The Screen Actors Guild Awards are the Elmore Leonard of movie awards shows. Like the ''Get Shorty'' author, who likes to say he leaves out of his books the parts that readers tend to skip, the SAG Awards don't give out trophies in what many viewers consider bathroom-break categories -- sound design, art direction, even writing and directing. All the nominees and all the voters are actors -- nothin' but stars, baby! And if you're trying to handicap the acting categories for the Oscars you could do worse than to watch the SAGs, which are handed out on March 10, nine days before Academy members turn in their ballots. About 75 percent of past SAG winners have gone on to earn Oscars a couple weeks later.
This year's eighth annual SAG Awards, which will air live on TNT from Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, will include such celebrity presenters as Nicole Kidman, Will Smith, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, and Benicio Del Toro. The trophy, called the Actor, is given out for both movie and TV work, with nominees selected by polls of 4,200 randomly selected members of the actors' union; winners are chosen by a vote of the guild's full membership of 98,000.
Awards go out to ensemble casts as well as individual actors, so every last player from ''Gosford Park'' or ''The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'' could show up in the hopes of taking home an Actor. The only sure winner will be Ed Asner, the erstwhile Lou Grant (and two-time SAG president), who's getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.
For nominated performers, if the Golden Globes are an endless cocktail hour and the Emmys and Oscars are a nerve-wracking endurance test, the SAGs are a ''dinner party.'' So says SAG producer Jeff Margolis, who's produced several Oscar and Emmy telecasts and is on his fourth SAG show. ''We try to mix people together, so the cast of 'A Beautiful Mind' might sit next to the cast of 'Frasier,''' he says. ''People think in Hollywood every star knows every other star, but here, stars who admire other stars get an opportunity to meet each other for the first time.'' The convivial atmosphere insures a very high turnout among nominees, unlike some other relatively new awards shows, like this year's AFI Awards, which was so plagued by no-shows that Hollywood jokers called it the MIA Awards.
How good the SAGs are as a predictor of the Oscars depends on your point of view. The apparent surprise Oscar nominations for Sean Penn, Renée Zellweger, and Ethan Hawke weren't surprises to those who paid attention when the SAG nominations were announced back in January. On the other hand, the Academy didn't share SAG's enthusiasm for ''Life As a House'''s Kevin Kline and Hayden Christensen, and four of the five SAG Supporting Actress nominees didn't make the Oscar ballot.
Likely Supporting Actress Oscar winner Connelly is up for a SAG Award, but for Best Actress; Universal (''A Beautiful Mind'''s distributor) nominated her in the wrong category, and the error stuck. (Similarly, last year, ''Traffic'''s Del Toro won the Actor for a lead role, not a supporting role, and though he went on to win the Supporting Actor Oscar, his SAG win meant that eventual Best Actor Oscar winner Russell Crowe got stiffed.)
Since actors make up the largest branch of Academy voters, many of the same people are voting for the SAG winners. ''The acting community is pretty much in sync with the Academy voters,'' Margolis says. However, Entertainment Weekly's Mark Harris, who's talked with many Oscar voters, cautions against confusing the momentum that comes from a SAG win with actual influence over the Academy voting process. ''No one who votes says, 'I'm waiting to see what happens in the other races,''' he says. ''The only way the SAG Awards can have an influence is if someone wins and makes an egregiously stupid or offensive acceptance speech, then there could be a backlash.'' That could be bad news for, say, Crowe, though it would be a lot of fun for viewers at home.