The SAG Signal: Why the Oscar Race Is Already Over

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Colin Firth accepts the award for outstanding male actor in a leading role for The King's Speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 30, 2011

Cancel the office pool. Forget the Vegas bookmakers, who still think a certain Facebook movie is the odds-on favorite. And if you're looking for a cliff-hanger on Feb. 27, you may as well watch Big Love on HBO, because there won't be much suspense over at the 83rd awards ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on ABC. In all likelihood, the Oscar race is over.

And the Best Picture winner is ... The King's Speech. Why? Because they love it.

Since early December, when critics' groups started handing out their year-end citations, it's been received wisdom that Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo (or Hailee Steinfeld) would take the acting trophies for The King's Speech, Black Swan and The Fighter (or True Grit); that Toy Story 3 would be Best Animated Feature; and that The Social Network, which won in 25 of the 30 critics' polls, would be named Best Picture. The New York Film Critics Circle, for example, seemed to agree with the film's writer, Aaron Sorkin, who called The Social Network "the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies"; the group gave The Social Network the same best film award it presented to Orson Welles' trailblazing effort nearly 70 years before. And though the other predictions are still applicable, the critics' consensus on Best Picture doesn't look as if it will transfer to the Oscars.

What happened? The professionals have overruled the amateurs. Critics may have some expertise in the field they cover, but not one reviewer is a voting member of the Academy (which has some 6,000 members). There is, however, a significant overlap between Academy voters and members of the biggest Hollywood guilds. The same people, at least the same kinds of people, constitute the electorate. And in the past two weeks, three of those elite clubs — the Producers Guild of America (PGA) as well as the Directors Guild (DGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) this past weekend — have chosen The King's Speech over The Social Network for their highest honor. In just nine days, the three guilds established a new and prohibitive favorite, which the Academy validated by lavishing 12 Oscar nominations on the Royal Family drama, to just eight for the Mark Zuckerberg biopic.

These votes are often clear barometers for the eventual Oscar totals. SAG is the least reliable (it has matched the Best Picture Oscar only seven times in the previous 15 years), but it is still often a bellwether. In 2006 SAG surprised the movie world by naming Crash, not Brokeback Mountain, for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture — guild lingo for Best Picture — and a few weeks later, Crash snagged the top Oscar, despite being the outsider to Ang Lee's movie in the eyes of bookmakers. The PGA winner has prefigured the Best Picture Oscar for the past three years (though in the three years before that, it didn't). And in the 61 years since the DGA got on the same calendar as the Academy, its prize has coincided with the Best Director Oscar all but six times and the Best Picture Oscar all but 11 times. It gets it right 82% of the time.

That is, if right means accurately forecasting the Oscar winner. By standards of quality, the DGA's choice of Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech, over The Social Network's David Fincher is indefensible. Hooper manages his principal players (Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter) expertly enough but forces the supporting actors into caricature. His camera style is stodgy, and his handling of a delicate subject lurid but not invigorating. He'll do anything — peel onions — to make his audience cry. He commits all the sins of omission and commission that Fincher avoids. And this is one more reason The King's Speech will triumph on Oscar night: if mediocre work wins in Hollywood's official circles, it tends to keep on winning.

When The King's Speech had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, I pointed out the ways in which, by coincidence or cynicism, the movie followed virtually every rule of a Best Picture winner. It's a biopic of a real person; it is set on or near World War II, with Hitler's shadow looming; it dramatizes a man's heroic struggle over some physical or psychological infirmity; and it's got oodles of those classy British actors. Other Academy watchers noticed the same thing: Steve Pond, resident Oscar savant of industry website The Wrap, predicted a Best Picture win before he had even seen it. And it would be odd indeed if the people the movie was designed for — the senior Hollywood professionals who vote on the Oscars — didn't go for it.

What's the matter, then, with The Social Network? Its pace is snappier, its IQ way higher, its ambitions greater, its subject more modern. It also believes there's no crying in a Facebook film. It doesn't give the audience a strong hero to root for. These are all attributes, not liabilities — but not typically in a movie that wins Best Picture. The Social Network's Zuckerberg might earn the envy of viewers, but Firth's George VI wins their sympathy. Like a lot of moviegoers, Academy members go for heart over head, warm over cool. And in the race for the ultimate Oscar, given the choice of a film they respect and one they love, they'll take love every time.

The examples are legion. The soppy Going My Way won Best Picture over the misanthropic Double Indemnity (1945); My Fair Lady was chosen over Dr. Strangelove (1965); The Sound of Music over Darling (1966); In the Heat of the Night over Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (1968); The Sting over The Exorcist and Cries and Whispers (1974); Rocky over All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network and Taxi Driver (1977); Ordinary People over Raging Bull (1981); Chariots of Fire over Reds (1982); Driving Miss Daisy over Born on the Fourth of July (1990); Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas (1991); Titanic over L.A. Confidential (1998); and Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan (1999).

There's one more salient example, from the Oscar race in 1942. A widely praised film about a wayward media mogul — with genius galore, but no central sympathetic character — was up against a sentimental, well-wrought family drama set in the U.K. The first movie earned all the respect; the second made people cry. And in the end, the family drama, How Green Was My Valley, won Best Picture over Citizen Kane.

In Oscar voting, as in old Hollywood weepies, sentiment trumps sense and love conquers all. The King's Speech makes Academy members cry. And that's why the race is over.