SAG Awards: Are ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Three Billboards’ Your New Oscar Frontrunners?

If you’re obsessed with following statistics — as many awards-watchers are wont to be, seeing the season as far more scientific than it actually is — then the best picture race just got narrowed to five contenders Wednesday morning.

The Screen Actors Guild nominees for best performance by a cast in a motion picture were “The Big Sick,” “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Mudbound,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” No film in 22 years has won the best picture Oscar without also being nominated for this prize. (For the 1995 awards, “Braveheart” won the Oscar while “Apollo 13” took most guild honors, including SAG’s cast award.)

This idea took on considerable heft last year, when “La La Land” — largely a two-hander without much of an ensemble to really nominate — was left off the list, while the eventual Oscar winner, “Moonlight,” was among the nominees. And the logic more or less tracks: If actors, who comprise far and away the largest branch of the Academy, aren’t 100% behind you, you’re in trouble.

But bear in mind that SAG, which selects a roughly 2,000-member nominating committee every year to determine nominations, always seems to render itself somewhat irrelevant in the Oscar race by having such arbitrarily early voting deadlines. Nominating committee members were already a week into voting this year when Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” finally screened, which helps explain that film’s absence from the list. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” didn’t show until a week after that, and though screeners of both films made it to nominating committee members before the deadline, it was extremely late in the game. Other films, like “Django Unchained” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” have negotiated this turn in the road perfectly well, however.

SAG brass contends that an early voting window is needed in order to have nominations in time to prepare the annual awards telecast, but that still doesn’t make complete sense in a world where the Hollywood Foreign Press and Broadcast Film Critics Assns. can pull their similar shows together within a month. Regardless, it does allow for some freshness in the Oscar race every year, and a sense that things are less firmed up than they might be. Who can argue with that?

Early films often do well. Both “The Big Sick” and “Get Out” were also recognized outside the ensemble category, for supporting actress Holly Hunter and lead actor Daniel Kaluuya, respectively. “Battle of the Sexes” supporting actor Steve Carell also found purchase. But that’s actually as against-the-grain as SAG got this year. Nothing too wacky. No Helen Mirren in “Woman in Gold” or Sarah Silverman in “I Smile Back” to discuss.

If you’re “Dunkirk,” maybe you’re nervous. But it always seemed a stretch for Christopher Nolan’s film to pick up an ensemble nomination. (The stunt ensemble was recognized, however, along with the teams behind “Baby Driver,” “Logan,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and “Wonder Woman.”) If you’re “Call Me by Your Name,” you might be winded by just a single nomination for lead actor Timothée Chalamet. But that’s a pretty small ensemble, like “La La Land,” so it’s not surprising it would be passed over. (Neither Armie Hammer nor Michael Stuhlbarg showing up in the supporting actor ranks is another matter, however.)

The day’s big winners were Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Three and four nominations for each, respectively, was enough to lead the field, and it might be enough to start considering one of them the frontrunners in a race that doesn’t have one. Gerwig’s film could be the natural answer, though. Why? Because while “Three Billboards” has stirred a lot of resentment for its blasé handling of police brutality and domestic abuse (even though it is, you know, a dark comedy), who doesn’t like “Lady Bird”? That’s the secret sauce when it comes to the Academy’s preferential ballot. Please many, offend no one.

We’ll know more about how the season’s contenders are tracking with industry groups after the new year; SAG is the only guild to announce nominees this early. January will bring nomination lineups from producers, directors, writers, etc. And those will no doubt be more educated takes on the race, as every film will have actually had a chance to be seen and considered.

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