In a few years, if not a few months, I’ll be surprised if anyone remembers much of anything from the 2021 Screen Actors Guild Awards telecast. Winners will be noted in the annals of history just like any other ceremony, but in terms of this year’s show, the TNT/TBS joint production was not only entirely virtual; it was also pre-taped and less than an hour long. Producers edited everything down to the bare essentials, from the “I Am an Actor” interviews scattered in between announcements to the actual winners’ speeches. Though the format made it hard for any spontaneous excitement to spread to the audience at home, everything came together for a nice and tidy little show — which is exactly the kind of broadcast the SAG Awards have reliably churned out for nearly three decades.
Twenty-five of the last 27 SAG Awards have been held without a host, including last year’s pre-pandemic celebration of “Parasite,” Jennifer Aniston, and Brad Pitt. (Remember “Parasite”? Remember in-person flirtations? Those were the days.) Anyway, SAG producers have gotten very good at building an entertaining show with little more than a red carpet, presenters, and winners. This year lacked the red carpet, so it leaned into the latter two attributes. Yes, admittedly, Helen Mirren kind of stole the show with her “I Am an Actor” confessionals — she loves “Pen15,” she recently shooed away a bear(?!), and my goodness, it’s a testament to her talent that she ever got work after submitting that headshot. But the SAGs are still, first and foremost, an honor, which brings us back to the show’s meat: speeches.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards are designed to celebrate acting, and while delivering a great speech isn’t the same as nailing a pivotal monologue, many of the same qualities matter: tone, delivery, timing, emotion, as well as the pre-written or improvised words all create a performance meant to arrest the audience — even this year, when the audience was entirely at home. So let’s look at the speeches to see who, exactly, helped carry the 2021 SAG Awards through a forgettable yet fun ceremony.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” Cast – C
Starting with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Great. Calling for leaders to guide us through trying times? A little 2020, but sure, we still need ’em. Comparing Aaron Sorkin, a film and TV writer, to the leaders the great Dr. King was demanding? Um, no, that’s a bridge too far. I love “West Wing” as much as the next guy, but Frank Langella’s acceptance speech for “The Trial of the Chicago 7’s” surprise Best Ensemble win skewed way too far from the point: Instead of focusing on the cast and their work, the speech focused on their writer-director and his grandeur. A thank you here and a dedication there is fine, and plenty other creators got an appropriate level of credit during the SAG show, but any speech about this ensemble that doesn’t thank Jeremy Strong by name is obviously off track. (Also, nothing can convince me that speech wasn’t written after Sorkin was shut out of the Best Director Oscar race. I’m not saying Sorkin wrote it himself — I doubt that, really — but this out-of-bounds and overreaching comparison felt like the calculated maneuvering of those whose job it is to win awards, not an actor just trying to give credit where it’s due.)
“Schitt’s Creek” Cast – C+
First and foremost, I’ll just say Levy did a fine job hitting all the necessary beats of his umpteenth acceptance speech. Thank his family? Check. Compliment the cast? Check. Rattle off a bunch of names carefully penned ahead of time? Check. (It was pretty clear Levy was reading the whole thing, especially at the very end.) Still, it’s a bit disappointing to see Levy give yet another speech, if only because a) most people saw this win coming, so there was time to prepare, and b) the Ensemble Award is for the entire “Schitt’s Creek” cast, so why not let individuals who haven’t won a dozen awards in the last six months get a chance to say something? (Like Annie Murphy or Emily Hampshire.)
Gillian Anderson, “The Crown” – B-
Anderson gets props for her glamorous couture and directly telling her co-star Emma Corrin “you deserved this,” but the rest of the speech was rather trite. Great dress, though. (And also, Anderson absolutely deserved this win.)
Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek” – B
After her awkward acceptance speech at the Globes — where O’Hara and her husband tried to turn her thank you’s into a bit — it was just a relief to see the “Schitt’s Creek” scene-stealer play this one fairly straight. Her glittery tux helped, too.
“The Crown” Cast – B
If you’re going to read from a sheet, don’t hide it: That’s at least one lesson from this year’s virtual SAG Awards, where too many winners tried to play it cool by reading from a teleprompter only to look like they’re reading from a teleprompter. Not Olivia Colman. Holding her pre-written piece of paper just out of frame, the excited and charming victor rattled off the first names of many, many “Crown” cast members before thanking the U.K.’s National Health Service for their vital assistance during the ongoing pandemic. You can always count on Colman.
Getty Images for WarnerMedia
Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah” – B
Another relief post-Globes: Daniel Kaluuya got to give his speech without any technical difficulties whatsoever! And it was good! Thanking the dedicated group of artisans who came together to share this “complete truth,” Kaluuya dedicated his award to Chadwick Boseman and Fred Hampton, the American activist and Black Panther leader he played.
Mark Ruffalo, “I Know This Much Is True” – B
“This award, in so many ways, is the crown achievement,” Ruffalo said. “No one knows acting [more than actors].” Now an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award winner, Ruffalo kept the final speech of his clean sweep pretty simple, asking everyone to recognize that mental illness exists and thanking the appropriate parties.
Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Queen’s Gambit” – B
“Thank you for your performances,” Taylor-Joy said. “I’m so honored to be in this room — even though it’s not a room, it’s all mental, but you know what I mean.” Thanking your fellow nominees is always a classy way to use your time, and though Taylor-Joy didn’t go for broke with her speech, her humble gratitude fit the shortened telecast well. (And, again, who knows how much more was said before the producers’ edit?)
Jason Bateman, “Ozark” – B
Zooming in from a hotel room amid production on “Ozark” Season 4, Bateman kept it short and sweet. He thanked his cast, fellow nominees, Netflix, etc. before steering the focus away from him and back to more pressing issues: the essential workers and hardworking scientists who helped us get to where we are today. “This is dedicated to them,” Bateman said. “Everybody go get your shot, and let’s get back to normal.”
Chadwick Boseman (courtesy of Simone Ledward Boseman), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – B
Starting by thanking God and ending with a quote from her late husband is more than enough to get me a little teary, even though Simone Boseman kept this acceptance speech brief. “If you see the world unbalanced, be the creator who pushes heavily on the seesaw of the mind,” she said, quoting Mr. Boseman and leaving audiences to take whatever inspiration from him they can.
Getty Images for WarnerMedia
Jason Sudeikis, “Ted Lasso” – B+
If Jason Bateman was at a hotel room between production days on “Ozark,” then it looked like Jason Sudeikis was in his trailer between takes of “Ted Lasso” Season 2. Sporting a stylish sweater, the fashion icon of virtual awards shows managed more than fresh looks. His speech carried a sweet message to his parents, thanking his mom for taking him to plays and his dad for taking him to movies. “I want to thank my dad for […] taking me to see ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ when I was nine years old — I knew right then I wanted to be a Black cop in Detroit, and I’m getting there,” Sudeikis said. The hard-worker also earns bonus points for filming new “Ted Lasso” scenes with his cast for the SAG ceremony’s opening and closing segments. Hearing Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) stand up for the Muppets’ was an unexpected delight.
Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – B+
The surprise winner started off a bit flustered (and charmingly so) before settling in nicely, thanking “the beautiful Chadwick Boseman” and the rest of her cast before sharing a touching appreciation for the man behind “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” “Thank you August [Wilson],” Davis said of the remarkable Black playwright, “for leaving a legacy to actors of color that we can relish the rest of our lives.” Following the success of “Fences” and “Ma Rainey,” and with more of his plays set to receive the feature treatment, that legacy should be relished for generations to come.
Youn Yuh-jung, “Minari” – A
Nothing beats a moment of pure, unfiltered honesty, and Youn Yuh-jung’s win had more than one! The “Minari” supporting star started by simply stating, “I don’t know how to describe my feelings,” before asking her nominated onlookers if she was “saying it right.” Right after apologizing again (“My English is not perfect”), Yuh-jung explained that “everything is happening here” — just as a younger man popped in behind her (presumably a family member), taking a picture of the overwhelmed winner. Her appreciation couldn’t have been conveyed any clearer, nor could her speech have been delivered at a higher level. On to the Oscars!
The 27th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards premiered Sunday, April 4 on TNT and TBS. Read the full list of winners here.