Screen Actors Guild Awards 2015: Seven things to watch for

Screen Actors Guild Awards 2015: Seven things to watch for
Michael Keaton and Ed Norton are nominated for SAG Awards for "Birdman." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

At just two hours, the Screen Actors Guild Awards are short and sweet. But the show, which happens Sunday at Los Angeles' Shrine Exposition Center and airs on TNT and TBS starting at 5 p.m. Pacific, is closely watched in Hollywood as a potential harbinger of how Oscar day will unfold.

Voted on by 111,228 eligible SAG-AFTRA members and coming just over three weeks before Academy Awards ballots are due, the SAG Awards tend to honor character-driven films with sprawling, starry casts, like last year's winner, "American Hustle," 2013's "Argo" and 2012's "the Help."


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With nominating happening early in the season, however, the show can underplay films released late in the year, like this year's noteworthy omissions "American Sniper" and "Selma." The only safe prediction -- absent a host, the number of Bill Cosby jokes is apt to be low.

Here are seven things to watch for during the show:

1) Veterans redefined: The casts of "Birdman" and "Boyhood," two frontrunner films in the Oscar race, will go head to head in SAG's bellwether category, outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, and in some key acting categories. Both films boast career-redefining performances from veteran actors -- "Birdman's" Michael Keaton in male lead and "Boyhood's" Patricia Arquette in female supporting -- and both show actors working under unusual conditions, "Birdman" director Alejandro González-Iñárritu's long-take shooting style and "Boyhood" director Richard Linklater's 12-year production schedule. Expect SAG to reward these films both for their journeyman casts and level of difficulty.

2) The 'Budapest' spoiler: "Grand Budapest Hotel" has emerged as an unexpectedly strong awards season player, as the Wes Anderson comedy that opened way back in March matched "Birdman" for the most Oscar nominations (nine, including best picture). A massive ensemble picture led by Ralph Fiennes and including small performances from F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton and many others, "Budapest" has strength in numbers, a definite virtue for the only category in which its contending: outstanding cast.

3) Missing persons, Vol. 1: Sometimes the most important person at a party is the one who didn't get invited. "Selma" director Ava DuVernay has said screeners for her film weren't ready in time for SAG's nominating deadline, which helps explain why David Oyelowo isn't up for his critically praised performance as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the film. But "Selma's" complete absence from the show comes on the heels of disappointing Oscar snubs for both DuVernay and Oyelowo and increasing calls for diversity in Hollywood. Whether the evening's winners or presenters choose to raise the topic -- as Jessica Chastain did at the Critics Choice Awards earlier this month -- could be an indication of whether a pro-"Selma" movement is percolating in Hollywood.

4) Missing persons, Vol. 2: Another major SAG omission this year was Bradley Cooper for "American Sniper," in a performance that has earned him his third Oscar nomination, helped propel the Clint Eastwood war drama into record box office territory and ignited umpteen red state/blue state debates. With everyone from Michael Moore to Sarah Palin weighing in on the film's politics, SAG is missing an opportunity for a talker in the running.

5) The Aniston factor: Jennifer Aniston's unlikely awards run for "Cake" is winding down, as her against-type performance as a women battling chronic pain failed to win the actress an Oscar nomination. But the affable former "Friends" star is well liked among actors and has nine previous SAG nominations for her work on the NBC sitcom. With upstart distributor Cinelou Releasing opening "Cake" this weekend, expect Aniston to make the most of her red carpet interviews -- and maybe even squeak out a surprise win in the lead actress category. Julianne Moore is considered a favorite with her much-praised performance as a professor with early onset Alzheimer's in the category, which also includes Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike and Reese Witherspoon.

6) Overachievers: Several performers are nominated for their work in multiple projects. Hollywood loves to reward versatility, so keep an eye on Benedict Cumberbatch, who's up for lead actor and ensemble for "The Imitation Game" and movie/miniseries for "Sherlock: His Last Vow"; Adrien Brody, for movie/miniseries for "Houdini" and ensemble for "The Grand Budapest Hotel"; Mark Ruffalo, for supporting actor for "Birdman" and movie/miniseries for "The Normal Heart"; Ed Norton, for supporting actor and cast for "Birdman" and cast for "Grand Budapest Hotel"; and Naomi Watts, for supporting actor for "St. Vincent" and cast for "Birdman."

7) Speech patterns: Like politicians, potential Oscar nominees hone their stump speeches over several months of campaigning. Note whether Keaton revisits his emotional Golden Globes tribute to his son, "Boyhood's" Patricia Arquette hits on the same single motherhood themes or "Whiplash's" J.K. Simmons jokes about wanting to hit Miles Teller again, all signs that these are stories we'll hear again on Oscar night. Oh, and count the number of times the camera pans to Emma Stone, who can be relied upon to deliver an awards show's best reaction shots.

Follow Rebecca Keegan on Twitter: @ThatRebecca