Uplift at the SAG Awards

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Chris Pizzello / AP

Julie Christie accepts the award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a leading role for "Away From Her" at the 14th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Jan. 27, 2008.

The Golden Globes was turned from a Hollywood party to a ragtag fake-news conference that should have been on public-access cable. The Oscar telecast may be missing many of its top attractions. The writers' strike has crippled or threatened other awards shows, but last night the 14th annual Screen Actors Guild bash went on — the first trophy mart of the year to be televised, thanks to a waiver from the writers. It is also the one show with no "little people" awards: no sound editors, no writers or directors, just the beautiful people on the screen. Thus the SAG show had the sacred duty of reminding people what these orgies of self-congratulation are for: to parade famous flesh. It meant to brand on viewers' minds the impression all Hollywood actors want to make: We look faaaaabulous!

They did, too, and not just your familiar stunners like Vanessa Williams, Diane Lane and a younger-than-springtime Tom Cruise. Ellen Burstyn, 75, seemed as fresh and buoyant and prominently apple-cheeked as she did three decades ago in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Ruby Dee is 82, and has been in movies (and a lot of places more important, like the civil rights struggle) for 60 years. But when her brief role in American Gangster made her a surprise winner of the supporting actress award — sorry, Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role — she glided on stage to display all the class and radiance of a perennial American beauty.

And Julie Christie, who took the Most Notable Movie Thesping by a Person of the Female Persuasion prize for Away from Her, looked preternaturally glamorous at 66. Christie was 42 years removed from her first Oscar nomination, for the swinging Londoner of Darling, but she could have passed for that seductive bitch's older sister, not the elderly lady fading into Alzheimer's she played in her little Canadian movie. Reeling off the names of a dozen producers and fellow actors from the film, she smiled and added, "And if I've forgotten anyone, it's just because I'm still in character."

Javier Bardem, the cool Spanish dude who plays a mean malefactor in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, won for Best Supporting Actor Who Happens to Have a Penis. (No Country also took the Best Film Ensemble prize.) Bardem reminded the crowd that, in his country, actors used to be deprived of a Christian burial because they were suspected of being prostitutes and homosexuals. So, we've come a long way, baby. (He apparently hasn't read the showbiz gossip columns lately.) Bardem also thanked for Coens for hiring him and, since they were also the film's editors, "for the hard work of choosing the good takes, instead of ... the ones where I really sucked."

As expected, Daniel Day-Lewis' role as a deranged oilman in There Will Be Blood won him the award for Best Performance by Someone Who Kills a Guy in a Bowling Alley. Day-Lewis introduced a somber note by speaking of his admiration for Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old actor who died last week. He praised Ledger's performances in Monster's Ball and Brokeback Mountain, and dedicated his award to the late Australian.

The SAG awards appeared to confirm the status of Day-Lewis, Bardem and Christie as front-runners for their respective Oscar awards. Dee was a sentimental favorite among the membership: Ossie Davis, her actor husband of 57 years and another lion for racial equality, died two years ago. But she still has stiff competition from Cate Blanchett, who impersonated Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, and Amy Ryan, multi-award-winner as the rotten mom in Gone Baby Gone.

As for No Country, it's the favorite for the Best Picture Oscar, but is still susceptible to a late charge by There Will Be Blood, which opened in a limited run Christmas day and is just now going into wide release. The SAG Ensemble prize is nice, but not conclusive. In only five of the past 12 years has the Ensemble award coincided with the top Oscar. (Last year Little Miss Sunshine won at SAG, but The Departed got the nod from the Motion Picture Academy.) The reason for the discrepancy is simple: acting awards are all about acting; movie awards aren't. And in the final Oscar ballot, actors may be the largest voting bloc, but they represent no more than 30% of the Academy membership.

One other thing, SAG. If you're going to de-sex the awards into subdivisions of Best Actor — if you're all actors, and the gender doesn't matter — then why not just give one prize, eligible to every performer in a leading role? You could call it Best Actperson.

But I shouldn't end on a rancorous note. As a moviegoer and a TV watcher, I'm truly grateful that the Screen Actors Guild invited us to their party. And thanks, everyone, for dressing up so nice.