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SAG Awards 2015: 'Birdman' leads nominations; big studios shut out

Hollywood's awards season is shaping up to be a declaration of independence.

The big studios got shut out as “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” "The Grand Budapest Hotel," “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything” earned the top movie nominations Wednesday for the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

They're competing in the category for best ensemble in a motion picture award -- SAG's equivalent of the best picture of the year. Though some awards have already been handed out by critics groups this season, the SAG nominations kicks off the high-profile series of honors that will culminate with the Academy Awards in February.

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS 2015: Top Nominees | Complete List | Nominee reactions | Full coverage

Next up: The Golden Globe nominations Thursday morning, which will help bring the race for Oscar gold into focus.

"Birdman" -- its full title is "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" -- dominated the nominations Wednesday, with four. Besides best ensemble, the film about a washed-up movie star who seeks redemption earned a nomination for male lead actor for Michael Keaton. Co-stars Edward Norton and Emma Stone received nominations in the supporting categories.

But to date, "Boyhood" has been the critics' darling. It has won several top honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the New York Film Critics Circle, as well as the British Independent Film Awards. On Wednesday, the coming-of-age story shot over a 12-year-period picked up three SAG nominations. Besides best ensemble, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette earned nods in the supporting categories.

Also earning three nominations apiece were “The Imitation Game” – about a British genius who breaks the Nazi’s military codes – and “The Theory of Everything” – about the ground-breaking scientist, Stephen Hawking.  The best-ensemble honor was the only nomination for the quirky comedy “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Although that film has done well with critics groups, its nomination Wednesday caught some by surprise. (Not only is it lighter in tone than the four other nominees, but the film was also released in March, making it a distant memory for some awards-season voters.)

Also receiving nominations for male lead actor were Steve Carell ("Foxcatcher"), Jake Gyllenhaal ("Nightcrawler"), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”). Vying with Norton and Hawke for male actor in a supporting role are Robert Duvall ("The Judge"), Mark Ruffalo ("Foxcatcher") and J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash").

Joining Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”) and Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”) in the female lead actor race are Jennifer Aniston ("Cake"), Felicity Jones ("The Theory of Everything") and Rosamund Pike ("Gone Girl"). Besides Stone and Arquette, supporting female actor nominations went to Keira Knightley ("The Imitation Game"), Meryl Streep ("Into The Woods") and Naomi Watts ("St. Vincent").

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS 2015: Top Nominees | Complete List | Nominee reactions | Full coverage

There were some snubs, surprises and awards-season oddities in the nominations.

--Noticeably overlooked were such films as “Selma,” “Unbroken” and “American Sniper.” The absence of "Selma" underscored the lack of diversity in Wednesday's nominations. It was especially disappointing to some who had hoped that last year's strong showing of such films as "12 Years a Slave" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" would herald a new era of diversity in Hollywood films.

--Playing against type paid off well – as it often does – for Carell and Aniston. Best known for their comedic roles on TV and in movies, they dramatically changed their appearances for more serious turns this awards season. In the dark, brooding “Foxcatcher,” Carell donned prosthetics to play a vastly wealthy man who embarks on a quixotic financial sponsorship of U.S. wrestling. Aniston, meanwhile, de-glammed for her portrayal of a woman who becomes fascinated by the suicide of a member of her chronic-pain support group in “Cake.”

--Cumberbatch and Ruffalo earned nominations in both movie and TV categories. In addition to their movie nods, they’re going head-to-head for the lead actor in a TV movie or miniseries award, with Cumberbatch also nominated for “Sherlock: His Last Vow” and Ruffalo for “The Normal Heart.”

On the TV side, nominations were given out in a variety of categories, including drama and comedy ensembles. "Boardwalk Empire," "Downton Abbey," “Game of Thrones,” "Homeland" and “House of Cards” were nominated for drama ensemble. “The Big Bang Theory,” "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," “Veep,” “Modern Family” and “Orange Is the New Black” received nods for top comedy series.

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS 2015: Top Nominees | Complete List | Nominee reactions | Full coverage

The SAG Awards have become one of the leading bellwethers for the Academy Awards. Earlier this year, the winners of SAG’s four top acting awards -- Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”),  Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”), Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) -- all went on to receive the Academy Award for their performances.

The SAG Awards will air live Jan. 25 at 5 p.m. PST on TBS and TNT from the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles. Debbie Reynolds will be honored during the ceremony with a life achievement award.

Twitter: @MyMackie @ReneLynch

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