Nominations for the 22nd annual Screen Actors Guild Awards were announced early on Wednesday, December 9.
Alongside surprises, like the biopic Trumbo grabbing the most nominations, and snubs, like The Martian and star Matt Damon being ignored and left on the award season equivalent of Mars, was something a little disquieting.
The Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture category contains 38 actors — yet only six of them are women. (Best Cast is generally considered the closest thing the SAG Awards have to a Best Picture trophy.)
What's more, three of those women are in Trumbo (including Helen Mirren, who's also nominated in the Female Actor in a Supporting Role category), and two of the films that are nominated (Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton) feature only men in credited roles.
So what's going on here?
The 2016 SAGs focused heavily on big, male-heavy ensemble casts
Of the six women nominated in the Outstanding Performance by a Cast category, only Mirren (for Trumbo) and Rachel McAdams (for Spotlight) have what you might consider prominent, important roles in their films. (Both are also nominated in the supporting performance category.) Mirren plays famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, while McAdams plays one of the Boston Globe reporters who breaks the story of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.
Trumbo's two other nominees, Diane Lane and Elle Fanning, play the family members of the title character — classic roles to which women are often relegated in male-heavy films. Meanwhile, Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei, both nominated for The Big Short, make very brief appearances in that (very good) film. Leo, indeed, is in only one scene.
But outside of McAdams, Spotlight's major players are all men. The Big Short's major players are all men. Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton's major players are all men, as I noted above. And though Trumbo boasts a slightly better gender balance, it's still, mostly, filled with men. (On the diversity front, no women of color are nominated in any category anywhere. Idris Elba is the only man of color to get nominated for anything, for his supporting performance in Beasts of No Nation, though both that film and Straight Outta Compton feature majority-black casts nominated for Best Cast.)
In the individual categories, movies like Room and Carol — which are both female-driven — received two separate acting nominations, but those individual nods did not translate to nominations in the top category. Those two films, along with the romantic drama Brooklyn (which received a single acting nomination for lead Saoirse Ronan), and the Charlize Theron–sporting Mad Max: Fury Road (a surprise hit at the various film critics awards that have occurred over the past week) had previously been identified as potential award-show contenders in a year when many Oscar hopefuls have told stories that centered on women — a marked contrast to previous years. And though Damon heads up The Martian, it also features great supporting performances from women like Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, and others. Its inclusion would have easily changed the top category's gender balance.
But as the SAG nominations show, that's not necessarily going to be the case.
There are a few big reasons for the imbalance
The Best Cast category is usually full of big casts with lots of actors in them. While that's not always the case — Beasts of No Nation has three nominees, and last year's Boyhood had four — the SAGs tend to nominate ensembles with at least seven actors, if not many more. And this year's high-profile ensemble films have been largely male-heavy, while the more female-centric films are smaller character dramas. Room, Carol, and Brooklyn are all terrific, but they don't have anything in the way of large casts.
Meanwhile, the season's late-breaking mystery is Joy, a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle from previous award-magnet director David O. Russell that also features a large ensemble cast filled with women. That film received some positive buzz prior to its release, but it's turned out to be a bit of a mess, garnering mostly middling reviews and knocking out the obvious choice for a female-driven Best Cast nominee.
However, the 2016 SAG nominations also reflect something that has long bedeviled awards shows when it comes to telling stories about women and racial minorities: The only film in the Best Cast category to feature a completely fictional story is Beasts of No Nation. The other four are all based on true stories, to one degree or another.
And when Hollywood retells famous stories from the past, it tends to focus on things white men have done. To some degree, this isn't Hollywood's fault, per se, so much as it's a function of our history books always skewing white and male. But the result is that award season often yields a lot of nominees that don't reflect a diversifying America.
The Oscars will probably nominate more female-driven films
The SAGs have the disadvantage of being one of the first major organizations to hand out awards. This often prevents voting members from fully absorbing late-breaking contenders, which this year include the boxing drama Creed, the aforementioned Joy, and the as-yet-unreleased Quentin Tarantino film The Hateful Eight (which, while mostly male, features terrific work from Jennifer Jason Leigh). As the season goes on, it seems likely that Trumbo will slowly fade while other films rise in prominence, leading to an Oscars that skews slightly more diverse.
But this is still a weird year for SAG to post one of its worst scores ever in terms of nominating women in its top category. In the past three years, women have comprised about 30 percent of the Best Cast nominees — not great, but better than this year's 16 percent — while in 2011, the nominees were 64 percent women, thanks to films like The Help and The Butler.
No matter what, this is a troubling idea. As Hollywood makes more and more great films about women, fewer and fewer of them are being recognized with major awards — even when they seem to be prime award-show bait. There's a growing disconnect, and the 2016 SAG nominations have underlined it.