SAG Awards: Big Night for ‘CODA’ Makes the Oscar Race More Confusing

Jessica Chastain, Troy Kotsur and Ariana DeBose get boosts from SAG voters, while “The Power of the Dog” takes a hit

"CODA" star Troy Kotsur at the SAG Awards
"CODA" star Troy Kotsur at the SAG Awards / Getty Images

At first, Sunday night’s Screen Actors Guild Awards were all about the landmarks. By the end, they were all about throwing the Oscar race into turmoil.

The first award of the night went to the SAG Awards’ first deaf winner (Troy Kotsur for “CODA”) and the second to its first Latina film winner (Ariana DeBose for “West Side Story”). Half an hour later came the first TV winner for a non-English performance (Lee Jung-Jae for “Squid Game”), followed immediately by the second TV winner for a non-English performance (Jung Ho-Yeon for “Squid Game”).

But that was just an overture to a night that created a string of unsettling moments for “The Power of the Dog,” the Jane Campion movie that led all films in Oscar nominations with 12 and also went into the show with more individual SAG nominations, three, than any other movie.  

If “The Power of the Dog” ends up not winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, the SAG Awards could well be seen as the moment when fortunes turned for Jane Campion’s slow-burn Western. The film came into the show without a nomination in the ensemble-cast category, but the last few years have shown that’s no longer essential. And it overcame that surprising omission with its three individual nominations, only to lose in all three of those categories and go home empty-handed.    

The losses weren’t unexpected: Kodi Smit-McPhee might have been a slight favorite for supporting actor over Troy Kotsur from “CODA,” but Kotsur was always a strong possibility — and a popular choice, judging by reaction to his sign-language speech. Supporting-actress nominee Kirsten Dunst was in a tight race with “West Side Story” newcomer Ariana DeBose, who won, while lead-actor candidate Benedict Cumberbatch was always going to have a tough time getting past Will Smith, who won for “King Richard,” and Andrew Garfield, nominated for “tick, tick…BOOM!”  

Still, “The Power of the Dog” could have used at least one win to hang on to some of the momentum it got with its field-leading 12 Oscar nominations. But with a large, mainstream-oriented body of voters, it is instead now facing questions about whether it can be a consensus choice at the Oscars.

But it can take solace in the fact that the ensemble prize didn’t go to “Belfast,” the Kenneth Branagh film that is presumed to be the biggest Oscar rival to “The Power of the Dog.”  Instead, it was won by “CODA,” the underdog indie with a cast made up largely of deaf actors, which just confuses the Oscar race for Best Picture.

It doesn’t make “CODA” an Oscar favorite by any means — only 12 of the previous 26 SAG ensemble winners went on to win Best Picture — but it suggests that the film that won both the audience and jury prizes at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival still carries significant clout with voters, and could be the kind of sleeper that is easy to underestimate.

And the awards-race confusion doesn’t stop in the top category. The most wide-open race at the Oscars is probably Best Actress, with Nicole Kidman thought to have a slight edge over Olivia Colman and Kristen Stewart (not nominated by SAG). So Jessica Chastain’s SAG win for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” over Kidman (who should have appealed to actors because she played an acting icon, Lucille Ball) is huge, perhaps the biggest single win of the night in the way it suggests winds of change in a category that’ll probably remain a tossup until Oscar night.

And the upcoming BAFTA Awards won’t help at all in figuring out which way the category will go, because that group failed to nominate Chastain, Kidman or anyone else nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.

At this point coming out of the SAG Awards, Smith is probably the closest thing to a commanding Oscar front runner, with DeBose a solid pick and Kotsur now a slim favorite.

But really, it’s hard to put too much faith in the SAG Awards’ ability to predict Oscar, despite a pretty good track record over the years. There has never been less overlap between SAG and Oscar nominees than there was this year, with the leading actor category matching 5-for-5, leading actress only 3-for-5 and the two supporting categories just 2-for-5. As the Academy has grown increasingly international, SAG has been expanded by the addition of extras from AFTRA, and the two groups have gotten increasingly far apart the makeup of their voters.

As a result, the once-ironclad adage that a film must have a SAG ensemble nomination to have a chance of winning Best Picture has been junked: Only four films have won the top Oscar without an ensemble nod in the last 28 years, but three of those four came in the last four years, with “The Shape of Water,” “Green Book” and “Nomadland.”

So no, it wasn’t a good night for “The Power of the Dog” and it was a very good night for “CODA” and Jessica Chastain. But when the Oscars take place in exactly four weeks, tonight could just as easily be irrelevant, not predictive.

In the television categories, meanwhile, SAG voters wavered between going the route the Emmys had gone last September (Jason Sudeikis, Jean Smart, Kate Winslet, “Ted Lasso,” “Succession”) and looking for something new. The latter came when they gave both drama-acting awards to “Squid Game” – although they couldn’t go all the way and also award that South Korean show the drama-ensemble award, since “Succession” and its four individual nominations had to be honored somehow.

In the end, Apple was the surprise leader in wins, with four, split evenly between film (“CODA”) and TV (“Ted Lasso”), while HBO took three and Netflix managed two acting wins, plus a third for the “Squid Game” stunt ensemble given out prior to the ceremony.

But for watchers of this year’s lengthy awards race, the SAG Awards left a couple of questions hanging in the air. What just happened? And do we really still have another month to go?