SAG Awards Analysis: Oscar Race Upended As ‘CODA’, Jessica Chastain & Apple Score Big In First Test Of Guild Strength

It was a night when the pundit-predicted Oscar-season frontrunners The Power of the Dog and Belfast came up empty, and longer shots like CODA and The Eyes of Tammy Faye won key races that promise to add a bit more suspense as we glide toward the Oscars.

The big movie winner of the night, CODA, was one I saw coming and in my Notes on the Season column on Friday predicted both of its victories for Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur, who became the first deaf actor to win an individual SAG Award and first to win two since he was also part of its Outstanding Cast Award victory. That was another race I called, not just because of the historic circumstances of seeing the first-ever predominantly deaf cast win the big one, but also because it is such a universal story of family that anyone can relate to: moving, funny and real.

As it has done in the past, this SAG Cast award can energize an Oscar campaign, which is what happened when Parasite took the same prize two years ago and rode it all the way to Best Picture. The sheer enthusiasm and excitement generated by that win in the audience that night at SAG was palpable, and so tonight was this win for CODA, a movie that also showed its awards potential early on after its Sundance debut in January 2021 where it took all four major narrative prizes in an unprecedented sweep. It is nominated for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and for Kotsur at the Oscars, and you have to think that Apple TV+ will capitalize even more on this long-shot Oscar bid. The streamer picked it up at Sundance for $25 million as Marlee Matlin reminded us in her speech for the Cast award and has been running a strong campaign with extensive and expensive TV ads for the past few weeks. How far it can climb is TBD, but this has to be encouraging.

Will Smith Jessica Chastain

CODA’s night at SAG was a win for one of the “heart” films in the race this year, as was Will Smith’s expected victory for King Richard. A loss here would have upended the common wisdom that he is the unquestioned frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar, that his time has come and this just cements it at this point in the game. The Supporting Actress prize for West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose also was widely expected as the Afro Latina actress continued her reign as the favorite in the category, where she is expected to win an Oscar exactly 60 years after Rita Moreno became the first Latina to do it in the exact same role.

Smith and DeBose are now joined by Kotsur as front-runners in their category, but the wide open Best Actress race just got a little wider open as Jessica Chastain took the SAG award for Lead Actress for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, not at all a predictable winner for a movie that underperformed at the box office, opened early in September, and hasn’t yet translated into a lot of wins to date for the star.

However, SAG is opening a new window in the race and is the first on the industry awards circuit to hand out their hardware, separating itself from the tsunami of critics awards we’ve seen so far, and definitely travelling its own path. Chastain took the prize over fellow Oscar nominees Oliva Colman and Nicole Kidman,  as well as Lady Gaga and Jennifer Hudson, who both missed out on Oscar morning.

Now the race moves forward where they will be joined by Penélope Cruz and Kristen Stewart (snubbed at both SAG and BAFTA). BAFTA is a non-factor in the race, a highly unusual situation where none of the Oscar nominees are nominated. Even next Sunday’s Indie Spirit Awards managed to go its own way with no single Oscar nominee in that Lead Actress race either (Kotsur and The Lost Daughter’s Jessie Buckley are in fact the only Oscar-nominated actors competing there). Critics Choice, up in two weeks on the same day as BAFTA, may be the one to give this race some renewed momentum as Cruz is the only Oscar nominee not in that contest, and Chastain now has some real heat coming out of tonight.

Ariana DeBose

Keep in mind though that SAG doesn’t often bat 1.000, even though it went 5 for 5 in 2019. Last year, SAG only managed to match the Oscars in the two supporting categories, but then last year was, well, you know. Though front-running streamer Netflix got shut out on the movie side tonight, as did Belfast, they both can come back strong in two weeks when DGA, Critics Choice and BAFTA all take place within 24 hours of each other and can once again upend the race. Oscar nomination leader The Power of the Dog , which went 0 for 3 at SAG (it wasn’t even nominated for the Cast award), and last night surprisingly lost the USC Scripter Award to Netflix stablemate The Lost Daughter, is favored to do strongly at all three of those events, and Belfast might even be a homeland favorite at BAFTA. As you can see, before Oscar balloting begins on March 17 there is still plenty of time to shake up the race, and with 20-plus guild awards and other kudos events between now and Oscar night there is the potential for lots of momentum building — or undoing.

As for SAG’s impact on the nascent Emmy race, Netflix took the two lead actor and actress in a drama series awards for Lee Jung-Jae and Jung Ho-Yeun, respectively, from South Korea’s phenomenon Squid Game, signaling that show as a real player in the upcoming TV awards season. It looked for a nano-second that it was going to sweep, nut in the end it was HBO’s Succession taking the TV Drama Ensemble award over Squid Game that played out as expected — even if it came finally on that smash hit show’s surprising first nomination and win, and as often the case with SAG following rather than leading to Emmy success.

The same goes for Ted Lasso’s Ensemble and Lead Actor Comedy wins (in another big pair of wins for Apple, which took four overall wins tonight between TV and film) as well as Jean Smart’s Lead Comedy Actress in Hacks and Kate Winslet’s latest Mare of Easttown bauble. However, Michael Keaton’s win for Dopesick and his emotionally moving speech will go a long way toward putting that Hulu limited series and himself firmly in a strong position at the Emmys, especially since it also had a big weekend winning the USC Scripter Award last night for Danny Strong.

Overall these 28th annual SAG Awards, surprises and all, were a welcome return to the way we were — stars walking the red carpet showing off fashion, and seated in-person, maskless, in front of cold food on the table. Nice to return to, as Martin Short said (and why can’t HE host the Oscars?),”Let’s get back to God’s work and give another actor an award!”

Onward. One month to go.

If you missed my play by play in tonight’s Deadline Live Blog, check it out here.

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