SAG Awards 2015: 'Birdman' yes, but 'Theory'? Cast nominations a puzzle

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
Via @latimes: @SAGawards nominates 'Birdman' cast, but 'Whiplash,' 'Foxcatcher' puzzlingly overlooked

These scenes began flashing through my mind just as the Screen Actors Guild Awards began announcing nominations for performance by a cast in a motion picture:

"Birdman" — actors in constricted spaces using dressing rooms and winding corridors to stage an intimate ballet; bodies and egos ever in motion, bumping, bruising, crashing, burning.

"Whiplash"— a war zone, the interplay between professor and prodigy scorching, the afterburn lingering; solitude even for the solitary ceasing to exist.

"Foxcatcher" — the concept of contact, inherent in the physical intimacy of wrestling; alive in intertwining limbs, mingling in breath and sweat, motion and emotion fusing in battle.

Yet only one of these films made the SAG Awards cut. "Birdman" is in. "Foxcatcher" and "Whiplash" are out. The other nominated casts leave me torn. Some of the excluded leave me puzzled.

Did the guild members simply not watch all the films this year, particularly the late arrivals like "A Most Violent Year" with its intricate web of shifting alliances a marvel of precision? Or "Inherent Vice," with its sprawling mélange of clashing consciences and altered states?

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS 2015: Top Nominees | Complete List | Nominee reactions | Full coverage

Were "American Sniper" and "Unbroken" snubbed or merely unseen? Was the collective musical romp of "Into the Woods," a virtual round robin, its ensemble sharing the needle to stitch together one fairy tale after another, truly dismissed?

Yes, Meryl Streep made it into the supporting actress category for her witchy witch in the "Woods." No disrespect to Streep, but so revered is the actress at this point, I think she might have been nominated with or without a role.

The category itself — performance by a cast — has always seemed a slippery one, elusive, ill-defined. Often more of a way to spread the love, recognize the quality of a film, at times, as much as the interlocking performances in it.

"Ensemble," the word used on the TV side of the SAG Awards, works better to my mind. A collective that creates something singular. An ensemble of actors bound together, sharing the screen, internally and externally in sync, in concert, in harmony. That is a cast.

So shapeless are this year choices, so all over the map, I wonder how actors will consider the competitors, what factors will move them to mark their final ballots. Will the combined craft of a consortium take the day, or will soaring solos that happen to exist within the same film walk off with the win?

Why worry about the wording, you may ask? Quite simply because it matters.

There are platforms aplenty recognizing individual achievements. The SAG Awards' cast prize is one of the few that so directly zeros in on what acting is all about, distilling the idea down to its essence. It is a pure reflection of the process.

Of the films that did get the nod, it is no shock that "Birdman's" seamless ensemble is in the running. Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts — they truly are the wind beneath Birdman's wings.

"Boyhood," without question is deserving as well, for its emotional rigor in meeting an extraordinary challenge.

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS 2015: Top Nominees | Complete List | Nominee reactions | Full coverage

A few months of filming each year for 12 years, the lens catching the characters and the actors — Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater — at different ages and stages in their lives, and the lives of their characters. Their efforts meld with such grace that the film holds together beautifully, time passing without any loss of character or connection. Stunning.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel," with an excellent cast, has sharply calibrated performances, precise and peppery dialogue. Watching Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tony Revolori, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson — it was like seeing the gears mesh on a fine Swiss clock through a magnifying glass. But was the effect created by the cast as a collective? Or was it more the result of Wes Anderson's genius mind piecing this remarkable puzzle together?

"The Imitation Game," yes, certainly belongs during the code-breaking years before it spins off into Alan Turing's personal trials. Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, Mark Strong — together they generate an electrifying intellectual storm of ideas and emotions. As a group of brilliant minds around an even more brilliant one, desperate to unlock a secret, frustrated by their own limitations, they become in a sense a single organism. Turing's brain, as advanced as it was, Cumberbatch, as good as he is, both work better when not in a vacuum.

"The Theory of Everything," not so much. Not that the performances weren't first rate. They were. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne earned their spot in the SAG Awards' lead actress/actor categories. Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Emily Watson provided the supporting safety net beautifully. But the film doesn't feel like a collaboration as much as a series of different journeys — Jane Hawking on one, Stephen Hawking on another. Separate, arguably equal, but not a singular, cohesive creation.

A star turn, or several of them within a film, should not merit the SAG Award. Performance by a cast in a motion picture should be exactly that — the collective expression of artists coalescing to create something enduring. Together.

Follow me on Twitter: @BetsySharkey

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