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That Idris Elba Moment – Why SAG-AFTRA’s Break from the Oscars Is a Good Thing

I first started covering the Oscar race back in 1999, when very few people were. Tom O’Neil and a few others had predictions sites. The LA Times, Premiere Magazine, and Entertainment Weekly would cover the Oscars in “Oscar season.” But I was really the first (whether people give me credit for it or not, and usually they don’t) to build a site, for better or worse, that covered the Oscars year-round.

Since I’d already been online writing about film on a listserv before there was a working World Wide Web, I was digging through the archives the other day and found an old post I had written in October 1995 (twenty years ago!!) about Citizen Kane and why it’s such a good movie. My curiosity about the Oscars started with Citizen Kane and how and why it lost Best Picture when it was considered the greatest film of all time. What was the difference between recognizing a film’s greatness over time and how the Oscars chose their greatest film of the moment. Well, now I know all of the contributing factors. John Ford had won Best Director twice, but never with Best Picture. How Green Was My Valley was sincere and sentimental, and quite a beautiful film, as it turns out. Citizen Kane had been hit hard by William Randolph Hearst’s media empire, with press blackouts, with threats to theater owners and intimidation of Academy members. It was a big deal that Orson Welles had dared to take on such a titan as Hearst, even if, all of these years later we all know that there is very little in Citizen Kane that matches Hearst’s actual biography. What it is is a portrait of the American titan. The American winner who chases anything but money to find happiness because it is the one thing he can’t buy.

I built my site to answer the question why Citizen Kane lost Best Picture, by examining why other great films won and lost. I would track movies as they opened, track their reviews and box office and look at the race to see how it unfolded. I would build charts and compare critics awards and guild awards. As I started to do this, I would emphasize those were the best matches with Oscar, or the best influencers of Oscar, and best indicators. I noticed that more critics groups began to form. I noticed that the numbers began to rise in the guilds. I noticed that there was a kind of honor in “matching” the Academy — so much so that some groups put it out in their press releases noting how many times they matched. Even critics, who purport to have no respect for the Academy, often use their high matching rate as a badge of honor, or they did for a little while.

This matching up of precursors lasted as long as it could until it didn’t. At some point, and perhaps 2010 was that point, there was a major split between the film critics’ consensus and the bigger guilds. Maybe it happened right around the time the Academy changed up its ballots, like 2009 and onward, but 2011 represents the last time there was clear alignment between critics and industry. And even then, The Help won the SAG Ensemble award, not The Artist.

As many years as I’ve been writing about diversity, basically for over a decade, I’ve never seen the story get as big as it got this year, so much so that it actually broke up the long record of the SAG Awards never awarding any actor who did not have an Oscar nomination. It was the first time there was a “guild revolt,” as far as I could tell. The SAG voters were saying “this oversight was wrong and we’re going to correct it.” Of course, it helps that Idris Elba gave one of the best performances of the year, but from my perspective, going on 17 years in the game, it was a shock and an interesting twist to my own story covering the race.

It is a mistake to see Elba’s win as a “token” gesture to correct a wrong. What’s admirable in what SAG voters did, whatever their individual reasons, is that they picked the best performance, not necessarily the one that had the best chance of winning the Oscar. When it came time to pick Outstanding Ensemble they stuck to their pattern of only awarding one of the two films up for Best Picture, but the one loosening of Oscar’s grip has proved one of the most surprising and satisfyingly things about a very surprising race.

Beasts of No Nation was, to my mind, the best film of the year. I championed it so hard, knowing deep down that the Academy would never let in a “Netflix movie,” but I clung to hope based on SAG’s inclusion. How nice to see it rewarded there, in the supporting actor category, giving the SAG awards an opportunity to really stand on their own as a separate but equal institution — and by now, massive in size.

Part of this change could be the AFTRA factor. So far of course, 2013, 2014 and 2015 are the only years when this new dynamic of SAG-AFTRA membership has been tested. That membership, as defined by Wikipedia, is:

The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is an American labor union representing over 160,000 film and television principal and background performers, journalists, and radio personalities worldwide. The organization was formed on March 30, 2012, following the merger of the Screen Actors Guild (created in 1933) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (created in 1952).

The SAG/Oscar bond in the past might have been because the group was made up of actors only. Now, someone like Tom O’Neil of Gold Derby has a SAG vote, for instance. This might be the first year we really see the full impact of that merger.

The other group that is separate but equal from the Oscars now is the Spirit Awards, which happens the day before Oscar Night. That ceremony has Beasts of No Nation represented in all the major categories, along with Tangerine. In the discussion about diversity, no one really brought up the Spirit Awards much, but I suspect it will offer a stark contrast with the Oscars this year, no matter what movie they choose (though I really hope they chose Beasts of No Nation).

Where all of this leaves the Best Supporting Actor race is anyone’s guess. The only other match-up between now and Oscar would be the BAFTAs. The only three who are nominated for both would be:

Christian Bale, The Big Short
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Honestly, two British actors and one beloved hero. You got me there.