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SAG Ensemble Flashback: "The Birdcage!" & Oscar Trivia

With the Screen Actors Guild Awards less than a month away, let's look back at the history of our favorite SAG Category, "Outstanding Performance by a Cast" i.e. Best Ensemble. Though the Guild had long been in the business of lifetime achievement awards, they didn't hold their first full fledged awards ceremony until 1995 for the 1994 film year. That first SAG year did not include an Ensemble movie prize which is strange since they handed out TV ensemble prizes from the start so it's not like they hadn't dreamt up that honor! The next year Apollo 13, which was something of a frontrunner for Oscar's Best Picture prize (it eventually lost), won the inaugural ensemble prize. It beat a field that included only one other Oscar Best Picture nominee (Sense & Sensibility)... a percentage ratio you rarely see today.

At the third annual ceremony the award went to the (thankfully) dated gay marriage comedy The Birdcage (1996), based on the 1978 French classic and three-time Oscar nominee La Cage Aux Folles. The films farcical comedy emerges when a gay couple (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) try to fool a conservative couple (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) into thinking of them as a "reputable" traditional family so that the son can marry the other couple's daughter (Dan Futterman and Calista Flockhart). Everything goes wrong over dinner as the gay couple has a terrible time keeping up the facade.

This is so Guatemala. They put hardboiled things in everything down there. Because, you know, chicken is so important to them. it's their only real currency. A woman is said to be worth her weight in hens and a man's wealth is measured by the size of his cock."

Will you excuse me?"


The Birdcage beat eventual Best Picture nominees The English Patient and Shine to the prize (as well as Marvin's Room and Sling Blade). Award watchers note, usually with sadness, that this could never happen today. The Birdcage is the first and last film non-Best Picture contender honored by SAG for it ensemble. The Guild's communal prize, after an interesting start that seemed very focused on large casts in popular pictures (whether or not they had a shot in the future Best Pic roster) merely became another way of predicting Oscar's biggest prize.

SAG History (Oscar nominees in red, SAG winners in bold)

  • 1995 Apollo 13, Get Shorty, How To Make an American Quilt, Nixon, Sense & Sensibility
  • 1996 The Birdcage, The English Patient, Marvin's Room, Shine, Sling Blade
  • 1997 Boogie Nights, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential, Titanic
  • 1998 Life is Beautiful, Little Voice, Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, Waking Ned Devine
  • 1999 American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, Magnolia
  • 2000 Almost Famous, Billy Elliott, Chocolat, Gladiator, Traffic
  • 2001 A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!
  • 2002 Adaptation, Chicago, The Hours, LotR: The Two Towers, My Big Fat Greek Wedding
  • 2003 In America, LotR: The Return of the King, Mystic River, Seabiscuit, The Station Agent
  • 2004 The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Hotel Rwanda, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Sideways
  • 2005 Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck., Hustle & Flow
  • 2006 Babel, Bobby, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine
  • 2007 3:10 To Yuma, American Gangster, Hairspray, Into the Wild, No Country For Old Men
  • 2008 Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire
  • 2009 An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Nine, Precious
  • 2010 Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech, The Social Network
  • 2011 (Oscar Nominees TBD) The Artist, Bridesmaids, The Descendants, The Help, Midnight in Paris 

2007 is their most atypical year if you ask me. Do you see any patterns that you have to talk about?

The Birdcage is a perfect example of their shift in focus since it was too light and too gay (without mandatory tragedy!) for Oscar heat but it's extremely ensemble focused. Mike Nichols uses a ton of medium shots to make sure you're seeing multiple cast members at once. They're actually acting together! This shouldn't be such a retro rarity but it has become so with today's incessant leaning on closeups of individual performers even in scenes that are entirely about group dynamics.

I feel like I'm insane."

Though the annual tradition of the Ensemble prize has leaned like a thirsty plant towards Oscar sun, two things have remained somewhat consistent, one delightful and one ugly. The category has always been kind to comedy (relatively speaking) which is delightful since good comedy is hard to pull off and SAG has never dealt with its indelicacy problem of who gets nominated for "ensemble" and who does not (as this year's Corey Stoll snub reminds us) which is ugly. This was always true: Calista Flockhart was the only member of the principle Birdcage cast left out of the nominations since she wasn't famous enough yet to get her own title card. Weep not for Calista though. She went on to win the ensemble statue for television a few years later for leading the cast of Ally McBeal.

Here's how they make that actor statue, an infotainment segment hosted by the cast of Dexter. Just because!



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Reader Comments (33)

Nathaniel, a little correction: "Doubt" is in red and it isn't an Oscar nominee, although should had been.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElton Telles

Looking at the most recent films that SAG nominated but Oscar did not, I notice that a good number of them are predominantly African-American casts. Good for SAG.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

The SAG ensemble award is always hit or miss for me. Some years they seem genuinely interested in rewarding an undeniably strong ensemble effort, regardless of the film's Best Picture chances (Inglourious Basterds and Sideways come to mind), but sometimes they seem all too willing to just fall in line (I get that everyone loved Slumdog Millionaire in '08, and as great as the personal stories of the actors may have been, the acting wasn't that film's biggest asset). Even more than that, what I think bothers me most is that this award sometimes feels as if it simply defaults to the biggest ensemble. Great as the ensemble work of Gosford Park is, are they working as hard to make their film work the same way as the ensembles of Moulin Rouge! or In the Bedroom are? The most glaring example in my mind is Crash, where you just get the sense most people who voted for it had worked with most of the people in the cast.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Of course 2007 is the most atypical year since only one of their five Ensemble nominees was in the Best Picture field. But what's more disturbing is that 3:10 to Yuma and Hairspray made the list that year, but Michael Clayton (three Oscar nominations for acting!), I'm Not There, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (acting-wise a superior western to Yuma) DIDN'T make the cut.

As for The Birdcage, perhaps another reason it nabbed the Ensemble award was that it was the only big Hollywood production of the five. You'll surely recall that 1996 was The Year of the Independent, when the studios rallied behind Jerry Maguire at the last minute only because there was seemingly nothing else big to nominate (sorry, Courage Under Fire!). In a sense, then, you could say that 1996 was an atypical year, too, since the Best Picture predictions were in a greater state of flux than usual, so there was less Oscar influence on the Best Ensemble choices. Because that year, no one could be sure of anything, except maybe The English Patient and Shine—both of which, of course, made SAG's cut.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.


Nat, I have a feeling that Tilda is going to be a serious frontrunner in the next few weeks. She just won another critics award. I don't understand, if Davis is the frontrunner like everyone says so, why does she keep fading away.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterchand

elton -- oops. damn coding error. corrected!

chand -- as noted in the best of the year part 1, viola davis was never going to be a critical awards factor. Critics have their blind spots just like Oscar and one of them is great performances within movies that it's not cool to find worth in.

j.p. -- well, i'm glad Michael Clayont didn't make their list. I never understand nominating small cast movies for that prize when all of the players are nominated individually (see also: million dollar baby)

val -- that's a really good point. i guess that's true across the board with precursors and oscars though. some years people try harder to judge "best" and some years they get lazy.

January 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

just announced :
meryl streep will recieve honorary Golden Bear next month .can this effect her chance at the oscars? first kennedy center honor and now berlinale

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteraa

But Davis was nominated couple of times and didn't win a single critics award so far. Except Bullock two years ago, every frontrunner had at least few critics awards. I really think Williams is in best position right now, she has so much factors in her favor.

Nat,who do you think will win (or tie LOL) BFCA/Globe drama?

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervlad

Vlad -- critic award nominations are meaningless. up until a few years ago nobody ever even announced them (they only named winners) so the media aside from oscar blogs rarely reports on them. Viola Davis was just never going to be a critical winner. I would have actually been shocked had she won critics awards. Doesn't mean she can't win the Oscar (lots of people have won without being hte critical leader) though Streep's current surge does look impressive... and there's still Williams as a strong possibility given the age / role / and critical attention.

January 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I forget, how many critics' awards did Sandra Bullock win? ;)

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJake D

evan -- that's true! i think the trickiest thing to figure about SAG and maybe why it's hard to pin them down or why they're now too easily swayed to just being an Oscar thing is that different people do the nominating each year (it's only the winning that the huge membership all gets to vote on)

January 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Calista Flockhart wasn't famous enough...yet somehow Dan Futterman was?

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWisconsinkel

Just because Swinton won another critics award, it doesn't make her a frontrunner. In the last couple of years, the big critics winners in lead and supporting (Paul Giamatti/Thomas Haden Church/Virginia Madsen for Sideways, Imelda Staunton for Vera Drake, Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married, Carey Mulligan for An Education, Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia, Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone, Julie Christie for Away From Her, Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler) all failed to win the Oscar. Some of them weren't even NOMINATED!

So winning the most critics awards doesn't put you anywhere near winning an Oscar. It just put you in a better position to get traction and get nominated.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Great Dane

Meryl keeps losing because there's always a performance/person that they HAVE to give the award to, because it's their time. Not this year. Swinton and Theron have their Oscars. Williams and Mara are still young and don't have the all-out "we HAVE to give this film/performance an Oscar" factor. Close's film and performance underwhelmed. Davis getting nominated for a breakthrough, commercial performance is reward enough. It's Meryl's time. If Davis DOES win, however, it's because they have the chance to award a second coloured actress (I won't say black, since Berry isn't actually really black - her mother is white) - and if they love her and career enough, because with the way the roles for coloured women in Hollywood are, they probably won't ever have the chance to give her a Lead Actress award again.
But I still think, regardless of how poor The Iron Lady is as a film (people seem to say the same about My Week with Marilyn AND Albert Knobbs AND Young Adult), it's Meryl's time - FINALLY after 30 years without an Oscar.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Great Dane

Great Dane,,,,, I agree.

I think if the Academy wants to honor Viola Davis they should NOT give her the Academy Award yet. If one looks at past coloured actress Oscar winners...usually their career goes KAPUT!

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

It's going to be Viola

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Aren't y'all forgetting that Davis' film is by far the most popular of the nominees, and will be the only one nominated for BP? That will play a much bigger factor in her possible win than her being black. AMPAS has already made history in that regard, they won't feel obligated to do so again. What they will care about is that she's at the heart of a crowdpleaser with a knockout Oscar clip. (And seriously, 'coloured'?)

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRax

I agree with you as well Rax that Viola has those things going for her....meant no disrespect to African Americans at all....

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Peggy Sue -- i'm beginning to lose faith! But I do think Viola deserves it more than Streep this year. They're both elevating their films but Viola's performance just has so much unexpected depth and soul.

Jamie -- on the other hand it's likely to end anyway. we've all seen how quickly Hollywood discards actresses Viola's age. now or never!!!

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Also, from what I'm reading, Meryl's film is also underwhelming. I've read the reviews and they all say the same thing. Meryl Streep is fantastic, but the film around her is not. I think that's going to be a problem with her winning this time around and I think that's one other reason she has trouble winning lately. She's great but she's not in great films (I did not like The Reader or The Blind Side personally, but they were Best Pictures nominees, so obviously the Academy did). I mean, when was the last time Meryl Streep was nominated for a Best Picture nominee? Out of Africa, and that was 1985 (well, the ceremony was 1986 but you get my point), so I get the feeling that if Meryl is going to win another Oscar, they might want to wait for a film they really love.

Nat, do you like The Birdcage? It may be dated but the film still makes me laugh. While Nathan Lane is hilarious and has great chemistry with Robin Williams, for me the standouts are Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest as the Senator and his wife. I love every one of their line readings, particularly Wiest's weepy "somebody has to like me best..." It's a silly comedy of errors, but the cast is truly fantastic and they sell every minute of it (at least they do for me).

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

How sad that a legitimate discussion about the topic at hand was derailed by other stuff that gets discussed every other day. :(

I really wanted to talk about how great The Birdcage's ensemble is. I'm a fan of the film admittedly, but as you say they not only work together, but we SEE THEM working together. It's win also probably had a lot to do with wanting to give the likes of Williams, Hackman and Wiest a prize.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Let's see if we can get it back on track Glenn. Count me as another fan of The Birdcage. It was probably already outdated in '96, but it (still) works because of the wonderful ensemble work. They're all just damn funny, especially Weist and Hackman. The whole cast just looks like they're having the best time, and I think that helps the audience go along with it.

What do you all think happens this year with SAG? Will they go with The Artist for the best chance to match Best Picture, or does The Help get the "we really just like you" nod?

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVal

GLENN -- that working together is the reason i chose the scene I did. The dinner scene which is basically the climax, really lets you see all the actors together repeatedly including Christine Baranski who shows up inbetween the two beats shown.

I LOVE gene hackman's line reading of "I feel like i'm insane" which is he says with so little fuss or inflection but it wouldn't be even half as funny if you weren't fully aware of how sandwiched he is between the two gayest people he's ever seen in his life.

VAL -- i like the film too though mostly as a time capsule and because the actors are so fun. but i never loved the picture because the set up always aggravated me so much even then. the son & would be daughter in law are just SO selfish and the film doesn't judge them for it at all but actually expects that you feel for them being embarrassed of the gayness. which is. not cool.

January 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I revisited "The Birdcage" before it got removed from Netfilx instant last week, and I liked it so much more now. I used to hate the son so much but now i feel it works otherwise the "this is my mother" beat at the end wouldn't be emotional at all.

I'm no big fan of either Robin Williams or Nathan Lane, but their "extremely-over the-top-and-incredibly-eager-to-please" acting style fits their roles so perfectly in this film. It's one of the few times that they manage to be both touching and funny at the same time. The part where they talk about "Los Copa's cemetery" make me tear up every time.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterButtercup

I'm actually watching the movie right now and I actually feel it does judge Val for being so selfish, but I'm not sure he's being selfish so much as he wants to make a good impression on his soon-to-be father-in-law and he doesn't know how else to do it. Remember, Val goes through a transformation and we see it culminate when Val takes Albert's wig off and reveals that the Truth. He goes from being a guy trying to succumb to make a good impression to someone who acquires the guts to accept the Truth, whatever it may be. The film actually celebrates the gay-ness of these characters. Remember the climax of the film, when Armand and Albert sneak the Seantor and his family out by dressing them in drag through the club? It portrays these characters ina heroic way, and even more heroic that they would do anything for their son, even though what he's asking for is unreasonable. They let him come to that realization on his own. I still think Val and Barbara are the weakest part of the film, but they don't bother me and they get the plot going for these fantastic characters to meet...

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

According to the Chicago Tribune, “The Iron Lady” proved her mettle this weekend. The biopic opened to a remarkable $280,409 at four theaters — a per-screen average of $70,102. That’s the third-highest specialty opening of the year, after “Midnight in Paris,” “The Tree of Life” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”, from simplystreep.com

Maybe maybe... if TIL works at the box office Meryl will have one more chance...

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerris

I wish I could say The Birdcage is dated for keeping the physical interactions between the couple to the absolute minimum, but if it came out today I'm not sure it would be all that different.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRax

I'm about to start crying how everyone dismisses Williams' chances. She is more overdue than Viola, has much more complex performance, and she nailed it. Could any actress be better Monroe than her? It's unfair she may lose to Davis.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermovielover

to Richter Scale......

In meryl's defense....one could argue that when Sophie's Choice first came on the scene most reviews loved her performance but thought the movie on whole had many flaws....

Also....love that you bring up The Reader and The Blind SIde....both movies having fresh but low rotten tomatos ratings....Reader is currently at 62 percent! But both nominated for best
pic.. I am not saying Iron Lady will be nominated for best pic....not at all....but I still think that the perfomance may outweigh a flawed movie....rules do not apply to Streep

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I still think they do. Sophie's Choice was actually nominated in a few other places so it's not like Meryl was carrying that movie's nominations tally all by herself. Also, it may just have been that in that year, she was one of those performances that simply could not lose, kind of like Charlize Theron in Monster (who won an Oscar with no other nominations for her film) or Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (who, ironically, was in a Best Actor field where he was one of four actors who were the sole nominees for their films). I don't think that's going to happen this year with Streep and The Iron Lady because I just don't see that same passion for The Iron Lady that I see for films like The Help. I think The Help becoming a Best Picture nominee could definitely help (no pun intended) Viola Davis. She also has Michelle Williams as a pretty big threat...

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Can we please chat about the nominations/snubs for best ensemble? Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush shared a title card in The King's Speech. WHY WERE THEY NOMINATED FOR THE ENSEMBLE AWARD?!

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA.J

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