The Oscar best picture race has started to come into clearer focus, with "Argo," "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" picking up nominations for the Screen Actors Guild ensemble prize.
The SAG Award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, as well as the guild's awards for individual acting performances, is one of the trustiest early indicators of how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will vote on the Oscars. While "Marigold Hotel," a comedy about a group of British retirees in India, was a slight surprise in the announcements Wednesday morning, the other four selections in the ensemble category were early favorites.
The recently merged SAG-AFTRA union has more than 165,000 members, but nominees for the awards are chosen by 2,100 voters. Three films — Tom Hooper's period musical "Les Miserables," Steven Spielberg's Civil War drama "Lincoln" and David O'Russell's romantic dramedy "Silver Linings Playbook" — collected four nominations each. Ben Affleck's CIA thriller "Argo" and Sam Mendes' James Bond movie "Skyfall," collected two apiece, as did "The Sessions" and "Marigold Hotel."
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"This ensemble award reflects the work for more than 120 people with speaking roles," Affleck said in an interview Wednesday morning. "They were multilingual, multinational. Everybody had a sense that it was about something important, something that really happened. Virtually every actor brought a story."
Awards watchers were closely scrutinizing the nominees for snubs and surprises. "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden that arrives in theaters next week, collected just one nomination, for lead actress Jessica Chastain, while Paul Thomas Anderson's post-World War II drama "The Master" grabbed only a nod for male actor in a supporting role for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Quentin Tarantino's slavery revenge epic "Django Unchained" was shut out of the nominations entirely, though the film, which Tarantino finished in early December and which will be released on Christmas, has not yet screened widely.
Another possible best picture Oscar contender, the independently produced "Beasts of the Southern Wild," was ineligible for the SAG Awards because it wasn't shot under the terms of the union's low-budget feature agreement.
The nominations for male actor in a leading role largely followed expectations, except for the exclusion of Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance as a traumatized veteran in "The Master" had been widely praised. The guild singled out Bradley Cooper as a bipolar former teacher in "Silver Linings Playbook," Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president in "Lincoln," John Hawkes as a paralyzed polio victim determined to lose his virginity in "The Sessions," and Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot in "Flight."
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In the female actor in a leading role category, in addition to Chastain, SAG acknowledged Marion Cotillard for her performance as an orca trainer who loses her legs in "Rust and Bone," Jennifer Lawrence as a tough-talking widow in "Silver Linings Playbook," Helen Mirren as Alfred Hitchock's loyal wife and collaborator in "Hitchcock" and Naomi Watts as a vacationer whose family is caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in "The Impossible."
"It's lovely when actors recognize actors," Mirren said in an interview. "What they recognize is good writing, and they all understand that the performance comes from the writing and the direction. I was very lucky to be in a film that was so beautifully structured — it gave me a great stage to strut my stuff."
In the supporting actor categories, SAG saluted performances across a spectrum of movies, from the highly commercial "Skyfall," which has grossed $262 million domestically, to Lee Daniels' little-seen Southern gothic film "The Paperboy," which has made just $693,000.
"I was like, 'Really? Wow. What an honor,'" said Javier Bardem, who became the first actor to be nominated for playing a James Bond villain for his performance as a blond-haired bad guy in "Skyfall." "The fact that they made a Bond with Sam Mendes created a very solid story with great characters. You just celebrate for being blessed to be a part of it."
Alan Arkin ("Argo"), Robert De Niro ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Hoffman ("The Master") and Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln") rounded out the rest of the category.
For female actor in a supporting role, SAG voters selected Sally Field ("Lincoln"), Anne Hathaway ("Les Miserables"), Helen Hunt ("The Sessions"), Nicole Kidman ("The Paperboy") and Maggie Smith ("Marigold Hotel") — with Kidman's inclusion regarded as the biggest surprise.
The SAG Awards are a significant Oscar bellwether because actors represent the largest single voting bloc within the academy.