NOTES ON A SEASON

SAG nods spell bad news for 'Sweeney Todd,' 'Atonement'

'No Country for Old Men' looks like a best picture lock, while the strike continues to concern awards insiders.

In case you even have to ask, the awards race is still wide open.

The Screen Actors Guild jumped right into this wild, wild awards season by anointing Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" as the actors' front-runner with four nominations.

That means the film got every single thing it could have been named for – actor for Emile Hirsch, supporting actor for Hal Holbrook, supporting actress for Catherine Keener, and best cast (there is no lead actress in the film).

The 2,100 members of the SAG nominating committee clearly embraced one of their own: actor turned writer-director Penn, a widely respected actor's actor who has won critical acclaim behind the camera this time.

The Paramount Vantage release certainly has had a roller-coaster ride of a season so far. It was virtually ignored by critics groups and the Golden Globes (except for a couple of music nominations).

Strong support showed up for "Wild" only with its early Gotham awards win for best picture, followed by seven Critics Choice nods from the Broadcast Critics Assn., including best picture and the three actors whom SAG also named.

So why should we pay attention?

SAG is the first non-critic-centric awards body to pipe in this season. In a sense, it's the first one that really matters, operating as one of a quartet of major guild kudos bellwethers (namely the producers, directors and writers guilds, which will all announce their nominations in January).

SAG also has an enviable track record. In its 13 previous years it has closely foreshadowed what the Academy Awards will eventually do, often off only by one nomination at the most.

More so than the myriad of critics' awards, the nominees and winners of the various guilds awards are what smart prognosticators really look to when trying to predict the prevailing Oscar winds, since so much of their membership overlaps with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Last year, for instance, the academy's eventual acting nominees matched 19 of the 20 SAG nominees. The only discrepancy was the supporting actor nominee from "The Departed." (Oscar went with Mark Wahlberg while SAG preferred Leonardo DiCaprio.)

In SAG's outstanding cast category, the one awards pundits often compare to the academy's best picture prize, three of last year's nominees matched Oscar. In 2005, "Crash's" SAG ensemble victory was the first indication of trouble for "Brokeback Mountain," which notably went on to lose the best picture Oscar to "Crash" as well.

This year's list, with dark-horse titles like "3:10 To Yuma" and "Hairspray," is raising eyebrows. The inclusion of "American Gangster" and, certainly, "Into The Wild" in this category will be seen as a boon to their chances, but only "No Country for Old Men" on the cast list is a surefire best picture Oscar nominee at this point.

"Juno's" omission in the category has to be a disappointment for Fox Searchlight, since the best picture Oscar prospects of the "little film that could" keep being compared to their "Little Miss Sunshine," which was the winner for best cast last year and went on to a top academy nomination as well.

And rarely do we see performances not even nominated by SAG ever win Oscars. In fact, only Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock" (2000) managed to pull that trick in the SAG awards' entire 13-year history, a statistic that does not bode well for the stars of "Atonement" and "Sweeney Todd," both chock full of Globe and BFCA nominations but completely ignored by "The Actor" (the official name for the trophy SAG hands out).

Interestingly, both "Sweeney" and "Atonement" are December releases, apparently a bad-luck month this year for flicks hoping to compete for SAG recognition. It's an interesting wrinkle, since the SAG nomination voting and announcement dates were moved up by two weeks to adjust to the shortened awards season.

This would appear to make DVD screener availability and those all-important SAG nominating committee screenings and Q&As even more vitally important than ever in reaching the voters.

"Todd," which opens Friday, still has not sent DVD screeners out, while "Atonement's" December release could have harmed it with SAG despite the fact that screeners were in hand.

Nearly all of today's nominees did in-person screening Q&As for SAG, some more than once, and the in-person touch clearly seems to have paid off.

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