Award Season Focus: The Actor & The Actress

When it comes to the tenor of the films the Screen Actors Guild membership chose for their nominees this year, an emphasis on humor won out over darker-toned subjects.

Among the noms for the SAG Awards’ version of best picture, which recognizes a performance by a cast, are the lighthearted silent pastiche “The Artist,” the raucous summer hit “Bridesmaids,” the bittersweet dramedy “The Descendants,” the colorfully drawn civil-rights saga “The Help,” and Woody Allen’s latest confection, “Midnight in Paris.”

“It’s an interesting phenomenon this year,” says Los Angeles Film Festival artistic director David Ansen. “I think maybe people are so oppressed by the economy, they want to have a good time and are turning to either comedies or feel-good movies. It’s probably the frothiest bunch of films in a long time.”

USA Today film critic Claudia Puig argues it could also just be about the membership “being tired of serious films about weighty subjects that seem aimed squarely at getting awards.”

When it comes to individual performance races, though, there is a mixture of new names and established faces.

Though A-listers George Clooney (“The Descendants”), Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“J. Edgar”) mark the lead actor category, what popped out was the inclusion of Mexican actor Demian Bichir for his understated turn as an undocumented alien living in East L.A. in “A Better Life.”

“That was a happy surprise,” says Puig. “Often these nominees are mainstream actors, but Bichir is certainly not a household name. It was a wonderful performance.”

The category boasts another newcomer as well — Jean Dujardin as a silent film star in “The Artist” — but he’s been riding a wave of awards hype. “He and Jessica Chastain are kind of the belles of the ball this year,” says Ansen.

Supporting actress contender Chastain — up for her turn as a guileless sexpot in “The Help” — was wildly busy in 2011 with six films and likely could have been nominated for her perf in two or three of the pics.

The supporting actress category is a deep bunch, starting with Melissa McCarthy for her gonzo turn as a raunchy pal in “Bridesmaids.” The other nominees include Janet McTeer, as a 19th century cross-dresser in “Albert Nobbs”; Berenice Bejo as a rising movie star in “The Artist”; and Octavia Spencer as spitfire maid Minny in “The Help.” It’s the second SAG appearance for McTeer, who earned a lead actress nom in 2000 for her breakthrough movie, “Tumbleweeds.”

First-timers in the supporting actor bunch include comedy guy Jonah Hill as serious baseball stats man Peter Brand in “Moneyball,” and Armie Hammer, building on his breakout success in “The Social Network” with another real-life turn, as Hoover confidant Clyde Tolson in “J. Edgar.”

They’re joined by three acting stalwarts who are SAG Award returnees: Kenneth Branagh (as Laurence Olivier in “My Week With Marilyn”), Nick Nolte (as a redemption-seeking father in “Warrior”) and Christopher Plummer (as a late-to-come-out gay dad in “Beginners”).

Only the lead actress field is packed with SAG vets, although previous winner and eight-time-overall nominee Glenn Close is seeing her first appearance on the movie side, for playing a woman living as a man in “Albert Nobbs.” Two-time winner Meryl Streep (“Angels in America” and “Doubt”) is in contention as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” while her “Doubt” co-star Viola Davis — nominated for a supporting turn in that film — is up for her stoically caring housemaid in “The Help.” The other nominees include Tilda Swinton as a horror-stricken mom in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn.”

As talk turns to how closely the SAG noms act as a bellwether for the Academy Awards, it’s worth remembering that last year 17 of the actors guild’s nominees went on to compete at the Oscars. But with this year’s decided lack of awards season front-runners — and the late debuts of some higher-profile movies — that predictability could change.

Says Ansen, “I think there’s going to be some real differences in some of these categories.”

What: SAG Awards

When: 5 p.m. PT Jan. 29

Where: Shrine Auditorium

Web: http://www.sagawards.org

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS

LEAD ACTOR
Demian Bichir, “A Better Life”
George Clooney, “The Descendants”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”
Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

LEAD ACTRESS
Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”
Viola Davis, “The Help”
Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
Michelle Williams, “My Week With Marilyn”

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh, “My Week With Marilyn”
Armie Hammer, “J. Edgar”
Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
Nick Nolte, “Warrior”
Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”
Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
Octavia Spencer, “The Help”

Award Season Focus: The Actor & The Actress
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