
Best actor in a comedy series was claimed by Robert Downey Jr., who has a recurring role on Ally McBeal. The frequently incarcerated actor also took home a Golden Globe in the same category.
Comedy series ensemble of the year went to the cast of Will & Grace. Eric McCormack, who plays Will on the NBC sitcom joked, "We're happy to receive this naked guy [the Actor statue] it's the most appropriate award possible."
Brian Dennehy, a winner in the TV-movie category for Death of a Salesman, had the best line of the evening, however. "Oh, you're all waiting for Russell Crowe," said the burly actor backstage, before the best actor prize was awarded. "I'm him
plus," he joked of his own epic physique.
Crowe, who has gamely showed up at each awards show this season despite a kidnap threat, lost to Del Toro. The Gladiator star had already lost the best actor prize to Tom Hanks at the Golden Globes and Jamie Bell at the BAFTAs (both of whom were in contention in the same category tonight). While Roberts is virtually a lock to win the Best Actress Oscar, the Best Actor race remains a toss-up.