SAG Awards film field wide open

Vets, fresh faces vie for praise from their peers

Actors nomming other actors for public accolades sounds like an exercise in ego gone berserk. The victory statuette in this case is even called an Actor. Yet the annual SAG Awards, now in their 16th year, are more than an occasion for back-patting.

“Our guild members have a very special way of looking at performers,” says JoBeth Williams, chair of the SAG Awards committee. “The Oscars have been around a lot longer, but these awards have special meaning in the hearts of actors because they are coming from their peers.”

With some 100,000 eligible voters, the SAG Awards really do rep a cross-section of thespianism — from the biggest stars to the least-renowned dues-paying member. And that large and diverse voting block makes tracing trends difficult. (The SAG Awards’ two nominating committees of 2,100 voters each — one for film, the other for TV — are drawn from members in good standing, but the full SAG membership picks the winners.)

Though trends may be elusive, there’s still plenty to observe. For example, four of the five films nominated for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture (a category unique to this ceremony) also have actors vying for individual achievement. “Up in the Air” is the odd-man-out, even though the pic nabbed more individual noms than any other film this year (specifically George Clooney for outstanding male in a leading role and both Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in the supporting actress category).

“My guess would be that people don’t think of it as an ensemble piece because all the major roles were so indelible,” says Ivan Reitman, one of “Up in the Air’s” four producers. “And they don’t work as an ensemble — every person sort of comes in and does their scenes. They don’t play as a whole continuous thing.”

Finola Dwyer, one of two producers of “An Education,” which is nommed in both the ensemble and individual categories, maintains that casting minor as well as major roles was a huge priority for her film. “It’s not enough to have just a fine central role,” she says. “Everybody needed to be pitch perfect. It’s a bit like a Rubik’s Cube. You need them to work well together. And getting that balance is tricky. It’s a jigsaw puzzle you have to get just right.”

Also noteworthy this year is the presence of new (if not necessarily young) talent — at least in the film categories; it’s a very different story in TV, where only Drew Barrymore (“Grey Gardens”), Simon Baker (“The Mentalist”) and Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) are first-time nominees. And of the 10 series nommed — five dramas and five comedies — only four are new: “The Good Wife” and “True Blood” for drama, and “Glee” and “Modern Family” for comedy.

In movies, though, the new faces nearly outnumber the vets. OK, it’s seven to 13, if you want to get technical, but some of those names — like Farmiga, Colin Firth (“A Single Man”) and Sandra Bul-lock (“The Blind Side”) were previously nommed only for ensemble work.

Certainly there’s much to celebrate in seeing such fresh mugs as Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker), Carey Mulligan (“An Education”), Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), Christoph Waltz (supporting actor, “Inglourious Basterds”), Diane Kruger (supporting actress, “Inglourious Basterds”) and Mo’Nique (supporting actress, “Precious”) — in addition to Kendrick.

Whether they can give the likes of Morgan Freeman (“Invictus”), Helen Mirren (“The Last Station”) and Meryl Streep (“Julie and Julia”) a run for their money is something else again.

Williams, for one, considers the races especially tough this year. “Much as we love those we know, it’s so exciting to see new faces like Gabourey Sidibe and Jeremy Renner,” she says. “In film, especially, it’s going to be a very tough year.”

Bonnie Arnold, one of three producers on “The Last Station” — whose stars Mirren and Christopher Plummer are nommed — suggests that SAG voters won’t base their choices on a nominee’s status, whether vet or newcomer, or even on whether they find a role appealing. Rather, the spoils will go to the thesps who most connect with voters.

“Jeff Bridges’ character in ‘Crazy Heart’ (nommed for actor) is very self-destructive — an alcoholic — but he creates a character you really empathize with,” Arnold says. “The voters look beyond the personality of the actors or even the character they’re playing.”

It’s a view shared by Reitman, and doubtless by many others. “I really think people respond to quality,” he says. “The choices were made not because this person is old or young or has never done this. The movies that tend to get nominated and win awards are those where there’s a consensus about the fine work being done.”

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