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In this film image released by Sony Pictures, Bradley Cooper, left, as Richie Dimaso and Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld talk in a gallery at the Frick Museum in a scene from Columbia Pictures' "American Hustle."

SAG Awards offer window into Oscar race

Oscar tea-leaf reading doesn’t get any better than at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

When the 20th annual SAG Awards get underway Saturday night at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles (broadcast live on TNT and TBS beginning at 8 p.m. EST), the guild’s choices will be heavily scrutinized for their predictive powers about the Academy Awards.

Actors make up the largest branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so SAG members have perhaps more sway in determining Academy Awards winners than any other group.

This year, the five nominees for SAG’s top honor, outstanding performance by a movie cast, are: “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “August: Osage County” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Obviously, SAG and the academy don’t always agree: Neither “August: Osage County” nor “The Butler” were nominated for best picture, and “The Butler” was snubbed entirely. The effects-heavy, sparsely peopled “Gravity” was predictably overlooked by SAG (except for a best actress nomination to Sandra Bullock), while it garnered 10 Oscar nods.

But the SAG Awards will give a window into support for Oscar favorites “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle.” In individual honors, SAG favored “12 Years,” nominating Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Jennifer Lawrence, for supporting actress, is the lone “American Hustle” nominee.

The SAG outstanding cast awards have lined up with Oscar best-picture winners, including “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “No Country for Old Men.” But SAG diverged in the past with picks like “The Help,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” The actors did foretell one of the biggest Oscar upsets in 2005, choosing “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain.”

But the SAG Awards also represent one of the more collegiate atmospheres of awards season, with winners almost uniformly expressing gratitude for an honor chosen by their peers. The speeches are often good, too, and can help stoke Oscar support.

Among the nominees Saturday night are Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”), Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Forest Whitaker (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”), Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”), Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”), Emma Thompson (“Saving Mr. Banks”) and Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”). James Gandolfini was nominated posthumously for his supporting performance in “Enough Said.”

Among SAG’s TV drama ensemble contenders are HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones,” AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” PBS’s “Downton Abbey” and Showtime’s “Homeland.” Comedy series ensemble nominees include NBC’s “30 Rock,” Netflix’s “Arrested Development,” CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory,” ABC’s “Modern Family” and HBO’s “Veep.”

SAG’s lifetime achievement award will be given Rita Moreno, the 81-year-old “West Side Story” actress whose career has spanned Broadway, television and music.

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