SAG Awards Film Analysis: Will Smith Is Oscar’s Leading Man and ‘CODA’ Becomes a Disruptor

More often than not, SAG Award winners repeat at the Oscars. Will Sunday night's spoilers have a chance?
Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur
Apple TV+

With tight races for Best Ensemble and Lead Actress, suspense ran high before the hour-long live Screen Actors Guild Awards show Sunday night. Despite the phalanx of safety protocols that proceeded their arrival at Santa Monica’s Barker Hanger, attendees seemed delighted to be there.

Emotions overflowed as Brian Cox and Michael Keaton, among others, reminded viewers that beleaguered Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky was once a comedian, a member of their ranks. Both Lifetime Achievement winner Helen Mirren and Female Leading Actor winner Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) reached out to their fellow actors who sustain them. “The thing that kept me going was this community,” said Chastain. “I love my artistic family, my heart is with the international family around the world who is fighting for their safety and freedom.”

The big winner of the night is the heart-tugging deaf family drama “CODA” (AppleTV+) for Cast in a Motion Picture. It moves into Oscar voting March 17-22 with a surge of forward momentum as it tries to catch up with Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog.” Jane Campion’s 1920s noir western earned no wins on its three SAG acting slots (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee), but it’s still the Oscar frontrunner with 12 nominations including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

Although “The Power of the Dog” did not score the SAG Ensemble nomination that often comes before a Best Picture win, it could follow the path of Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2018 without an Ensemble nomination from SAG. Or “CODA” could prove another SAG-winner Oscar upset, such as “Parasite,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Crash,” or “Spotlight.”

SAG Award winners can be Oscar-race bellwethers. Netflix may have reasons to be anxious about Oscar wins for critics favorite “The Power of the Dog,” which lacks the mainstream appeal of rivals “CODA,” “King Richard,” and “Belfast.” However, Kenneth Branagh’s drama also went home empty-handed from SAG.

“King Richard”Warner Bros.

In the absence of a live Golden Globes show, the SAG Awards provided a fresh glimpse at film clips, carefully calibrated Oscar ads (“The Power of the Dog” was clearly geared toward Kodi Smit-McPhee), and artfully delivered winners’ speeches.

Will “CODA” move to Best Picture? It’s more likely that SAG’s Supporting Actor winner, Troy Kotsur, will overtake Smit-McPhee and take home the Oscar. Kotsur was a charming winner, as he has been all awards season.

“I’ve been a SAG member since 2001,” signed Kotsur, who became the first deaf actor to win an individual SAG award. “I feel like I am finally part of the family. I know you are all artists and know what it’s like to be a starving actor; I slept in a car and backstage and couch-surfed.” And he thanked his wife, among other things, “for reminding me to check my fly before walking on the red carpet.”

Does Chastain’s surprise win for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” auger a repeat on Oscar night? It gives her a leg up in a competitive field where anything can happen: Both Nicole Kidman and Olivia Colman could have used the win (this year, neither was permitted a BAFTA slot). Actors voted for Chastain in a hugely showy star turn complete with hair and makeup transformation — at the Oscars, where everyone votes for all the categories, hair and makeup could take the win. That said, none of the Best Actress contenders has a Best Picture nominee behind them. Anything is possible. Chastain gets extra points for producing the movie as a labor of love.

“I am completely stunned,” she said. “I worked on the project for 10 years and hope we made her story in a way she would be proud of. I wanted to be actor my whole life, with years of studying and auditioning and not getting jobs. For those of you who are struggling and feeling unseen, keep going — you’re one job away, I promise.”

Most likely to repeat at the Oscars is SAG winner Will Smith for “King Richard.” “Wow. Yes! Yes!” he said. “That may have been one of the greatest moments of my life, my name being called for ‘King Richard’ sitting next to Venus Williams. Richard Williams is a dreamer like no one you’ve ever known. He has a power of belief that borders on insanity and sometimes tipped over the border, which is absolutely necessary to take something from impossible to possible. Aunjanue [Ellis], you pushed me every single day, you demanded authenticity.”

Also likely to repeat on Oscar night is “West Side Story” breakout and Female in a Supporting Role winner Ariana DeBose, who is the first Afro-Latina and openly queer woman of color to win a SAG Award. Oscar voters are unlikely to deny her the chance to break those Oscar records as well.

“It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable calling myself an actor,” said the gracious DeBose. “My roots come from the dance world and the Broadway stage… I am thrilled to be among you.”

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”Searchlight Pictures

Over the years, the SAG Awards and the Oscars have grown increasingly disparate. They can still sync, as they did in 2020 when the Academy rubber stamped popular SAG Ensemble winner “Parasite,” along with all four SAG acting winners — Renée Zellweger (“Judy”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”), Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), and Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”).

In 2021, SAG was full of surprises. Both lead acting winners, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” costars Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, failed to repeat at the Oscars, even with Boseman in his last performance. SAG Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kaluuya did go on to win the Oscar, while Frances McDormand claimed her third SAG Award and subsequent Best Actress Oscar win for “Nomadland,” which also won Best Picture over last year’s SAG Ensemble winner, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which scored six Oscar nominations and no wins.

"West Side Story"
“West Side Story”Disney

Last year, Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” scored surprise SAG Award spots for Best Actor (Steven Yeun) and Supporting Actress (Youn Yuh-jung) that were later validated by the Academy actors branch. This year, cheers went up at the SAG Awards for surprise acting winners Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon, for Netflix drama series “Squid Game.”

While the SAG 2022 five Best Actor nominees synced up with their Oscar counterparts — the expected winner, Smith, heads toward Oscar night with wind in his sails — other SAG 2022 nominees did not align with the Oscar mentions. “House of Gucci,” which lead the SAG nominations field with three nominations including Lady Gaga, Jared Leto, and Best Cast in a Motion Picture, whiffed on Oscar nomination morning and won nothing at SAG.

In fact, SAG nominees who did not land Oscar slots did not win Sunday night. These included Jennifer Hudson (“Respect”), Caitriona Balfe (“Belfast”), Cate Blanchett (“Nightmare Alley”), Ruth Negga (“Passing”), Bradley Cooper (“Licorice Pizza”) and SAG no-show Ben Affleck (“The Tender Bar”).

The SAG/AFTRA membership of 124,000 eligible voters is more mainstream than the 9,487 eligible Academy voters. It also weights more heavily to television than film and includes performers from theater, commercials, interactive, audiobooks, and new media, as well as influencers. In 2021, it made sense that they’d favor a Marvel movie star like Boseman and a hugely popular TV star like Davis over eventual Best Actor Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins, star of prestige film “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics), and McDormand for indie hit “Nomadland” (Searchlight).

This year’s SAG awards winners provide clues and winning momentum for where the 1,336 Academy actors may head, but not much more. The awards calendar warped in the winter Omicron surge; there’s many awards events to come before the Oscars on March 27. Last year’s SAG Awards, for example, took place after the Critics Choice Awards (upcoming on March 13, 2022) and WGA Awards (March 20, 2022).

This year, expect the winds to change direction at any time.

Cast in a Motion Picture


Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture

Will Smith, “King Richard”

Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture

Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Troy Kotsur, “CODA”

Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”

Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture

“No Time to Die”

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