The Screen Actors Guild Awards are a bit of an oddity among the standard awards shows. They don’t have the glamour of the Oscars–though perhaps they do have a higher concentration of movie stars–and following so closely after the Golden Globes, their revelry appears more in the realm of office party than gala event. This year, the SAG awards seemed a bit looser, sporting an atmosphere that made the Golden Globes seem uptight in retrospect. Perhaps this is because there was no “outsider” like Ricky Gervais that the crowd felt they had to guard themselves against, or perhaps Guild members perceive the difference between airing on NBC versus on TBS and TNT as license to let their collective hair down. Or maybe the Bridesmaids cast drinking game was put to good use at the dining tables (at least by the end of the night, a number of attendees raised their glasses at Steve Buscemi’s legitimate mention of Martin Scorsese).
Whatever the reason, this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony crystallized its role during awards season: it’s a semi-insular, half-sober, self-congratulatory vocational celebration that embraces the paradox of a union made visible through millionaires. The show kicked off with a strange example of this paradox as John Cryer, Demian Bichir, Emily Watson, and Jim Parsons proclaimed “I am an actor.” They were celebrating their profession while simultaneously seeming to argue against some unseen attack on their chosen field, surrounded by opulence but implying labor solidarity.
More than anything else, that which sets the Screen Actors Guild Awards apart from its red-carpeted brethren is its union celebration, a narrative that seemed especially emphasized during this year’s ceremony. At its base, the Screen Actors Guild is a professional union with a mission to “enhance actors’ working conditions, compensation and benefits and to be a powerful, unified voice on behalf of artists’ rights.” The first half of that mission statement sometimes gets lost in the much more visible second half, but this year’s awards emphasized the Guild’s efforts for working actors (not just the stars seated in the audience) with a “note of appreciation” to all the branches of the Guild, called the SAG story. In the video presentation that played during the first half of the ceremony, brief scenes from a variety of (mainstream, Hollywood, and critically-acclaimed) movies featured local actors and the big name directors who lauded their work. Ben Affleck described his Boston actors as “so perfect and so real” and Robert Redford speaks of two Georgia actresses who were “right on” with their characters in The Conspirator. The air of authenticity hangs heavy over this segment until the final “local” actor appeared: “Mike Tyson, Las Vegas.” The implications of this apparently comedic turn are unclear but seem to speak to this idea of the SAG awards having it both ways: movie stars and labor solidarity. Admittedly, I haven’t watched the SAG awards every year, but the union themes seemed especially pronounced this year, a year in which labor unions across the country faced threats and recalled strength from solidarity. SAG even created a number of brief videos affirming their support of labor last April, one of which I’ve included below.
In addition to the general state of labor over the last year, the focus on it during the ceremonies was a particular consequence of the state of the union itself, specifically its merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists that was approved by both unions’ boards this weekend. The President of SAG, Ken Howard, announced this progress during the ceremony and informed that the next and final stage would be ratification by members. It was a moment that couldn’t but remind the audience that SAG is a union, complete with bureaucracy and power positioning and coalition building.
Yet amongst all the reminders and defenses of labor, the looseness of the awards prevailed in small moments: the brilliant cast of Bridesmaids contributing to the generally boozy atmosphere, Dick Van Dyke’s affable surprise at an ovation for his mere presence, Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) whispering words of encouragement to Michael C. Hall after the latter’s loss, Tina Fey drinking Steve Buscemi’s wine, and, of course, Larry Hagman’s comically large hat.