With 80% overlap on noms, both orgs share critical eye in competitive kudos race

Clive Owen and Natalie Portman, you can rest easy.

Things were looking fairly bleak for the “Closer” duo’s Academy Award hopes Jan. 11, when the Screen Actors Guild released its award noms with both thesps absent from the lineup.

Two weeks (and two Golden Globes) later, however, Owen and Portman both secured supporting Oscar noms — one of the few disconnects in an otherwise remarkably solid match-up between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Screen Actors Guild voters, which overlapped on 80% of their picks.

On one hand, the curious lack of SAG recognition for a high-profile ensemble drama such as “Closer” could be seen as merely the latest in a series of almost systematic rejections of the film by the guilds. But it’s also indicative of the more democratic, share-the-wealth spirit that has always informed SAG’s choices.

“SAG has a lot of hungry actors. They’re always looking for interesting parts, they go to film festivals, they see everything,” says film critic and OscarWatch.com editor Sasha Stone. “With the Academy, it’s much more of an obligation. It’s like, ‘We’ll see what you bring us.’ “

Clearly, enough SAG voters this year saw and liked “Spanglish” and “The Notebook,” judging by the supporting noms they handed acting vets Cloris Leachman and James Garner. (Coincidentally or not, Garner is receiving the guild’s lifetime achievement award at the SAG ceremony Feb. 7.)

It’s hardly the first time SAG has gone out of its way to honor actors who shine in non-Oscar bait films, such as Michelle Pfeiffer in “White Oleander” (2002), Cate Blanchett in “Bandits” (2001), Kevin Kline and Hayden Christensen in “Life as a House” (2001) and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Flawless” (1999).

None of these perfs won, however, which holds true to what Stone identifies as a cardinal rule of SAG-Oscar match-ups: “To win the SAG, you have to be nominated for the Oscar.”

That automatically rules out Leachman, Garner and “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti; Clint Eastwood for “Million Dollar Baby” rounds out the five-man Oscar race.

It also doesn’t bode well for Freddie Highmore, the 12-year-old “Finding Neverland” thesp who landed in the SAG supporting race. (Clearly, the guild likes its children. Dakota Fanning was only 7 when she received a supporting actress mention for 2001’s “I Am Sam.”) The Academy, however, skewed in the opposite direction, nominating “The Aviator’s” 69-year-old Alan Alda.

A significant built-in difference is that while the Acad awards a best picture, SAG honors a best ensemble. The kudos have matched up only four times (“Shakespeare in Love,” “American Beauty,” “Chicago” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) over the past nine years. Some Academy favorites, like “Lost in Translation,” have been passed over for SAG cast noms because they aren’t ensemble-driven.

This year, all five of the Academy’s picture nominees are up for SAG ensemble (as well as a sixth nominee, “Hotel Rwanda”) — a match-up that bodes extremely well for the SAG winner’s Oscar chances.

It’s important to note that Oscar voters, whose ballots have to be in by Feb. 22, will know how the SAG races turned out beforehand.

Stone says the race to watch this year is actress, which most pundits have been touting as Annette Bening vs. Hilary Swank, round two. After their 1999 face-off, the two have again been nommed by both the Academy and the Screen Actors Guild — Bening for “Being Julia,” Swank for “Million Dollar Baby.”

“The thing about SAG is they don’t like to award the same person twice,” Stone says. Since Bening already won the guild prize for “American Beauty,” she adds, “Hilary Swank could easily win it this year, which would give her a huge boost for the Oscar.”

Then again, Bening’s SAG victory didn’t keep her from losing the Oscar to Swank — as clear a sign as any that even with an 80% match-up, when it comes to these two voting bodies, there’s never a sure thing.

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