"Slumdog Millionaire" has solidified its lead at the upcoming Academy Awards with a win for best ensemble at tonight's SAG Awards. That this cast of virtual and absolute unknowns from India (as well as a Brit, Dev Patel) could so impress the 100,000 members of the American-based Screen Actors Guild is evidence of the film's universal appeal. In a way, it is not surprising that the notion of defying the odds -- as the young hero does in "Slumdog Millionaire" -- would prove irresistible to actors, many of whom struggle to make a living at their gypsy profession.
The SAG Awards have included an ensemble prize since their second year (1995). Over the ensuing 13 years, the Screen Actors Guild choice has matched up with the eventual Oscar-winning best picture only six times. Indeed, the SAG Award champ did not repeat at the Oscars until the fourth year of the award in 1998 when "Shakespeare in Love" took home both awards, surprising many an Oscarologist who expected "Saving Private Ryan" to win. Since then, "American Beauty" (1999), "Chicago" (2002), "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003), "Crash" (2005), and last year's "No Country for Old Men" have won both honors.
In the years when the SAG Awards ensemble prize went to a film other than the eventual Oscar champ, there was a more populist theme to it that, no doubt, influenced the votes of the union membership. The first three SAG champs were the modern-day heroes of "Apollo 13" over "Braveheart" (1995); the high-flying men of "The Birdcage" over "The English Patient" (1996); and the show-stopping strippers who delivered "The Full Monty" over "Titanic" (1997). That last winner, a feel-good film about down-on-their-luck English steelworkers, was scripted by Simon Beaufoy, who just happened to handle the adaptation of "Slumdog Millionaire."
Of the other four films that won at SAG but lost at the Oscars, two were top-heavy with acting talent -- "Traffic" (2000) and "Gosford Park" (2001), which prevailed over Russell Crowe vehicles "Gladiator" and "A Beautiful Mind," respectively -- and two were small ensemble pieces -- "Sideways" (2004) and "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006) -- that triumphed over star-studded ones "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Departed," respectively.