Does SAG win lead to Oscar? Maybe

By Martin A. Grove
Actor awards: While it's no secret that winning a SAG award greatly enhances one's prospects of winning a comparable Oscar, it's not necessarily the done deal it may seem to be.

Looking back at SAG's Actor Awards only requires a short time travel trip to 1995 when the guild first began honoring performances in films and on television for the previous year. SAG's ensemble cast award for motion pictures didn't actually begin until the following year so making comparisons to the Oscars on that front involves only 11 years not 12. There are lots of statistics to examine and some nuances that may or may not make a difference when it comes to predicting Oscar success based on SAG wins.

In the case of this year's SAG ensemble cast winner, "Little Miss Sunshine," Sunday's sunny skies may or may not be clouded by the fact that the picture is a comedy -- albeit a dark comedy -- which happens to be a genre Oscar usually doesn't celebrate. That doesn't mean that it can't or won't happen this year. It just means that it's really tough for any comedy to get the respect it deserves from Academy voters.

Given "Crash's" surprise SAG ensemble cast award win last year after which it won the best picture Oscar, there are those who think "Sunshine's" a slam-dunk to take home the best picture Oscar. While it certainly does have a good chance of doing so, there may not be any slam dunks out there in Oscarland in this wide open year.

To begin with, if we look carefully at the 11-year history in which SAG's ensemble cast awards have overlapped with best picture Oscars we find that only in five of those years did the two groups actually vote the same way. For films released in 1998 they both applauded "Shakespeare in Love." For 1999 they both celebrated "American Beauty." For 2002 they both chose "Chicago." For 2003 they both went for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." And for 2005 they both opted for "Crash."

Here's how their decisions were split during those six other years: For 1995 SAG honored "Apollo 13," but the Oscar went to "Braveheart." For 1996 SAG liked "The Birdcage," which wasn't even an Academy best picture nominee, but the Oscar went to "The English Patient." For 1997 SAG spotlighted "The Full Monty," but the Oscar went to "Titanic." For 2000 SAG liked "Traffic," but the Oscar went to "Gladiator." For 2001 SAG honored "Gosford Park," but the Oscar went to "A Beautiful Mind." And for 2004 SAG's choice was "Sideways" while the Oscar went to "Million Dollar Baby."

If you look closely at the six years in which SAG and Oscar went in different best picture directions you'll see something that could spell trouble for "Sunshine." The emphasis, by the way, is on "could" because, of course, in Hollywood nobody knows anything. In any case, in four of those six years SAG celebrated comedies while Oscar applauded more serious films. A quick recap: "The Birdcage" (SAG) vs. "The English Patient" (Oscar). "The Full Monty" (SAG) vs. "Titanic" (Oscar). "Gosford Park" (SAG) vs. "A Beautiful Mind" (Oscar). And "Sideways" (SAG) vs. "Million Dollar Baby." Clearly, SAG's appetite for comedy is a lot keener than Oscar's.

To win, "Sunshine" has to overcome Oscar's tendency to vote for films that are more serious, more important, more profound and more significant. There are some serious aspects to "Sunshine," which really is quite a dark comedy, so this is certainly not impossible, but it will be very difficult. "Sideways," for instance, faced the same challenge and tried but failed to get Oscar to focus on its more serious side.

In addition, "Sunshine" also faces two other challenges in its hopes to win the best picture Oscar in that it doesn't have best directing or film editing nominations. It's certainly not chiseled in stone on the Academy building that you've got to have these noms in order to win best picture, but the fact is that over the years they've become part of the winning package much of the time. The last film to win a best picture Oscar without having received an editing nomination was Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" in 1981 at the Academy Awards. In fact, only nine films in 78 years of Academy Awards have taken home a best picture Oscar without having also gotten into the film editing race. As for best picture nominees that don't also have directing nods, Hollywood handicappers call them "orphans" and believe it's a big problem if you don't have a directing nod to go along with your best picture nomination.

In this year's Oscar race only two of the best picture nominees have film editing nods -- "Babel" and "The Departed." Four films nominated for best picture also have best directing noms -- "Babel" (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), "The Departed" (Martin Scorsese), "Letters From Iwo Jima" (Clint Eastwood) and "The Queen" (Stephen Frears). That doesn't mean "Sunshine" still can't get elected best picture, but it's not quite the slam dunk some observers have been buzzing about. On the other hand, there's no question that actors like "Sunshine" a lot. And the fact that actors make up the Academy's largest branch (with 1,251 out of 5,830 active members) is certainly an important factor in "Sunshine's" favor.

Reading the SAG awards tea leaves also leads to some thoughts about the prospects for other Oscar contenders. Although "Dreamgirls" isn't a best picture Oscar nominee, the fact that SAG didn't hand it the best ensemble cast award Sunday suggests it wouldn't have had the actors branch's support if it had gotten into the best picture race. There are, of course, differences between SAG's broad membership of over 100,000 actors (many of whom spend more time looking for work than working) and the much smaller group of SAG members who belong to the Academy's actors branch. The Academy branch, as you would expect, is a much more seasoned group that's been around the Hollywood track for a while and has accumulated the credits needed to qualify for membership.

Just as there are sometimes differences between how the Directors Guild of America's diverse membership votes and how the Academy's much smaller directing branch votes, there are sometimes differences between how SAG votes and how the Academy's acting branch votes. No one can say for certain if "Dreamgirls" would have had the actors' support in the Oscar race, but we know it didn't get enough votes to win in SAG's ensemble cast competition.

Of course, the best ensemble cast award is only one of the movie honors that SAG bestowed Sunday night. The others for lead and supporting male and female actor performances typically make the winners front-runners for the comparable Oscars. If we look back over the years, we find, however, that there are some variations between how those four SAG acting honors correlate to taking home an Oscar.

In 12 years of SAG best actor awards, there have been eight matches with the Academy and four times when the two sets of voters went their separate ways. For 2000 SAG's best lead actor was Benico Del Toro for "Traffic," but Del Toro wasn't an Oscar best actor nominee. He was Oscar nominated for best supporting actor and won, but the best actor Oscar went to Russell Crowe for "Gladiator." For 2001 SAG applauded Russell Crowe for "A Beautiful Mind," but Oscar opted for Denzel Washington for "Training Day." For 2002 SAG supported Daniel Day-Lewis for "Gangs of New York," but the Oscar went to Adrien Brody for "The Pianist." And for 2003 SAG honored Johnny Depp for "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" while Oscar celebrated Sean Penn for "Mystic River."

Those who automatically assume that just because SAG and Oscar were perfect matches on the best actor front for 2004 and 2005 the same thing will happen again for 2006 could be surprised Feb. 25 when Oscar's sealed envelopes are opened. Or, of course, they could wind up saying, "I told you so." Nonetheless, two years is a very small sample from which to draw conclusions. Moreover, this year's best actor race is a highly competitive one. To begin with, Forest Whitaker, the SAG winner for the art house drama "The Last King of Scotland," is a first-time Oscar nominee. He faces serious competition from veteran actor Peter O'Toole for the art house drama "Venus." O'Toole, who's a contemporary of many Academy members, has been passed over for decades by Oscar. He's had eight best actor nominations since starring in "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962 and he's come home empty handed each time. O'Toole's only Academy recognition came in 2003 when he received an Honorary Award for providing "cinema history with some of its most memorable characters." ?

Also competing for best actor are Will Smith, who has the advantage of being one of Hollywood's most popular actors. This is his second best actor Oscar nom. Smith stars in a much more accessible mainstream film, "The Pursuit of Happyness," which is one of few Oscar nominees this year that's actually been seen by more than a handful of moviegoers. It's already grossed over $153 million domestically and is heading for about $160 million.

There's also Leonardo DiCaprio, who's nominated for the drama "Blood Diamond," and who has a previous nomination for best actor and for best supporting actor. DiCaprio, too, is a popular figure in Hollywood and could be swept along if this turns out to be, as some people are insisting it will, "Marty's Year," with Martin Scorsese taking home the best directing Oscar.

Last but not least, there's Ryan Gosling, who may be young, but was critically acclaimed for his performance in "Half Nelson," for which he received the National Board of Review's best male breakthrough performance award last December. Here, too, there's a horse race to be run and the only best actor horses certain to lose are those who don't compete for votes.

On the best actress front, SAG and Oscar have seen things the same way for 10 out of 12 years. The two years without a mirror image were for 1994 when SAG went for Jodie Foster for "Nell" and the Oscar went to Jessica Lange for "Blue Sky;" and 2002 when SAG admired Renee Zellweger for "Chicago" and the Oscar went to Nicole Kidman for "The Hours." But with 10 out of 12 years matching up, that's enough of an overlap to call SAG winner Helen Mirren a solid front-runner for "The Queen." But here, too, there's still strong competition for her to face from Penelope Cruz for "Volver," Judi Dench for "Notes On a Scandal," "Meryl Streep for "The Devil Wears Prada" and Kate Winslet for "Little Children."

Cases can be made for or against everybody. This is Mirren's first best actress Oscar nod although she's been nominated twice before for supporting actress. "Volver's" female-centric story, for instance, may not resonate with the Academy's mostly male membership, but first time Oscar nominee Cruz clearly emerges as a major star in this film and delivers a wonderful performance.

Dench has had three previous best actress Oscar nods as well as two supporting actress nods. While she won supporting actress for "Shakespeare in Love," she's never won lead actress and this could be the performance that changes that.

"Prada's" a comedy and we know how the Academy feels about comedies, but we also know that they love Streep. She's been nominated 11 times for best actress and three times for best supporting actress and she's won twice -- in 1983 for best actress for "Sophie's Choice" and in 1980 for best supporting actress for "Kramer vs. Kramer."

Winslet's had two previous Oscar noms for best actress and two for best supporting actress. She's never won and this time around she's in a serious drama that can't be voted for in the best picture or directing races (although director Todd Field is a co-nominee for best adapted screenplay). ?

In the supporting actor category the correlation between SAG wins and Oscar wins is only 50-50. In 12 years of overlapping awards, there have been six occasions when SAG and Academy voters came to the same conclusions. Eddie Murphy's SAG win for "Dreamgirls" Sunday will tip the Oscar scales one way or the other, but which way is really anybody's guess at this point.

The six years in which SAG and Oscar agreed on best supporting actor were for 1994 (Martin Landau for "Ed Wood"), 1996 (Cuba Gooding, Jr. for "Jerry Maguire"), 1997 (Robin Williams for "Good Will Hunting"), 1999 (Michael Caine for "The Cider House Rules"), 2003 (Tim Robbins for "Mystic River") and 2004 (Morgan Freeman for "Million Dollar Baby").

The six years when SAG and Oscar went their own separate ways on the supporting actor front were for 1995 when SAG voted for Ed Harris for "Apollo 13" and the Oscar went to Kevin Spacey for "The Usual Suspects;" 1998 when SAG liked Robert Duvall for "A Civil Action" and the Oscar went to James Coburn for "Affliction;" 2000 when SAG selected Albert Finney for "Erin Brockovich" and the Oscar went to Benicio Del Toro for "Traffic," who was SAG's choice in the best lead actor category; 2001 when SAG applauded Ian McKellen for "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and the Oscar went to Jim Broadbent for "Iris;" 2002 when SAG honored Christopher Walken for "Catch Me If You Can" and the Oscar went to Chris Cooper for "Adaptation;" and 2005 when SAG chose Paul Giamatti for "Cinderella Man" and the Oscar went to George Clooney for "Syriana."

In the supporting actress category there have been seven matches between SAG and Oscar in 12 years of voting, which puts the odds slightly but not definitively in favor of SAG winner and first time Oscar nominee Jennifer Hudson for "Dreamgirls." The five years in which SAG and Oscar differed were for 1995 when SAG loved Kate Winslet for "Sense and Sensibility" and the Oscar went to Mira Sorvino for "Mighty Aphrodite;" 1996 when SAG honored Lauren Bacall for "The Mirror Has Two Faces" and the Oscar went to Juliette Binoche for "The English Patient;" 1998 when SAG picked Kathy Bates for "Primary Colors" and the Oscar went to Judi Dench for "Shakespeare in Love;" 2000 when SAG decided on Judi Dench for "Chocolat" and the Oscar went to Marcia Gay Harden for "Pollock;" and 2001 when SAG crowned Helen Mirren for "Gosford Park" and the Oscar went to Jennifer Connelly for "A Beautiful Mind."

The seven years with supporting actress matches were for 1994 with Dianne Wiest for "Bullets Over Broadway;" 1997 with Kim Basinger for "L.A. Confidential;" 1999 with Angelina Jolie for "Girl, Interrupted;" 2002 with Catherine Zeta-Jones for "Chicago;" 2003 with Renee Zellweger for "Cold Mountain;" 2004 with Cate Blanchett for "The Aviator;" and 2005 with Rachel Weisz for "The Constant Gardener."

Filmmaker flashbacks:? From Dec. 28, 1988's column: "Doomsday predictions about independent production notwithstanding, some independents remain bullish about the future of their business.

"A case in point is Jeffrey Konvitz, who signed on as president and chief operating officer of Kings Road Entertainment about five months ago. Does he buy the now fashionable argument that independent production isn't viable? 'I don't think so,' he told me, 'or I wouldn't have left my law practice to join Kings Road...

"'We have just concluded the negotiation of an overall arrangement with Credit Lyonnais both for pictures and a revolver with respect to the ongoing operation of the company outside of picture production. Credit Lyonnais has become the major force with respect to banking arrangements in the independent production community. We have a close working relationship with them and we look forward in the future to this relationship getting even closer and expanding.

"'At the same time we have a flagship arrangement with HBO -- an output arrangement with respect to theatrical features. Over the last few years our output has proven very successful in their video sales and cable marketing. Our relationship has been expanded and that is also a growing relationship we look forward to with great anticipation.'

"On the production front, two films had finished principal photography when Konvitz arrived -- 'Jacknife,' starring Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker; and 'Homer & Eddie,' starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Belushi, both of which will be released by Cineplex Odeon this spring. 'Two pictures that were in production when I came to the company and that I was intimately involved with on an ongoing daily basis were 'Salute of the Jugger' (released in 1989 as 'The Blood of Heroes') with Rutger Hauer, which we're shooting in Australia, and 'Kickboxer,' starring Jean Claude Van Damme, which we're shooting in Hong Kong and Thailand,' he notes."

Update: Of the films Konvitz discussed, "Kickboxer" performed best. The picture, which cost about $1.5 million to produce, opened Sept. 8, 1989 via Cannon Films to $4.1 million at 973 theaters ($4,248 per theater). It went on to gross $14.7 million domestically. It spawned a mini-franchise starting with "Kickboxer 2: The Road Back," which did not star Van Damme. The sequel opened June 14, 1991 via Trimark to $444,239 at 184 theaters ($2,414 per theater) and went on to do $1.3 million domestically. From there the Van Damme-less "Kickboxer" series went straight to home video with "Kickboxer 3: The Art of War" in 1992, "Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor" in 1994 and "Kickboxer 5" in 1995.