Oscar hopes for "Birdman" got an enormous updraft over the weekend with big wins from the acting and producing guilds, possibly sending the comedy soaring over the perceived Academy Awards front-runner "Boyhood."
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's elegantly crafted backstage romp won best ensemble Sunday night at the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild, a day after it also won the top honor at the Producer Guild Awards. Both guilds are seen as highly predictive of which film will triumph at the Oscars, which will be held Feb. 22.
Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," an acclaimed drama made with unprecedented real-life time-elapse of 12 years, has long held as the awards seasons favorite. But "Birdman" fills the role of a classic Oscar winner, like "Shakespeare in Love," as a celebration of showbiz. Its fortunes look especially bright considering the last seven Producers Guild Awards winners have also won best picture at the Academy Awards.
"Actors love this movie for showing the courage actors have to kind of go out there and lay it on the line," said "Birdman" star Michael Keaton backstage at the SAG Awards. He accepted the best ensemble award with his co-stars including Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis.
Yet Keaton also lost at the SAGs, held Sunday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Instead, most outstanding actor went to "The Theory of Everything" star Eddie Redmayne, whose exceeding technical performance as Stephen Hawking has equally drawn raves. Looking down at his blue SAG Award statuette — "this very wonderful skinny man," he said — Redmayne dedicated it to sufferers and victims of ALS.
The other Oscar favorites — Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette and J.K. Simmons — all cemented their front-runner status in a glamorous, self-congratulatory ceremony that often serves as an Academy Awards preview and a test-run for acceptance speeches.
Moore, widely considered the best-actress favorite, won most outstanding supporting actress for "Still Alice," in which she plays an academic with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Accepting the award, she recalled an early lesson on the soap opera "As the World Turns," in which she played twin sisters, good and evil.
"Then I realized it was super boring to act by myself," said Moore.
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Accepting the award for most outstanding supporting actor for his performance as a domineering jazz teacher in "Whiplash," Simmons thanked all 49 actors who appear in the drama.
"All of us actors are supporting actors," said Simmons, a veteran character actor. "Each of us is essential, completely crucial to the story because if there's one false moment, the train comes off the rails."
"Boyhood" star Arquette added the latest in a near universal string of supporting actress awards. "This little movie is about human beings and it's about bringing real life onto the screen," she said backstage.
Because actors make up the largest portion of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the SAG Awards are considered one of the most telling Oscar previews. Individually acting winners usually mirror each other exactly, or very nearly. Last year, the top four winners — Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong'o, Jared Leto — all went on to win Academy Awards after first scooping up SAG awards.
The predictive powers of the SAGs have been more checkered in matching its top award with eventual best-picture Oscar winners. In the last six years, SAG best-ensemble and Academy Award best-picture winners have lined up three times ("Argo," ''The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire"), while diverging just as often. Last year, the actors chose "American Hustle" over eventual Oscar winner "12 Years a Slave"; in 2011, they picked "The Help" over "The Artist"; and in 2009, "Inglourious Basterds" defeated "The Hurt Locker."
So Sunday's SAG Awards made two things clear: the Oscar race will be a nail-biter that likely pits "Birdman" against "Boyhood"; and the other best source of drama will probably be Keaton and Redmayne vying for best actor.
Sunday's show kicked things off with a pair of wins for the Netflix prison series "Orange Is the New Black," honoring it as best ensemble in a comedy and naming Uzo Abuda most outstanding actress in a comedy series. Abuda won over a number of veteran stars, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Veep") and Edie Falco ("Nurse Jackie").
Best ensemble cast in a drama series went to "Downton Abbey," the second time the series has won the category.
Two actors who usually reside on the big screen won the SAG awards for performances in a miniseries or TV movie: Mark Ruffalo (for HBO's "A Normal Heart") and Frances McDormand (for HBO's "Olive Kitteredge"). Kevin Spacey ("House of Cards"), William H. Macy ("Shameless") and Viola Davis ("How to Get Away With Murder") also collected awards.
Davis thanked the producers of the legal dram "for thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned African American woman who looks me."
Debbie Reynolds, the "Singin' in the Rain" star, was honored with the SAG lifetime achievement award, which her daughter, Carrie Fisher, presented. The 82-year-old Reynolds embarrassed Fisher with a story, recalling that her bun in the famous musical led her to warn her daughter ahead of playing Princess Leia in "Star Wars."
"I said, 'Well, Carrie, be careful of any weird hairdos,'" said Reynolds. "So luckily George gave her two buns."
She also remembered one of her favorite films, 1964's "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."
"In that movie I got to sing a wonderful song 'I Ain't Down Yet,'" said Reynolds. "Well, I ain't."
Here's the rundown of who won:
Actor: Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"
Actress: Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
Supporting actor: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
Supporting actress: Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"
Stunt ensemble: "Unbroken"
Actor in a comedy series: William H. Macy, "Shameless"
Actress in a comedy series: Uzo Aduba, "Orange is the New Black"
Comedy series cast: "Orange is the New Black"
Actor in a movie or miniseries: Mark Ruffalo, "The Normal Heart"
Actress in a movie or miniseries: Frances McDormand, "Olive Kitteridge"
Drama series cast: "Downton Abbey"
Actor in a drama series: Kevin Spacey, "House of Cards"
Actress in a drama series: Viola Davis, "How to Get Away With Murder"
Stunt ensemble: "Game of Thrones"