Will actors eventually be selected out of their central role in movies, increasing replaced by animation, performance capture, and other evolving forms of digital characters? That irrational fear has been drifting in and out of Oscar conversations for years. Just as the pleasure of reading books has endured while movies became the world’s foremost storyteller, films driven by great performances remain as popular now as they’ve ever been. In the end, no technology can ever replace what gifted actors are able to do. This year, a handful of film ensembles remind us of the irreplaceable power of performances.
Two essential forces often compete to dictate the Best Picture race — the director and the ensemble cast. The Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble award has come to mean much more than just a precursor for Best Picture. They have gone out of their way to define their ensemble prize in terms of their unique collaborative contribution — Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Those of us who look to the SAG Awards to see what might win Best Picture must balance our regard for the acting branch as the largest block of voters who choose the top prize at the Oscars with our awareness that sometimes it really is all about the acting. When a film wins Best Picture without an Oscar for its director — as was the case with Crash, Chicago, and Shakespeare in Love — the SAG ensemble prize is often an early indication that its strength is perceived to be the collective contribution of its cast more than a result of the director’s control.