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!