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SAG Ensemble: An Essay Or A Ramble

Regarding the Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture award at the Screen Actors Guild, I have read very recently someone using the term “SAG’s Best Picture category” when commenting about the nominees – also announced very recently. I was not genuinely sure if the commenter was making a mistake or that it was intentional. Or option three, that it feels more like an honorable mention for the movie itself rather than the cast these days – especially given the significance attached to the category SAG Ensemble and the Best Picture Oscar.

Do the members of the Screen Actors Guild vote for an ensemble any more? You know, a range and group of exceptional acting performances within a single picture? Or do they vote for the award like it is a best picture award? They shouldn’t, should they? Given this is a guild of actors and actresses patting the backs of other actors and actresses. There is already a Guild for productions, as well as a Guild for directors, and a Guild for writers.

If you look back when SAG started giving out the awards the Ensemble nominees certainly represented an accomplished group of acting talent that represented the whole that is the movie. I mean, they do now in a way, but there has been a slight sway towards where the Oscars may be heading in recent years. Maybe I, and others, have misunderstood the category over the years – but we do need this Ensemble cast reward, it is not really anywhere else in the main awards (like the BAFTAs, Globes or Oscars for example). What we certainly don’t want is it to be just misinterpreted  as an extension of a best film award.

If I were voting I would be looking at the movies with a larger scale cast, without regard for it being one of the best movies of the year. True, the movie would have to be enjoyable to some extent, a well performing cast usually equates to this. We hope.

If we look, as briefly as possible, at the first few years you’ll see less of an agenda to follow the awards season trends (I know, the awards season itself has come a long way since then what with the internet and Harvey Weinstein for instance). In 1995 the SAG Ensemble nominees had two Best Picture no-chances (Get Shorty and How to Make an American Quilt) and two eventually Best Picture nominees that went from favorites to stitched-ups (Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility). The Birdcage even won the Ensemble in 1996, and was nowhere to be seen come Oscar nominations. Came down with comedy fever?

Other nominees later included Boogie Nights, Being John Malkovich (if you include all the Malkovich’s), Magnolia, and Almost Famous – great movies with a great big cast of great performances – also left behind by Oscar eventually. But that comes down to a number of things of course, like flavor of the week, or the fact not all Best Picture contenders have what you might call an extensive cast of characters portrayed with excellence throughout. Okay, there are some that almost went, or could have gone, all the way like L.A. Confidential, Saving Private Ryan, Traffic, Gosford Park, Babel or Inglourious Basterds. I’ll tell you what’s a great ensemble, all three of The Lord of the Rings movies – the final of which won Best Picture of course. In fact, Braveheart was the only Best Picture winner to not be nominated with SAG – and you could argue its case for Ensemble.

It is, then, tough to make a convincing argument that there should not necessarily be an influential correlation between Best Picture winners and SAG Ensemble nominees, when you consider many had great, well, ensembles (Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Gladiator, The Departed, and yes, Argo). Well received musicals (a genre that usually requires a huge cast) can also do well with both awards – Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Dreamgirls, Nine, Les Miserables. And what of the delightful ensembles that are The Full Monty, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Little Miss Sunshine? Or Midnight in Paris, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Bridesmaids? These are movies that define the SAG Ensemble category – aren’t they?

So it seems I am assuming an Ensemble nomination must have a huge cast of award worthy performances. That is not deliberate. I know some movies (that did get the SAG nod) have much less main cast members with prominent roles – maybe three, four, or five with the odd background / cameo roles. Without trying to put movie casts into definite groups. And now I am describing some of the better movies over the past couple of decades. Movies like Good Will Hunting, Mystic River, Brokeback Mountain. These are movies that easily warranted at least three nominations for individual acting in any awards groups. Movies like In the Bedroom, Million Dollar Baby, Sideways, Doubt. And let’s not forget, oh how can we forget, the David O Russell onslaught. The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, however you feel about their acting awards coverage, achieved an unprecedented amount of nominations for acting in all three awards seasons. And an impressive feat it was.

I may have pretty much quenched any doubts about this ensemble notion I had when I started writing this. Whether or not that commenter made a mistake when he referred to the SAG Ensemble as Best Picture is quite irrelevant. The matter is very much up for debate. And translation. I close my eyes and see what I feel is an ensemble movie, but there is no formula I can write down to define it. Is there?

This year’s nominees for Ensemble with the Screen Actors Guild cover the two leading horses (Birdman and Boyhood – likely warrant all the nominations they get), the trailing dogs (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), and a movie we are glad was not forgotten (he Grand Budapest Hotel). The latter I described recently as the definition of ensemble brilliance – were it not nominated here then the Guild would need to look up ensemble in a dictionary. The word has lost all meaning.

Debate comes from, in particular, The Theory of Everything, that is really about two people, and those two actors really, really do stand out for that reason, and that they are both compelling. There is no doubt though that barring Boyhood, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, we would have perhaps liked to see more worthy ensembles mentioned, such as Mr Turner perhaps, or The Homesman, Interstellar, and even Inherent Vice. The three for me (and others) which stand out though are Into the Woods, for obvious reasons. And then the two black cats, Foxcatcher and Gone Girl, that gladly still have their claws in the awards race thus far – even without the Ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild. Perhaps will we see further down the line how influential that SAG category is.



  1. Al Robinson Al Robinson December 12, 2014

    I think of “OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A CAST IN A MOTION PICTURE” I first look at it as their version of the “Best Picture” Award, since it's the big award of the night, and like you pointed out, the majority of the time, the nominees are nominated by the AMPAS voters for the “Best Motion Picture of the Year” Oscar.

    I look at this year's crop and can't not think this is their version of the “Best Picture” category. I think that Boyhood is not one of the 5 best ensembles per se, but definitely is one of the best films. I think from Boyhood, only Patricia Arquette stands any chance of getting nominated. In fact, generally, she's the only one people even mention from an acting standpoint.
    I agree with you about The Theory of Everything. I haven't seen it yet, but it looks like it's basically just the two of them, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
    I have always wondered though if when they vote, are they voting for the movie they think has the best acting, or are they voting for which one they think is the best film. Let's look at last year as an example of that. Clearly 12 Years a Slave was a better film than American Hustle, but it was American Hustle that won, and even bested 12 Years a Slave in acting nominations (4 to 3) for the Oscars. I think the SAG picked American Hustle based on the acting.
    Bridesmaids actually was a Best Picture contender in 2011, because it was also nominated for Best Picture by the Producers Guild. Go figure! I think it was also nominated for Best Picture by a couple other major Oscar Pre-cursors.
    Your question in this article can also be asked about the Directors Guild Awards. Their award is called “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures”, but I think that award is a double entendre, and counts as a Oscar pre-cursor for both the award for Best Picture AND the award for Best Director.
    Lastly, think about this, otherwise, how come the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild doesn't have a “Best Picture” category. I think it's because they think of their big award as a “Best Picture” award.

    Now that's a whole lot of thought to chew on. Haha!! 🙂

  2. Robin Write Robin Write December 12, 2014

    I think Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture obviously sums it up {but I avoided using its full title as wanted to use the word Ensemble repeatedly :-)}.

    I do think Boyhood is worthy of this, I mean this movie is one of a kind, 12 years in the making. Its is still incredible to me that. You have to look at both adults and both kids – a great ensemble. But like I said, that is up for debate

    You can see why American Hustle won. It was a really solid foursome, lively and entertaining, even if many of us did not really know what it was all about. 12 Years A Slave's cast contributed much more to that movie's impact. So should that have won?

    SAG don't have a Best Picture award because it is just about the acting.

  3. Robin Write Robin Write December 12, 2014

    Should probably add “Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture” to the opening as it does not seem that clear now. :-O

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