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.