Will they become show stoppers?
Amid the festivities is a not-subtle subtext: The actors may have their own labor fight soon.
"When the pioneers of our union were drawing up guidelines, they looked to the Writers Guild for inspiration," SAG President Alan Rosenberg said from the stage. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Since movie and television directors recently reached a tentative deal with producers, and the Writers Guild of America's walkout is seemingly winding down, the future for show business labor relations could soon rest with SAG's 120,000 members. Unlike the WGA, SAG could shut down movie and television production overnight when its contract expires in June, exponentially magnifying the financial and creative effect of the 12-week-old writers strike.
The actors union's annual awards show opened with Sally Field's talking about her performing arts career, but the ceremony never quite turned into a "Norma Rae" call to union arms. Instead, the nationally televised show highlighted the guild's 75 years of activism, reminded actors of past members' sacrifices, and provided a quick look at the promise of new technology -- the very issue at the center of the WGA impasse.
Although the show singled out the work of "Away From Her's" Julie Christie and "There Will Be Blood's" Daniel Day-Lewis, it also stopped to take the unusual step of recognizing Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West.
The two guilds have shown unwavering solidarity in the last months. Thanks to support from SAG, the WGA was able to turn the Golden Globes into a largely unwatched, celebrity-free news conference, and if SAG and WGA members picket the Oscars, that Feb. 24 ceremony could be wrecked too.
The SAG Awards were able to proceed on cable's TBS and TNT channels because the WGA granted it a writing waiver that the union wouldn't give the Globes or the Oscars, allowing the SAG show to run in its usual format.
"When the pioneers of our union were drawing up guidelines, they looked to the Writers Guild for inspiration," SAG President Alan Rosenberg said from the stage.
"This began a treasured solidarity that continues today. Our predecessors achieved so much on our behalf. But these achievements come with an obligation: to keep on fighting so that generations of actors who follow us can continue to create.
"Now, over seven decades from our inception, this is your night, your time, your chance to step up and make a difference."
Out of the 10 winners on hand to accept their awards, three addressed the WGA strike in varying degrees of directness.
"It's lovely to receive an award from your own union, especially at a time when we're being so forcefully reminded how important unions are," Christie said.
Jenna Fischer, part of the comedy ensemble-winning cast of "The Office," paid tribute to the furloughed crew of the NBC show.
"But there is a another part of our ensemble: That's our crew," Fischer said. "And we want to dedicate this to them tonight. We can't wait to go back to work with them, so, thank you so much."
New production on "The Office," like virtually every scripted television program, has been shut down by the screenwriters strike, forcing everybody from electricians to production secretaries into unemployment.
Tina Fey, a WGA member who was named the top comedy actress for "30 Rock," thanked SAG for supporting the writers. Backstage, she said that although she has loved spending time with her young children during the strike, it is beginning to take a toll and threatens her critically acclaimed comedy's future.
"I do think the issues that are at stake in the strike really are important. Most people are at home are like, 'What? Who cares?' But we do have to resolve these issues. Our show is not a monster hit. We can't not be around for six months and expect to come back and do well."
In a series of vignettes sprinkled through the broadcast that came across like union organizing videos, actor Blair Underwood presented a short history of SAG. He singled out the guild's fights for better working conditions -- Boris Karloff worked 25 hours straight on "Frankenstein," Underwood reported -- and its role in crafting employment contracts. Toward the end of the ceremony, Underwood looked toward the future of digital entertainment. "As technology changes, once again we look to our guild to guide us," Underwood said.
For all the backslapping common in an awards show, the ceremony did not come across as overly festive. Day-Lewis dedicated his win to Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old actor who died last week.
All the same, a degree of dark humor shaped the comments of several nominees. "I just bought a hammock so I am hoping the strike lasts another two weeks so I can get some use out of it," said "Desperate Housewives" cast member Ed Helms. "No seriously, I'm champing at the bit literally and by literally I mean figuratively."
Not everyone was as glib, though. "I would hate to see another strike," said actress Christina Hendricks, part of the nominated drama ensemble from "Mad Men." "But if it's necessary, it's necessary."
Contributing to this article were Times staff writers Robert W. Welkos, Maria Elena Fernandez and Andrea Chang.