“The Help” was the night's big winner, but Jean Dujardin's best-actor victory might be more telling in the long run
"The Help" got a lot of help. Jean Dujardin and Viola Davis received boosts. Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer stayed on top.
And when the dust cleared at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the movie that went in as the prohibitive Oscar favorite, "The Artist," only solidified its standing as the movie that can't be beaten.
No, it didn't win SAG's top film prize, the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture award. That went to the Civil Rights-era drama "The Help," which was by far the night's big winner with additional awards to Davis and Spencer.
But while supporters of "The Help" are no doubt invigorated by that film's wins, the Oscar nominations made it clear that Academy support for the film is centered almost entirely in the Actors Branch. Three of its four Oscar nominees came in acting categories (Davis, Spencer and Jessica Chastain), while support from the Academy's 1,172 actors could have been more than enough to give the film its Best Picture nomination.
"The Artist," for its part, was the beneficiary of the only surprise in the five film acting races, Dujardin's victory over George Clooney and Brad Pitt for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role.
That gives the black-and-white silent film key victories at the Producers Guild and Directors Guild Awards, plus a major SAG Award – more than enough to cement its frontrunner status.
Still, "The Help" can now claim a significant precursor award – the only one that was won by "Crash" in 2006 before that film upset "Brokeback Mountain" at the Oscars. Since then, the SAG ensemble winner has won the Best Picture Oscar three times, and fallen short the other two.
Since the ensemble award was established in 1996, its winners have gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture exactly half the time.
Also worth noting: for the last four years in a row, the award has gone to the film with the biggest listed ensemble cast. This year, "The Help" was that film.
In the individual races, only Dujardin's win has the potential to shake up the awards picture. The Best Actor race had looked like a tight three-way battle, with George Clooney ("The Descendants") holding a slight edge over Dujardin and Brad Pitt ("Moneyball").
With "The Artist" enjoying a groundswell of popularity among other guilds, its leading man now appears to be at least in a dead heat with Clooney, if he hasn't seized the lead.
The Best Actress category appeared to be another tight race, with Davis, Meryl Streep ("The Iron Lady") and Michelle Williams ("My Week With Marilyn") all formidable contenders.
And if Davis came into the SAG Awards a slight favorite, her victory – and her typically eloquent acceptance speech – reinforced that she's become a frontrunner in a category where three of the contenders could easily have been winners in a different year.
Also in the film categories, both of the supporting races already had prohibitive favorites: Christopher Plummer as Best Supporting Actor for "Beginners," and Octavia Spencer as Best Supporting Actress for "The Help."
Both won, and both gave gracious and heartfelt acceptance speeches that gave no reasons for any Oscar voters to change their minds.
In the television categories, SAG voters showed that they are nothing if not creatures of habit, handing Alec Baldwin his sixth consecutive SAG award for "30 Rock," and making him the biggest male winner in SAG history, with seven awards.
Julianna Margulies is the overall leader, with eight – and she was passed over in favor of Jessica Lange, who was honored for her work in "American Horror Story, the night's one new show to take home an award.
Betty White won again, too, for her third award in the last three years (the first was a lifetime achievement award), making her comment to the statuette apropos: "Oh, I remember you, sweetheart."
Steve Buscemi won his third and fourth Actors in two years, picking up both ensemble and male lead awards for "Boardwalk Empire" once more.
"Modern Family" won its second consecutive ensemble award. Kate Winslet won a SAG Award for "Mildred Pierce" to go with her Emmy and Golden Globe.
In other words: The TV awards were more of the same, while the film awards managed to shake up the race as much as any show has done this year.
Which is to say: not very much at all.
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)