December 17, 2011 / 12:50 AM / 8 years ago

SAG ensemble rule rewards stars, shortchanges key actors

LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - The Golden Globes isn’t the only awards show where it really pays to be a movie star.

It’s a big help at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, too — not because SAG voters fawn over celebrities the way the Globes voters famously do, but because the guild’s ensemble award has a built-in bias in favor of actors with the clout to negotiate favorable opening-credit placement.

According to guild rules, ensemble award casts are represented by actors billed on separate cards in the main titles.

That’s why, if you look at SAG’s listing for the nominees in the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Award, you’ll find what seem to be baffling oversights.

In the case of “The Descendants,” for instance, six actors are listed as making up the film’s cast: Beau Bridges, George Clooney, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard and Shailene Woodley.

Notably missing are Amara Miller and Nick Krause — who, as Clooney’s youngest daughter and as a tagalong friend of Woodley’s, respectively, have significantly more screen time than Bridges, Forster, Greer and Lillard.

In Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the omissions are even more glaring. If one is to judge by SAG’s list of nominees, the cast includes Adrien Brody, who plays Salvador Dali, but not Corey Stoll, who plays Ernest Hemingway and is by far the most talked-about and honored of the actors who play historical figures. (San Francisco’s film critics named him the year’s best supporting actor.)

Kathy Bates, who plays Gertrude Stein, is listed; Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston, who play Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are not.

Michael Sheen makes the cut; Nina Arianda, who portrays his fiance and is onscreen virtually every moment that he is, doesn’t.

Carla Bruni, the French first lady who has a couple of small scenes, is in; Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller, major players as Owen Wilson’s prospective in-laws, are out.

And it’s not just that Stoll and Krause and Pill and the rest were just left off a list. If “The Descendants” wins, Matthew Lillard will get a shiny statuette, but Nick Krause will receive a certificate.

If “Midnight in Paris” triumphs, Brody gets hardware and Stoll gets a piece of paper.

It doesn’t feel right - not to the actors involved, not to outside observers, and sometimes not even to SAG officials.

“It’s very frustrating for us,” admitted SAG Awards producer Kathy Connell to TheWrap. “But the union cannot be in the position of deciding who qualifies and who doesn’t.”

The guild’s official rules stipulate that every actor who appears in the end credits is considered a member of the cast — but for the ensemble awards, “Motion Picture casts shall be represented by those actors billed on separate cards in the main titles, wherever those titles appear.”

In other words, if you’re a big enough name to get your own title card, then you have the chance to win a SAG award in a few scenes. But if you’re not as well known, you can have a bigger role but not be invited to the party.

“At the beginning, we had to put in a rule that would be very clear to everyone,” said Connell, who added that the ensemble category was instituted 16 years ago.

“And that rule had to allow filmmakers to make the call. How would it look if we decided that this actor should be in and this actor shouldn’t?”

Directors and studios, she added, are well aware of the rule, and thus have the ability to include any actor they deem worthy by giving that actor an opening-credits card.

“We feel horrible about it sometimes,” she said, “but we’re not in control.”

But is there a better way than tying the nomination to opening credits, which are often a function of negotiating clout? How about simply giving the director or studio a number, and saying they can submit, say, 12 actors?

“That would be even more unfair,” Connell said. “What if the 13th actor is very important to the movie? At least under our system, you can always give that 13th actor a single card if you think he’s important.

“We’ve had casts of 18, and casts of five. The way we do it gives the filmmakers the opportunity to decide who is important.”

In “Midnight in Paris,” nobody — not even star Owen Wilson — has a solo title card.

As is Woody Allen’s custom, the cast is listed not individually, but in groups. The first card reads “Starring (in alphabetical order),” and lists Bates, Brody, Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Sheen and Wilson. The second card is headed “Co-starring,” and lists Arianda, Fuller, Hiddleston, Kennedy, Pill, Lea Seydoux and Stoll.

“In the past, Woody Allen has put 18 actors on two cards in his opening credits, and listed them all alphabetically,” said Connell. “In that case, we would take all 18. But here, he separated the cards into ‘Starring’ and ‘Co-starring,’ so the choice seemed to have been made by Mr. Allen.”

On the other hand, even Stoll and Krause and their cohorts are in better shape than Jon Hamm, who makes a cameo appearance in ensemble nominee “Bridesmaids.” Hamm always gets big laughs when he appears onscreen — but it’s an uncredited part, not even listed in the final credits. So if the film wins, he won’t even get a certificate.

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