Sunny SAG stars cut through strike clouds

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It's been raining hard in Hollywood, but it was as if the storm clouds lifted and the sun started shining just in the nick of time at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday.

It seemed the clearing of the skies and the parade of bejeweled and designer-gowned stars down the red carpet was also indicative of a general feeling in town.

Could it be that those same storm clouds that have been hovering around a strike-drenched awards season '08 have also begun to dissipate?

With the Writers Guild's blessing, the show went on for the SAG Awards and will also go on for the upcoming Grammys, NAACP Image Awards and Independent Spirit Awards, to name three.

By Sunday night, the disastrous Golden Globes non-gala was a distant memory. You could feel in the crowd that hope reigned supreme: The Oscars would proceed unscathed, with a Kodak Theatre full of stars on Feb. 24.

There is optimism that the writers and producers were closer than ever to forging a contract. (Motion Picture Academy President Sid Ganis was heard saying at Saturday's DGA Awards that he is hopeful a resolution will come about in 10 days).

Indeed, this weekend ABC began airing star-studded broadcast promos advertising the Oscarcast, something NBC never dared do for the Golden Globes.

It was as if the fans, stars and clearly the whole glamor industry that thrives on awards shows could finally breathe a sigh a relief. With the SAG Awards last night, the world was now safe for Brad and Angie to walk down that carpet and not feel they were breaking the writers union. (The couple did just that, in style, signing lots of autographs for the screaming bleacher contingent along the way).

It was also a weekend in which three guild award shows (SAG, DGA, American Society of Cinematographers) began to give clarity and vision to what had been up to now a clouded season.

With its SAG cast award (considered the closest thing SAG has to a best picture category) and the supporting actor 'Actor' award given to Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men" can safely be crowned the Oscar front-runner, something it cemented the night before with its DGA Award for directors Joel and Ethan Coen – an Oscar bellwether if ever there was one.

We strongly suspect the Producers Guild will follow suit next weekend and the Writers Guild will fall in line Feb. 9, giving its adapted screenplay honor to the Coens as well. Call it an educated guess.

An exec closely tied to the competing film "There Will Be Blood" (a film ironically from the same producer and distributors) said with resignation at the SAG party following the awards that he felt if he had another three weeks he might have been able to close in on "Country" with his movie, which was a late December release.

Others we spoke to at the party still felt Warner Bros. "Michael Clayton" could upset the "No Country Express," and indeed we have talked to a number of academy voters in recent days who indicated that was where their vote was going, but it seems awfully uphill looking at the Guild results so far.

Yes, it's true the Guild voters have not been their usual reliable selves in predicting Oscar trends this year ("No Country," in fact was the only corresponding best picture nominee also nominated for SAG's best cast award this year, a new low). But the membership overlap with the academy is just too overwhelming to ignore the winds that seem to be blowing for the Coens.

Referring to the critical landslide the film has received as well as the multiple critics awards for SAG's best actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, and best actress, Julie Christie, one wag said, "The critics groups seem to hijack the Oscars this year with their own picks."

If this is the way the Oscars also are headed, it would be hard to argue the substantial influence critics are having on the race this season --- more than ever.

Interestingly, the only variation we've already seen from just about every other contest this year is in SAG's sentimental choice of "American Gangster's" Ruby Dee for best supporting actress.

That race was pundited to come down to either critics fave, Amy Ryan of "Gone Baby Gone," Cate Blanchett's cross-gender transformation into Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There" or Tilda Swinton's corporate monster in "Michael Clayton."

None of those films had screeners sent to the entire 100,000-plus SAG membership, which has proven to be a key tool in ultimately winning -- at least since Lions Gate blanketed the guild with "Crash" DVDs a couple of years ago and took best cast over the favored "Brokeback Mountain."

Since a "Gangster" DVD also was not sent to members, it leveled the field, and sentiment prevailed for an 83-year-old actress who was a previous SAG honoree for life achievement in 2000 along with her late husband Ossie Davis.

Her role was just a few minutes long, but with the unexpected SAG honor coming as it did just days before final academy ballots go out, the never-before-Oscar-nominated Dee could find herself suddenly in a serious hunt for the golden boy.

Golden Globe supporting winner Blanchett had been an early-season favorite, and her interpretation of Dylan has been universally praised. Unfortunately, some members watching her movie on DVD have reportedly been turning the segmented film off before she shows up (about an hour into the 2-hour, 15- minute movie).

In an unprecedented move, director Todd Haynes agreed to create a special abbreviated version of "I'm Not There" that spotlights only Blanchett's work.

Academy rules would of course never permit it to be sent to voting members, but it is scheduled to show up on TV, the Internet and other places where academy members might happen to see it. It's an innovative gambit that could give new life to double nominee Blanchett's bid for a second supporting Oscar (she won in 2004 for portraying Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator").

Over on the other side of town….

Saturday night's DGA Awards took a long time (nearly three hours) to get to the moment most people anticipated – the Coen brothers would become only the second directing "team" to win the big prize (Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins shared the honor in 1961 for "West Side Story").

Guild-vs.-Oscar history makes them the odds-on favorite to take the directing Oscar, and by association for "No Country" to take best picture.

By the way, there was plenty of self-congratulatory talk from the podium about the DGA's recent landmark contract negotiation, but oddly not a single word uttered on stage about the ongoing writers strike.

It looked like that was gonna be the case for the rather staid SAG show as well until SAG President Alan Rosenberg took to the stage and praised his union's traditional "solidarity" with the Writer's Guild. Although the word "strike" was never uttered on the SAG stage either, Rosenberg did give a shout-out to WGAW President Patric Verrone, who took a bow to polite audience applause.

That applause will get a lot louder if he can negotiate a fair deal and quickly finish off the strike that has ravaged awards season, along with Hollywood in general.

Like we said, the mood seemed hopeful during the Red Carpet weekend, but it ain't over 'til it's over, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, for one is still holding its breath.

Hopefully it wasn't a bad omen that the same rain showers that stopped just in time for SAG's arrivals returned just as the party was winding down, forcing Rosenberg and nominees like "Juno's" Ellen Page to make a run for their limos.

It's The Season to take nothing for granted.

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