Screen Actors Guild Awards: “12 Years A Slave” or “American Hustle”?

What’s more appropriate than fellow actors choosing the best performances and ensembles of the year? For that reason, the Screen Actors Guild Awards is one of my favorite ceremonies of the entire awards season. Even more so, the Screen Actors Guild isn’t afraid to upend the trends of the awards season and pass over the frontrunner for the win. After all, this is the Guild who awarded Johnny Depp Best Actor for the boozy Captain Jack Sparrow over eventual Oscar-winner Sean Penn (Mystic River) and gave its Best Ensemble Prize, its equivalent to Best Picture, to Little Miss Sunshine over The Departed, Inglourious Basterds over The Hurt Locker, and The Help over The Artist. The SAG Awards can bring a new player into the conversation or cement a frontrunner as an Oscar lock, like last year’s Argo upset over deserved Ensemble winner Silver Linings Playbook. So how are the SAG Awards shaping up this year? Click here for a complete list of nominees and below for a quick look at tonight’s big show:

In terms of the acting categories, if Best Actress Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Best Actor Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), and Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) all walk away with awards tonight, than it’s safe to assume all three are Oscar locks since they’ve already picked up numerous trophies, most importantly Golden Globes last Sunday and Critics Choice Awards on Thursday. I suspect no trouble for Blanchett and Leto, but the SAG Awards is the last chance for the Best Actor race to shake up if the Guild decides to award 12 Years A Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor is a long time supporting actor, and a beloved one at that, who has worked with numerous Guild members and finally gets a tour-de-force all his own in Steve McQueen’s historical epic. A win for Ejiofor is more than deserved, he brings you to the pit of despair while restoring your faith in the human spirit, and this is his best chance to snag some gold, but if McConaughey takes the win you can pretty much call the Best Actor race over.

The Best Supporting Actress race is an entirely different category this year and perhaps the most open-ended award of the night. The battle is between Jennifer Lawrence, whose sassy American Hustle housewife won the Golden Globe, and Lupita Nyong’o, whose tormented slave from 12 Years A Slave took the Critics Choice Award. Whichever actress wins tonight will get the slight edge for the Oscar, so who does it go to? Hollywood golden girl Lawrence or Hollywood breakthrough Nyong’o? I’m giving the win to Nyong’o, an actress whose debut performance leaves you speechless and remembering her name for years to come. Lawrence’s flashy work in Hustle was always going to catch the attention of the Hollywood Foreign Press and there’s no doubt many SAG members fell hard for her all over again, but this is a chance for the Guild to welcome with open arms a new member into their prestigious club and I suspect they’ll do that tonight for the striking Lupita Nyong’o.

As for Best Ensemble, the race is unquestionably a brawl between Oscar darlings 12 Years A Slave and American Hustle. The other nominees – Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and August: Osage County – don’t really stand a chance here since Meryl Streep chews the film away from her ensemble, only Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey leave impressions in The Butler, and Dallas Buyers Club isn’t really an ensemble piece at all, it’s nomination was quite the surprise over Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Prisoners. That leaves American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave and it’s a fierce competition between them. It’s Hollywood’s most fun ensemble vs. Hollywood’s most fearless. So who wins?

It’s hard to ignore what I’ve been calling the “ensemble-charged wonders” of American Hustle. A lot of what makes David O. Russell’s film so exhilarating to watch is seeing each actor – the transformative Christian Bale, the sly Amy Adams, the neurotic Bradley Cooper, the sassy Jennifer Lawrence, the empathetic Jeremy Renner, and more – steal the movie away from his/her co-stars. Just when Adams is seducing you with her British accent, Cooper comes in to steal her thunder with his high-strung freak-outs, only for Lawrence to come in swinging with “Live And Let Die”, and then Bale blows you away by turning his criminal into a loveable con man that you can’t help but root for. It’s mesmerizing seeing all this talent, many of which is the new A-list of my generation, top each other and it turns the film into an actor’s game that rivals the twisty con game at the heart of its screenplay. The ensemble here is infectious and vivacious, they make a statement so loud it’s impossible not to be won over by their charm.

But if it were up to me, and I suspect the Screen Actors Guild will follow suit, it’s hard to pass up giving the Best Ensemble award to the cast of 12 Years A Slave. Every actor here, from the bigger roles of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o, to the smaller supporting turns by Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, and Brad Pitt, to the even tinier roles by Scoot McNairy, Adepero Oduye, Garret Dillahunt, and Michael K. Williams, is instrumental in making the historical epic the most vital work of art this year. With unflinching bravery, this cast digs into the despair and atrocities of American slavery with extreme bravery and undisputable honor. I can only imagine what it was like for Fassbender, Giamatti, and Dano to get into the shoes of such vile, despicable people, and the scenes where they commit unthinkable acts against Ejiofor, Oduye, Nyong’o and more could have only achieved their level of artistic beauty and importance with talent as fearless as this one. This cast demonstrates not only acting skills of the highest order, but their work in 12 Years A Slave also shows their remarkable trust in each other as performers and their trust in director Steve McQueen to bring this controversial material to life in the most emotionally accurate way. It’s an ensemble of award-worthy proportions.

American Hustle is a chess game, with each piece check-mating the next, while 12 Years A Slave is a puzzle, each piece, no matter the size, working together for a higher purpose, and I suspect the Screen Actors Guild will rightfully award such bravery by giving 12 Years its coveted Best Ensemble prize tonight.

Who do you think takes the SAG Award tonight?

Article by Zack Sharf

The SAG Awards air tonight on TNT and TBS at 8pm.

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