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Now that's more like it

January 28, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

IN a normal year, the Screen Actors Guild Awards are just one event in a seemingly endless succession of Hollywood-statuary handouts. Indeed, the commercials pretty much say it all. This year's TNT and TBS broadcasts of the awards Sunday night were broken up by plugs for SlimFast and the joys of alpaca breeding. It's not the Academy Awards, after all.

Unless, of course, it is; the ongoing writers strike has cast a pall on this year's awards season, effectively shutting down the Golden Globes and threatening to make the Oscars an odd, star-free event.

So for those with a red-carpet, fancy-frock jones, the SAG awards were the only safe bet in town. As a thank-you to actors for supporting its cause, the Writers Guild of America not only did not picket the event, but it sent its West division president, Patric Verrone, to attend.

Wattage-wise, SAG did not disappoint. After all, the union gives out acting awards, so viewers were not forced to endure the tedium of the unfamous thanking their spouses, children and whatever tragic figure anchored their documentary. It was all celebrities, all the time, from the cast of "The Sopranos" raking in its final statuary to Daniel Day-Lewis confessing his self-doubt as a performer (and if he has self-doubt, there really is no hope for the rest of us).

The show, which celebrated the guild's 75th anniversary, opened with the unsinkable Sally Field explaining from her seat at the Shrine Auditorium how she fell in love with her craft. "I'm Sally Field," she concluded, "and I'm an actor."

Were there any others similarly afflicted in attendance? Yes, there were -- Sandra Oh, Ellen Burstyn and Doug Savant shared their own stories; Kyle MacLachlan even showed his SAG card. And so it went.

Fast-paced and with presentations mercifully banter-free, the evening was a celebration of the acting life and seemed to occur in some alternative Hollywood, the one without picket lines and 12 weeks' worth of unemployment among TV casts and crews.

Yes, Blair Underwood gravely narrated a brief history of SAG, and President Alan Rosenberg gave a short speech about how the guild's future depended on "you," but among the winners, there were only a few oblique references to the strike and only a few quiet nods to the contributions of writers in general. Tony Sirico, in accepting the award for ensemble in a dramatic series, thanked "Sopranos" creator David Chase; Julie Christie, who won best actress for "Away From Her," thanked writer-director Sarah Polley, while the Coen brothers received the gratitude of "No Country for Old Men" winners Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin.

It was difficult to see all those clips of the television nominees without feeling the ache of separation -- will we ever see another new "Grey's Anatomy"? When will "Mad Men" or "Damages" get their second season? Yet there were no writers strike ribbons, no one made the without-the-writers-we-are-nothing statement that actors have been making all over YouTube.

Frankly, it was weird, a sort of death-takes-a-holiday bubble at the Shrine.

Still, there were some lovely moments. Edie Falco teared up, accepting her last acting award for Carmela Soprano. "You're not supposed to get attached," she said, "but I've fallen in love with these people."

Tina Fey, winning for best actress in a TV comedy, very charmingly thanked her costar, Alec Baldwin. "It's like watching Fred Astaire dance with a hat rack," she said. "You're giving an award to the hat rack."

Bardem, who won best supporting actor for "No Country," offered a brief lesson in Spanish history, reminding the room that there was a time when actors could not be buried in sacred ground because they were considered "homosexuals and prostitutes," and Day-Lewis honored the work of Heath Ledger, who was found dead Tuesday, as he accepted his best actor award for "There Will Be Blood."

Despite an overlong tribute to actor Charles Durning, the evening clocked in at just over two hours. No opening monologues, no dance numbers, no visits backstage or over-scored film montages. Just a bunch of good-looking, very talented people thanking their co-workers, and their lucky stars, for the chance to work in TV or movies. And here's a shock: Despite the evidence of pretty much every Oscar speech ever given, actors can give very funny, moving, heartfelt thank-you speeches in which they do not even mention their agents or studio executives.

Now, if they can all just get back to work. . . .

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