The Oscar race is finally in the home stretch after Saturday’s Directors Guild of America Awards and Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards. Coming from two of the Academy’s most influential voting blocs, these are the last major prizes handed out before Oscar voters turn in their ballots (due March 19) and start looking for parking places near the Kodak Theater for March 24’s Academy Awards ceremony.
In an upset, ”Monster’s Ball”’s Halle Berry beat ”In the Bedroom”’s Sissy Spacek for SAG’s Best Actress prize. She became the second African-American to win a SAG Award for a movie (Cuba Gooding Jr. won five years ago for his supporting role in ”Jerry Maguire”), and the first to win a SAG Award for a leading role. Her win highlights the fact that so few black actors have won Oscars, and that this year (with nominations for Berry, ”Training Day”’s Denzel Washington, and ”Ali””s Will Smith) marks the best opportunity for change in 30 years.
”I don’t think Oscar voters are feeling pressure to vote for anyone because they’re African-American,” says Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris, who has interviewed several Academy members. ”On the other hand, you can’t be a voter this year and not be conscious of the terrible history of this awards-giving body in rewarding African-Americans and not be aware that this year offers an opportunity to remedy that. Still, it’s very clear that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry are in this race because their performances have merit, and either of them would be very credible winners.”
As for Berry’s upset win over Spacek, Harris says, ”We’ve heard a lot about Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman both coming up strong in these last couple of weeks. My hunch is that two of them surging at the same time probably helps Sissy Spacek. Maybe they’ll split the voters who are looking to recognize somebody young and talented.” In any case, he says, it’s now a wide-open race for the Best Actress Oscar. ”Any of the three of them could take it.”
The other unexpected turn at the SAG Awards was the strong showing for ”Gosford Park,” which won for Best Ensemble (the closest thing the SAGs have to a Best Picture award) and Best Supporting Actress for Helen Mirren. Of course, Mirren didn’t have to compete against Jennifer Connelly, who’s considered the Oscar front-runner in that category. Universal, ”A Beautiful Mind”’s distributor, accidentally nominated Connelly in the Leading Actress category, putting her up against Berry and Spacek. That left Mirren as the only Oscar nominee in the Best Supporting Actress category.
The SAGs did confirm the momentum for ”The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (by granting Ian McKellen Best Supporting Actor honors) and for ”A Beautiful Mind” and Russell Crowe, who won yet another Best Actor trophy. (He gave another unusual, though decorous acceptance speech, not thanking anyone in particular.) To Harris, it would have been odds-altering news only if either man hadn’t won. ”If Russell Crowe had lost, he would have been in real trouble,” he says. ”It shows that some actors don’t think two times in a row is too much. On the other hand, it would be good if, whenever he won an award, it didn’t look like he was having a tooth pulled. People may not want to give an award to someone who appears not to want one very much.”
Crowe’s win came a day after Ron Howard won the Directors Guild of America’s award for his ”Mind” work. Howard’s award ”means that he’s a serious contender, which we already knew,” Harris says. ”It means he’s still in the hunt with Peter Jackson (”Rings”) and Robert Altman (”Gosford”). It’s a three-way race.”
Since its inception in 1949, the DGA has predicted — all but five times — the Oscar for Best Director, which is, in turn, usually a predictor of the Oscar for Best Picture. However, one of those exceptions was last year, when ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”’s Ang Lee won the DGA, ”Traffic”’s Steven Soderbergh won the Academy Award for Best Director, and ”Gladiator” won the Best Picture Oscar. Another exception was Howard’s last DGA win, for ”Apollo 13” six years ago, which was followed by his Oscar losses to Mel Gibson and ”Braveheart.” So the DGA’s accuracy may be slipping a bit, especially since the Guild seems to like Howard more than the Academy does.
In any case, Harris warns handicappers not to make too much of any of this weekend’s results. ”I persist in believing that Academy members simply don’t care who won any of the previous 800 races.”