Oscar buzz once was reserved for the late months of the year, but in recent times it has been observed as early as March -- when statuettes are still warm from the embrace of the previous year's winners. Talk has always been cheap, but when it comes to predicting Oscar gold -- and especially with predictions made before the cherry blossoms show up in Washington -- your guess is as good as anybody else's.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, however, those responsible for setting the real contours of the movie-awards season are called upon to make their choices. Since the first days of December, critics groups have been weighing in -- and in many cases their judgments have even validated some early Oscar buzz.
Take Jamie Foxx.
When "Ray," director Taylor Hackford's movie biography of the late Ray Charles, started being screened in previews a conventional wisdom built up that Foxx's performance was Oscar-worthy. Sure enough, he has gone on to win the top acting prize from the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Boston Film Critics Association.
Foxx had four nominations Tuesday when SAG announced nominees for its upcoming awards -- including one for his supporting performance in the Tom Cruise summer thriller "Collateral." He is not, however, positioned just yet to walk away with the Oscar.
Paul Giamatti, the star of writer-director Alexander Payne's road-trip comedy "Sideways," was also nominated for SAG's top acting prize -- and has also had a very fruitful and productive awards season, winning the best actor prize from critics organizations in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Toronto.
Los Angeles critics picked Liam Neeson for his performance in the title role of "Kinsey," but SAG left Neeson off its list of best actor nominees -- in favor of Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda"), Johnny Depp ("Finding Neverland") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Aviator").
Neeson's was not the only highly promoted performance to be left off of the SAG nominees' list.
Bill Murray -- who was nominated for a SAG Award and an Oscar last year for his Golden Globe-winning performance in "Lost in Translation" -- was heavily touted again this year for "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," but he did not receive a SAG nomination. Meryl Streep's work in director Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" has been heavily promoted in Hollywood trade magazines for Oscar consideration, but she was shut out in the SAG Awards.
SAG's 10-year track record is probably not lengthy enough to establish a historical trend, but the winners of the top acting awards for feature films have tended to go on to win Oscar gold.
Six of the past 10 SAG winners went on to win the Best Actor Oscar, while a seventh -- Benicio Del Toro -- went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Seven of SAG's 10 winners for female lead went on to take the Best Actress Oscar.
This year's nominees for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role -- SAG refers to both men and women as actors -- includes one Oscar winner, Hilary Swank, and two past Oscar nominees, Annette Bening and Kate Winslet.
Swank, who won the Best Actress Oscar in 1999 for "Boys Don't Cry," is nominated for the SAG Award this year for Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."
Bening, who was nominated for Best Actress in 1999 for "American Beauty," is up for a SAG Award for the backstage drama "Being Julia." And Winslet, a 1998 Best Actress nominee for "Titanic," has a SAG nomination for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
The other two nominees are Catalina Sandino Moreno for the drug-smuggling drama "Maria Full of Grace," and Imelda Staunton for the British abortion drama "Vera Drake."
SAG regards its award for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture as its top prize -- recognizing ensemble acting over individual achievement. This year's nominees are "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Hotel Rwanda," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray" and "Sideways."
Although the outstanding cast award is generally regarded as something of a best picture award, it has not been a reliable predictor of Best Picture Oscar gold. Out of nine previous winners at the SAG Awards -- the guild did not present an ensemble award in its first year -- only four have gone on to win the top Oscar.
This Sunday's presentation of the Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., will be the last yard-marker for evaluating this year's acting Oscar prospects until the SAG Awards are presented on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles.
The 11th Screen Actors Guild Awards will be presented at the Shrine Auditorium, in ceremonies to be televised by TNT.
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