The Screen Actors Guild is a large and eclectic group with 157,000 members ranging from movie stars to small-town weathermen. By comparison, the entire Television Academy — not just the acting branch — numbers 20,000. Television viewing has become so fractured with the rise of cable and streaming services that it is questionable how much television the average SAG voter watches. And it is hard to say whether campaigning would even bear fruit at SAG — do voters have time to view seasons of television in addition to the 20 or so nominated films?
As such, SAG often resorts to awarding the most respected and recognizable name nominated with little regard to the specific performance attached to the nomination. Five of the six winners last year in the television individual performance categories were past Oscar winners or nominees: Viola Davis, William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Spacey. The only category that did not award an Oscar winner or nominee was the one in which none were nominated; all five Best Comedy Actress nominees, including winner Uzo Aduba ("Orange is the New Black") were known primarily for their careers in television.
The Emmys get flak for awarding the same performances repeatedly, but at least they only awarded Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) Best Comedy Actor twice (2008, 2009). Baldwin won at SAG for seven consecutive years beginning in 2006. During that streak the Emmy also went to Ricky Gervais (“Extras,” 2007), Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory,” 2010, 2011, 2013) and Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men,” 2012). Baldwin was the only Oscar nominee among the Best Comedy Actor nominees at SAG. Although not the only one known for a film career, Baldwin was variably the oldest nominee in the category and also distinguished himself by maintaining a prestigious film career while appearing weekly on television, earning nominations from BAFTA (“It’s Complicated”, 2009) and in SAG’s Best Film Ensemble category (“The Departed”, 2006).
There are other examples of a bias at SAG toward the oldest and most revered names in the television categories. Although he did not win an Emmy and was only nominated twice for “Boardwalk Empire,” film actor Steve Buscemi –– a past Golden Globe film nominee (“Ghost World," 2001) — was nominated all five seasons by SAG and won twice (2010, 2011), both times when he faced television actors exclusively.
The same years that Buscemi won, Betty White picked up two SAG Awards for Best Comedy Actress for a supporting role on "Hot in Cleveland" that earned only one Emmy nomination. White faced lineups that did not include any actresses with major film award nominations, was at least four decades older than any of her competitors and had about as many career Emmy acting nominations as all of her competitors combined and won her fifth in 2010 for hosting Saturday Night Live."
In 2013, Maggie Smith’s (“Downton Abbey”) supporting performance won over, among others, Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”) who had defeated her at the previous Emmy ceremony and would win again later that year. Other nominees included Claire Danes (“Homeland”), who was coming off consecutive Emmy wins in the lead category, as well as Jessica Lange (“American Horror Story: Coven”), who would go on to win a lead Emmy for the same season. Although Lange was also a two-time Oscar winner like Smith, Dame Maggie was the oldest nominee with the longest career and was still appearing in prestigious films, having scored a SAG film nomination the year before (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”).
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