Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" was nominated for cast… (EPA )
The ensemble prize at the SAG Awards is one of the most reliable prophets of Academy Award glory, and while Wednesday's Screen Actors Guild nominations clarified the front-runners for the best picture Oscar race, they may have muddied the outlook for the second tier of movies.
The 2,100 nominating voters in the actors union picked "The Help," "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Midnight in Paris" and "Bridesmaids" for its cast award, SAG's honor for the year's top production. While "Bridesmaids," a raunchy comedy, was a mild surprise, the other four selections were favorites.
"I think actors understand how hard comedy is, and that's why we were acknowledged," said Judd Apatow, who produced "Bridesmaids."
The civil rights drama "The Help" collected the most nominations, with four, while "The Artist" — a black-and-white silent film — was second with three.
In including "Bridesmaids," SAG voters bypassed some year-end releases that have strong pedigrees and critical buzz. Not one cast member from Stephen Daldry's 9/11 story "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," Steven Spielberg's World War I drama "War Horse" or Martin Scorsese's 3-D family film "Hugo" received a nomination. Two of December's most acclaimed performances — Michael Fassbender playing a sex addict in "Shame" and Gary Oldman as a master spy in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" — also were not nominated.
Awards-watchers are now waiting to see how those films fare with Golden Globes nominations, which will be announced Thursday morning by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. A number of those movies, including "Extremely Loud," as well as David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," are not in theaters yet and only recently started screening for critics and awards voters. It's unclear how many people on SAG's nominating panel saw those movies before ballots were due.
Last season, all five of SAG's ensemble nominees earned nominations in the best picture Oscar race, with both SAG and the academy choosing "The King's Speech" as the year's top film. But while SAG selects five nominees for its ensemble award, there can be up to 10 nominees for the best picture Academy Award.
Perhaps the biggest surprise among SAG's nominations was the inclusion of Demián Bichir in the male actor competition for his role in "A Better Life." Bichir, a Mexican actor, plays a gardener living illegally in the United States in the film, which is heavy with Spanish dialogue. Bichir will face George Clooney from "The Descendants," Leonardo DiCaprio from "J. Edgar," Brad Pitt from "Moneyball" and Jean Dujardin from "The Artist."
Bichir said that as one of millions of Mexican immigrants to Southern California, including other Mexican actors working in Hollywood, he could relate personally to the character he plays. "Being Mexican myself and being in Los Angeles all these years, I know all these people, these are my friends," he said. "I'm doing this film about us."
The nominations for female actor conformed to expectations. Glenn Close was nominated for her performance as a turn-of-the-century woman passing as a male waiter in "Albert Nobbs," while Meryl Streep got the nod for playing Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Tilda Swinton was recognized for her grieving mother role in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," and was joined by Michelle Williams for "My Week With Marilyn" and Viola Davis for playing a maid in "The Help."
"I guess all my roles feel at the time like the most important and strenuous thing you've done to date — and they probably are, because they grow and feed off of each other," said Williams, who plays a drug-addled, insecure Marilyn Monroe in the film. "But now, 'Marilyn' feels like the most ambitious thing I've ever done."
Said Close, who sang at an investors' dinner to raise money for "Albert Nobbs": "It's phenomenal. To be nominated by my peers, because of all that went into being able to finally make this movie, it's incredibly gratifying to me."
"Nobbs" and "Kevin" have been playing the festival circuit for months. General moviegoers will start getting a look at them, along with "Iron Lady," in the coming weeks as they open and expand.
The supporting male actor category was defined as much by those excluded as those included. Albert Brooks from "Drive," Ben Kingsley from "Hugo" and Max Von Sydow from "Extremely Loud" were all overlooked. Instead, the picks were Kenneth Branagh for "My Week With Marilyn," Christopher Plummer for "Beginners," Jonah Hill for "Moneyball," Nick Nolte for "Warrior" and, in a significant surprise, Armie Hammer for "J. Edgar."
"My wife woke me up and said, 'Baby, baby! … You got nominated for a SAG Award!'" said Hammer, who was honored for depicting J. Edgar Hoover's personal and professional companion. "And I went, 'Oh, that's so great!' And then I just rolled over and went back to sleep."