SAG = Standard Award Season Givens (with One Exception)

Typical. That’s all there really is to say. With one major exception (and when you come to think of it, it’s actually a rather inconsequential and overall insignificant bit of industry buzz), the 16th annual Screen Actor’s Guild Awards saw the membership measure out its coveted marble man to many of the same names we’ve heard since the start of December. While it would be nice to hear a new name or two, the truth remains that Hollywood has micromanaged the awards season process down to a simple series of steps (critics to Golden Globes, Guilds to Academy glory). Once the same old names start showing up, you can more or less fill out your office pool survey and wait for the inevitable.

Of course, it’s important to remember that not all of SAG’s 120K plus cardholders vote for these nominations. A handpicked group of over 4,000 do that damage, with everyone submitting their ballot for the eventual winners. This means that, instead of reflecting all the actors our there, SAG strays over into the “easily influenced” realm. Depending on who sees what film when, who is in AMPAS, the availability of screeners, and the final five choices offered to all, it’s amazing that the process ever results in an clear indication of future (read: OSCAR!) red carpet celebrations. Yet, as with many such ceremonies, inevitability and gathering consensus ruled.

With his win, Jeff Bridges confirms that it is finally time for his AMPAS lifetime achievement recognition. While he has been nominated four times before (most notably for his work in The Last Picture Show and Starman), Crazy Heart seems to be his Tender Mercies moment. Indeed, among the five SAG wannabes, it was a clear choice between The Hurt Locker‘s Jeremy Renner and Beau’s brother. Indeed, the other three nominees – Morgan Freeman (Invictus), Colin Firth (A Single Man), and early favorite (now fading really fast) George Clooney – appear like perpetual runners up. Of all the categories, however, Best Actor could be the place where someone previously unheralded could step in and scoop up Bridges’ building thunder. While SAG is usually a fair predictor of the final Academy five, it’s also a very insular group. Oscar voters are literally taken from all walks of celebrity life, and while the final award is voted on by the acting constituent, said pool can be awfully prickly.

Sandra Bullock also appears primed to reap her own overall career acknowledgment Oscar – which is odd, considering how decidedly commercial the main arc of her professional path as been. After all, this is the woman who made both All About Steve and The Proposal along the way to 2010 little gold statue glory. Granted, the Academy does this all the time. No one thought of Julia Roberts as a serious actress until she hoisted up her chest and dialed down her Tinseltown glitz to play the lead in Erin Brockovich, so a Blind Side win is not so far fetched. In fact, outside of Meryl Streep’s dead-on Julia Child, and Gabourey Sidibe devastating work in Precious, the rest of the SAG noms barely stood a chance. Considering that Carey (An Education) Mulligan is a newcomer and Helen (The Last Station) Mirren is a recent winner, the typical wayward Best Actress angle seems to apply. Just remember, Helen Hunt has one. So does Nicole Kidman.

In the Supporting Actor and Actress category, we are primed for still more predictability – or at the very least, one of the BIGGEST upsets in recent award season indicators. Ever since the critics groups and media outlets have been providing their end of the year bests, stand-up comedian Mo’Nique (Precious) and Austrian Basterd juggernaut Christoph Waltz have been dominating every list. They both have Golden Globes. They now both own SAG statues. And since they both represent evil in its obvious (she) and insidious (he) forms, it’s easy to see how they will more than likely continue to control their own Oscar destiny. Many thought the brash African American actress ruined her chances by snubbing some prestigious ceremonies (most notable, the New York Film Critics shindig). But with limited competition within their own group, it’s hard to see who could topple them.

Of course, looking for said spoiler is always interesting, but there is little to glean from the rest of the SAG’s supporting choices. Up in the Air is all but dead, meaning that both Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga literally have no chance. While it started strong five months ago, it has long been supplanted by more current buzzed-up betters. Similarly, Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Matt Damon (Invictus), and Woody Harrelson (The Messenger) seem like guests you have to invite to the party, hoping they either don’t show up, or simply sit over in the corner, muttering to themselves. Call them competitive place holders and be done with it. If there is a glimmer of ‘OMG’ possibility, it could come from Christopher Plummer (The Last Station), who’s been piling on the good work as of late. Given his age, range, and lack of previous Oscar attention, he could step in and claim the “getting really old, like Alan Arkin” sympathy vote.

That just leaves the bizzaro-world win by Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds for “Best Ensemble.” Since the Academy doesn’t offer such collective cast recognition, some see the selection as an indicator for Best Picture. Going back five years, Ensemble has gotten the eventual Oscar winner right three times (Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, Crash) and wrong twice (Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways). In essence, this means that even within the new “everyone into the pool” process of picking ten, not just five, potential Best Picture nominees, Inglourious Basterds remains a solid top three favorite. Still, don’t count out The Hurt Locker (which just picked up a prestigious Producer’s Guild Award) or Precious (which could still recover from some harsh critical backlash). As for Nine and An Education? Thank you for playing, people. Hope you are happy with your mandatory minor moment in the spotlight.

Still, Oscar recognition does remain questionable for most here. The nominating process ended on the same day as the SAG Awards, and we will find out what effect that had on the final tally come 2 February. Per usual, there will be the standard kvetching, the prayed for long shots, the usual unnecessary nods, and the “what the Hell?” head-scratchers. And remember this – Avatar was yet to be universally screened when SAG started its process. It’s continued box office domination, pop culture resonance, and Golden Globe upsets mean it will definitely be there come announcement time. Whether it can sweep in and spoil the day for some of these already established “winners” is something we’ll just have to wait for. That being said, many of us would welcome a little unpredictability this time of year. As the process has ‘perfected’ itself, it seems like the standard award season givens need only apply.