Heading into the homestretch of movie awards season, we suddenly have a horse race.
After trailing Boyhood through critics' lists and the Golden Globes, Birdman pulled neck-and-neck over the weekend, bearing down on Hollywood's biggest prize, the best picture Academy Award.
Birdman won two prizes often used to forecast the academy's choice: the Screen Actors Guild award for best cast, and the less glamorous, untelevised yet more influential Producers Guild of America award for best feature film.
SAG has a so-so record in matching the cast and Oscar winners, only nine times in 19 years. That's mildly surprising since actors are the academy's largest membership branch (1,150 of 6,124 Oscar voters).
Meanwhile, the producers' guild award has now mirrored the academy's choice for best picture seven years in a row, and 72 percent overall since its creation in 1989.
As you would expect, the SAG awards are a much better indicator of acting Oscar results. Of the past 24 actors winning Academy Awards (lead, supporting, male, female), no fewer than 21 claimed SAG statuettes first, including all four winners last year.
Good news for Eddie Redmayne, whose portrayal of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything earned a SAG prize, putting a crimp in Michael Keaton's comeback story. Although there is buzz that Redmayne's work in next week's Jupiter Ascending could do to his Oscar campaign what Norbit did to Eddie Murphy's in 2007.
Julianne Moore's SAG winning performance in Still Alice as an early on-set Alzheimer's patient deserves the Oscar as much as moviegoers deserve to see it. Still Alice is a modest indie waiting to fully capitalize on Moore's expected Oscar, a movie so uncommercial that it might have disappeared before the ceremony on Feb. 22 if it had been released with all the other contenders. No opening date is set yet for Tampa Bay.
By now, J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) are simply polishing up their Oscar acceptance speeches. The seeming inevitability of their wins could lead some voters to change their minds — and 3 1/2 weeks is long enough to do it — but that isn't likely.
The dark horse is American Sniper, a bona fide phenomenon after crossing the $200 million mark in 10 days. Golden Globes and SAG voters skipped over Clint Eastwood's Iraq war drama but the academy didn't, with six Oscar nominations including best picture and actor (Bradley Cooper). No other finalist can match American Sniper's late momentum, which is what winning any race is about.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.