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Femmes bring depth to SAG Awards

'Conviction' star lands nom in contentious actress race

At the Jan. 30 Screen Actors Guild Awards, the competition for best actress offers perhaps the broadest selection of performers and performances to be found on any nominations ballot this season.

“It’s a mix of great big movie stars and actresses who are a little less well known,” says Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

The field includes two Oscar winners — Nicole Kidman, dealing with a family tragedy in “Rabbit Hole,” and Hilary Swank, fighting to free her unjustly jailed brother in “Conviction” — and a three-time Oscar nominee, Annette Bening, as a doctor in a lesbian relationship in “The Kids Are All Right.” Also up for consideration are Natalie Portman, playing an ambitious ballet dancer in “Black Swan,” and relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence as a teen determined to track down her bail-jumping father in “Winter’s Bone.”

“These are not necessarily heroic roles,” Bailey says. “Some of the roles in the men’s categories are traditional heroes, but the women are playing complicated, very flawed characters. They all ended up doing great work.”

While it may sound cliche, Seattle Times film critic Moira Macdonald believes that even earning a nomination with this group is an accomplishment because 2010 produced such a bounty of award-worthy performances.

“There certainly are a lot of years when there aren’t enough good roles for women and you have to stretch to find five nominations, but this has been a very good year,” she says. “I could name several others who belong there as well.”

Not to be outdone, one of the lead actor nominees also offers an interesting storyline: After winning a SAG kudo and Oscar last year for his washed-up country singer in “Crazy Heart,” Jeff Bridges booked a return engagement as the one-eyed U.S. marshal in Joel and Ethan Coen’s revival of the 1969 John Wayne classic “True Grit.”

Should Bridges score again, he would join Daniel Day-Lewis (“There Will Be Blood” in 2008 and “Gangs of New York” in 2003) as the only two-time winner in the category, and the second thesp to claim back-to-back SAG prizes. (Renee Zellweger was best actress for “Chicago” in 2003 and the supporting actress winner for “Cold Mountain” in 2004.)

Robert Duvall also could pick up his second SAG, as a backwoods hermit who plans his own funeral in “Get Low.” He previously won for his supporting performance in the 1998 drama “A Civil Action.”

The names of the three other lead actor nominees — Jesse Eisenberg (as the founder of Facebook in “The Social Network”), Colin Firth (as a stammering monarch in “The King’s Speech”) and James Franco (as a real-life adventurer who finds himself trapped in “127 Hours”) — have been mentioned frequently this awards season. All three, for example, have been nommed for Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. kudos in addition to the SAGs.

Staying with the men, the only previous SAG winner in the supporting actor competish is Geoffrey Rush, this time nominated for his performance as a speech therapist in “The King’s Speech.” Rush was named the org’s best actor in 1997 for “Shine” and went on to win the Oscar.

The category’s other nominees are Christian Bale (a ne’er-do-well trainer of a former boxing champ in “The Fighter”), John Hawkes (a menacing uncle in the Ozarks noir “Winter’s Bone”), Jeremy Renner (a bank robber in “The Town”) and Mark Ruffalo (a sperm donor for a lesbian couple in “The Kids Are All Right”).

“And for supporting actress, the lineup features three vets of the SAG Awards: Amy Adams (a bartender who inspires and prods a pugilist in “The Fighter”), Helena Bonham Carter (the wife of the British ruler in “The King’s Speech”) and Melissa Leo (a tough-talking mother of a boxer in “The Fighter”). It’s the third appearance in this category by Adams, who was previously nommed in 2006 for “Junebug” and 2009 for “Doubt.” Bonham Carter (“The Wings of the Dove” in 1998) and Leo (“Frozen River” in 2009) have SAG noms for lead actress on their bios.

Mila Kunis, a ballet dancer in “Black Swan,” and 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, playing a young girl determined to bring her father’s killer to justice in “True Grit,” also are nominated.

When it comes to the lead and supporting acting categories, Trevor Groth, director of programming at the Sundance Film Festival, likes what he sees.

“In general, these SAG nominations are pretty spot on,” he says. “Maybe it has something to do with the way these nominations come about — with actors focusing on actors — that really gets to the core of the performance. It shows in these lineups.”

Despite the name of the night’s fifth film award, outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, the prize is for more than just the acting, according to USA Today film critic Claudia Puig.

“This is their version of best picture, so it’s really about the writing and directing as well,” she says. Nominees are “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network.”

“I think all of them are well written and well directed,” Puig adds.

When it comes to predicting in which direction the Oscar winds blow, the Screen Actors Guild Awards have become a strong indicator. Last year, for example, 19 of the 20 SAG nominees for lead and supporting actor and actress later snagged Academy Award bids, and all four of those SAG winners also prevailed on Oscar night.

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