What sets the Screen Actors Guild Awards apart from all the other major televised awards shows? It doesn't bestow best picture honors. This guild keeps its focus on performances -- its trophy is called "the Actor."

So the race to watch on Sunday is cast in a motion picture -- the guild's equivalent to the Academy Award's top prize.

This year, all eyes will be on “The Artist,” the charming black-and-white nearly silent film that pays homage to the bygone era when silent films made way for talkies. Since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last May, the low-budget indie has enchanted critics, awards voters and the public. It has won countless honors including best picture from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Golden Globe for motion picture comedy or musical.

PHOTOS: SAG Awards 2012 top nominees

The film earned another boost last week when the French production picked up 10 Oscar nominations, just one behind the top nominee, Martin Scorcese's “Hugo.”

A SAG award does not guarantee Oscar gold, of course, but it's a good start. Last year, the two agreed on “The King’s Speech” for top honors. And several other SAG nominees also have an Oscarnomination. 

“The Artist” goes into the Sunday night awards show with three SAG nominations -- for male actor in a leading role for Jean Dujardin, female actor in a supporting role for Berenice Bejo and performance by a cast.

PHOTOS: Setting up for 18th annual SAG Awards

Competing with “The Artist” in the cast category are “The Descendants,” “The Help” and “Midnight in Paris,” which all also earned best picture nominations. The fifth movie in this category is the raunchy chick comedy “Bridesmaids.”

Four of the five SAG nominees for female actor in a leading role are also nominated for Academy Awards: Glenn Close for “Albert Nobbs,” Viola Davis for “The Help,” Meryl Streep” for “The Iron Lady” and Michelle Williams for “My Week With Marilyn.” Only SAG nominee Tilda Swinton (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) didn’t capture an Oscar nomination.

The same goes for the nominees for male actor in a leading role. Four of the five performers are also nominated for an Oscar: Demian Bichir for “A Better Life,” George Clooney for “The Descendants,” Dujardin for “The Artist” and Brad Pitt for “Moneyball.” The fifth nominee, Leonardo DiCaprio, failed to earn an Oscar nomination for “J. Edgar.”

The SAG Awards, which take place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, are telecast live at 5 p.m. on cable’s TNT and TBS. The guild also honors the best performers on television.

Nominated for ensemble in a drama series are “Boardwalk Empire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Good Wife.” Comedy series nominees are “30 Rock,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Glee,” “Modern Family” and “The Office.”

Make sure you have your tissues handy on Sunday. The two-hour telecast will see the 2011 Life Achievement Award bestowed on Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Mary Tyler Moore, 75, of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” fame. Presenting the award: 86-year-old Van Dyke. There probably won’t be a dry eye in the house.

PHOTOS: SAG Awards 2012 top nominees

 susan.king@latimes.com