Hoofers high-kick way to acting honors

See winnersHollywood thesps turned the kudos season spotlight on frontrunning “Chicago,” giving the homicidal hoofers a trio of trophies Sunday at the ninth annual SAG Awards ceremonies.

Miramax’s hit tuner copped the ensemble cast award along with a lead actress win for Renee Zellweger and a supporting actress award for Catherine Zeta-Jones. Daniel Day-Lewis drew actor kudos for Miramax’s “Gangs of New York,” while Christopher Walken took home the supporting actor trophy for DreamWorks’ “Catch Me if You Can.”

“When you start out, you kind of hope that you’ll get enough work so that you don’t have to schlep the longnecks anymore,” a stunned Zellweger told the audience at the Shrine Exposition Center in Los Angeles. “But I never imagined that I would stand here tonight in such esteemed company.”

Pre-Oscar boost

SAG’s show, the last major awards presentation prior to the March 23 Academy Awards, provides a major boost to the Oscar prospects of its winners. With 13 Oscar noms, “Chicago” has been regarded as the favorite, and the SAG award — voted on by the 98,000 SAG members — will boost its status further, since actors represent 23% of Academy voters.

In his acceptance speech, Richard Gere credited castmates and director Rob Marshall for delivering a sense of exuberance to the bigscreen. “I have been doing this sense I was 19. I’m the old guy, and I have never ever had such fun in my life as an actor,” he declared.

“Chicago,” which has grossed $115 million domestically, topped “Adaptation,” “The Hours,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for the cast award. SAG’s ensemble lineup featured only three of the Academy’s picture nominees, with “Gangs of New York” and “The Pianist” up for the Oscar rather than “Greek Wedding” and “Adaptation.”

Unreliable indicator

SAG’s ensemble award has not been a reliable indicator of the picture Oscar. Kudos have matched only twice, for “Shakespeare in Love” four years ago and “American Beauty” three years ago. “Gosford Park” took the SAG ensemble cast award last year while “A Beautiful Mind” drew the Oscar.

But the SAG winners for lead actor and actress have gone on to win the Oscar in six of the last eight years. SAG diverged last year by tapping Russell Crowe for “A Beautiful Mind” while Denzel Washington won the Oscar for “Training Day”; Halle Berry won both trophies for “Monster’s Ball.”

Zellweger’s victory delivers a particularly strong signal that “Chicago” has gained momentum in the final weeks prior the Oscar night. Like Marshall, who took a surprising DGA win last week, Zellweger had not been viewed as an obvious frontrunner among a strong field that included Salma Hayek for “Frida,” Nicole Kidman for “The Hours,” Diane Lane for “Unfaithful” and Julianne Moore for “Far From Heaven” — the same quintet up for the actress Oscar.

Overpowered ‘Hours’

The Sunday night awards, telecast on TNT, represent something of a setback to Oscar hopes for Paramount/Miramax’s “The Hours,” which had received four SAG nominations, and Sony’s “Adaptation,” which had three SAG noms.

An exultant Zeta-Jones acknowledged the physical toll of the dance numbers, but declared she would do it again if she weren’t pregnant. “We’ll do it all over again, I promise you,” she added.

Zeta-Jones beat Kathy Bates for “About Schmidt,” Julianne Moore for “The Hours,” Michelle Pfeiffer for “White Oleander” and co-star Queen Latifah for “Chicago.” She faces Bates, Latifah and Moore for the Oscar along with Meryl Streep for “Adaptation.”

Day-Lewis won for his intense portrayal of the brutal Bill the Butcher in “Gangs,” topping Adrien Brody for “The Pianist,” Nicolas Cage for “Adaptation,” Richard Gere for “Chicago” and Jack Nicholson for “About Schmidt.” For the Oscar he faces Brody, Cage, Nicholson and Michael Caine for “The Quiet American.”

Day-Lewis said in his speech that he had been inspired by such classic fare as “A Place in the Sun,” “On the Waterfront,” “Night of the Hunter” and all-night showings of the “Dirty Harry” films. “It was like a group of grungy guys would emerge into the half-dawn, bleary-eyed, trying to be kind of loose-limbed and mean and taciturn,” he added.

Walken’s win for his restrained portrayal of a father whose life unravels in “Catch Me” was not a surprise since he had emerged as a frontrunner for the Oscars along with Chris Cooper for “Adaptation.” He also topped Ed Harris for “The Hours,” Alfred Molina for “Frida” and Dennis Quaid for “Far From Heaven.”

Walken faces Cooper and Harris for the Oscar along with Paul Newman for “Road to Perdition” and John C. Reilly for “Chicago.” He could not find his notes when he got to the stage to accept so he simply said, “Thanks to the Screen Actors Guild and to all the actors who voted for me. I love all of us. We are all family here, and I hope we work together.”

SAG’s supporting actor choices have not matched the AMPAS winners since three years ago, when Michael Caine took both awards for “The Cider House Rules” as did Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.”

High note for ‘Sopranos’

In TV, HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” ended “The West Wing’s” two-year streak of sweeping the three drama series categories, as co-stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco of “The Sopranos” won the individual awards and “Six Feet” took the cast trophy.

“Six Feet Under” defeated “24,” “The West Wing,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “The Sopranos.”

Falco and Gandolfini also won the SAG individual awards in the category three years ago and “The Sopranos” won the cast award that year.

Gandolfini, who sued HBO last week in a contractual dispute, said with typical understatement, “Maybe there’s been some stuff lately that makes me seem slightly ungrateful, but to HBO I just want to say I am very grateful for what you’ve done. And it’s a wonderful place to work.”

Gandolfini also said, “To all actors who struggle — things can change at any moment, at any time. So hang in there and enjoy it because things can get pretty weird.”

NBC’s “Will & Grace” repeated last year’s double win in the comedy series awards with Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally taking home the trophies for the second straight year. “We’re all so blessed to be able to do what we do every single day,” Hayes said. “I mean, it’s not so far along ago that I couldn’t even pay my rent. Now I can pay all your rent.”

CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” won the cast award, topping “Frasier,” “Friends,” “Sex and the City” and “Will & Grace.” Cast member Brad Garrett quipped, “I don’t mean to brag, but not only this but I’m going to be auditioning for the lead in ‘The Sopranos’ next week and I’m very excited. That’s why I shaved my beard.”

Stockard Channing won the award for top actress in a telepic or miniseries for “The Matthew Shepard Story,” her first win after being nominated three other times in the same category. She was also nominated as part of the cast of “The West Wing.” William H. Macy won the trophy for actor in a telepic/miniseries for TNT’s “Door to Door.”

Political resignation

Unlike other recent awards shows, the SAG kudofest was short on antiwar sentiments, perhaps out of a sense of resignation to the inevitability of an invasion of Iraq. When asked backstage what her “West Wing” first lady character would say to President Bush, Channing replied, “What does it matter? He doesn’t care or listen to what anyone else thinks.”

SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert asked the audience to acknowledge the U.S. military stationed overseas and thanked the DGA, WGA and AFTRA. SAG and AFTRA members are expected to vote on a merger of the performers orgs in May and June.

Clint Eastwood received the event’s biggest applause as recipient of SAG’s lifetime achievement award. “I hope this doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to collect my pension and head on down the road because that ain’t in the game for me,” he said. “We’ll all work together because I have no intention of bailing out.”

(Jill Feiwell contributed to this report.)

And the winners are . . .

MOTION PICTURES

ACTOR

Daniel Day-Lewis – “Gangs of New York” (Miramax)

ACTRESS

Renee Zellweger – “Chicago”

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christopher Walken – “Catch Me If You Can” (DreamWorks)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Catherine Zeta-Jones – “Chicago”

ENSEMBLE CAST

“Chicago” — Christine Baranski, Taye Diggs, Colm Feore, Richard Gere, Mya Harrison, Lucy Liu, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Dominic West, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Denise Faye, Deirdre Goodwin, Susan Misner and Ekaterina Chtchelkanova

TELEVISION

ACTOR IN A TELEFILM OR MINISERIES

William H. Macy – “Door to Door” (TNT)

ACTRESS IN A TELEFILM OR MINISERIES

Stockard Channing – “The Matthew Shepard Story” (NBC)

ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

James Gandolfini – “The Sopranos” (HBO)

ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Edie Falco – “The Sopranos”

ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Sean Hayes – “Will & Grace” (NBC)

ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Megan Mullally — “Will & Grace”

DRAMA ENSEMBLE

“Six Feet Under” – Lauren Ambrose, Frances Conroy, Rachel Griffiths, Michael C. Hall, Peter Krause, Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew St. Patrick (HBO)

COMEDY ENSEMBLE

“Everybody Loves Raymond” — Peter Boyle, Brad Garrett, Patricia Heaton, Doris Roberts, Ray Romano, Madylin Sweetin

LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Clint Eastwood

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