In an upset, the deaf family drama “CODA” took top honors at an unpredictable and history-making 28th Screen Actors Guild Awards that also saw wins for the leads of “Squid Game," the cast of “Ted Lasso” and Will Smith.
The ceremony, held Sunday at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California, and broadcast on both TNT and TBS, was notably border-breaking, with historic wins for deaf actors, Korean stars and some of Hollywood's biggest names. It culminated with “CODA," Sian Heder's heartwarming Apple TV+ coming-of-age film featuring a trio of deaf actors in Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, along with newcomer Emilia Jones, winning best ensemble. The film has been seen as a watershed moment for the deaf community in Hollywood.
"This validates the fact that we, deaf actors, can work just like anybody else. We look forward to more opportunities for deaf actors," said Matlin on stage before teaching the crowd sign language for “I love you.”
Matlin is the only deaf actor to win an Oscar, but her “CODA" co-star, Kotsur, may be in line to join her. Kotsur won best supporting actor Sunday, becoming the first deaf actor win an individual SAG award. When his name was read, the 53-year-old veteran actor plunged his head into his hands. On stage, he thanked his wife for “reminding me to check my fly before walking the red carpet.”
Netflix's “Squid Game,” the first non-English language series nominated by the actors guild, came on strong with three awards, including Lee Jung-jae for best male actor in a drama series and Jung Hoyeon for best female actor in a drama series. Those wins came over the likes of “Succession” stars Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong, and Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston of “The Morning Show.”
“I have sat many a times watching you on the big screen dreaming of one day becoming an actor," Jung told the crowd, fighting back tears.
Still, HBO's "Succession” ultimately reigned in the best drama series category. Cox fittingly accepted the award with an expletive printed on his face mask, and another uttered as he struggled to take it off. But Cox turned serious when discussing Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In the evening's bluntest remarks on the invasion, he noted that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was a comic — and thus a fellow performer. He urged censored dissenters in Russia to speak out.
“The people in Russia who don't like what's going on — and particularly the artists — I think we should join and celebrate them and hope that they can make a shift, as I believe they can,” said Cox while the audience stood and applauded.
The SAG Awards are considered one of the most reliable predictors of the Academy Awards. Actors make up the largest percentage of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and their picks often align. In 2020, when the cast of “Parasite” and Brad Pitt won, they matched exactly.
Though the actors guild and the academy diverged last year when Aaron Sorkin's 1960s courtroom drama “Trial of the Chicago 7” topped the SAG Awards and “Nomadland” triumphed at the Oscars, the win for “CODA” suggests it's a major threat to win best picture over Kenneth Branagh's “Belfast” (which went winless Sunday) and Jane Campion's leading Oscar nominee “The Power of the Dog" (which failed to get an ensemble nod even though three of its actors were individually nominated).
SAG's track record may also mean Will Smith, star of the Williams family tennis drama “King Richard,” is heading for his first Oscar. Smith took best actor, scoring his first SAG award.
"That may have been one of the greatest moments of my career just now because my name was called for ‘King Richard’ sitting next to Venus Williams," beamed Smith.
Best actress has been more difficult category to track. Many have seen Olivia Colman ("The Lost Daughter") as the favorite to win her second Oscar. In an especially competitive category, those snubbed have often drawn the most focus. Kristen Stewart of “Spencer” was passed over by SAG, while Lady Gaga ("House of Gucci") missed with the film academy.
Yet it was Jessica Chastain, who plays the infamous televangelist in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” who won Sunday, notching her first individual SAG award. Heading into the Oscars on March 27, no category may be more uncertain.
Meanwhile, Ariana DeBose of “West Side Story” confirmed her frontrunner status with a win Sunday for best supporting performance by a female actor. DeBose's award, too, had historic resonance.
“It’s indicative that doors are opening,” said DeBose, speaking to reports in a virtual backstage media room. “It’s an honor to be seen, it’s an honor to be an Afro-Latina, an openly queer woman of color, a dancer, a singer, and an actor. It's indicative to me that I will not be the last, and that’s the important part."
The SAG Awards, which will be available to stream Monday on HBO Max, are presented by the Hollywood actors guild SAG-AFTRA. After the January Golden Globes were a non-event, they were Hollywood's first major, televised, in-person award show — complete with a red carpet and teary-eyed speeches — this year. The “Hamilton” trio of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs kicked off the broadcast with the declared theme of “together again.”
“We’ve returned to a world where all we have to do to hang out like this is get dressed up, show up, get swabbed, sanitized, screened, masked, vaccinated, boosted, rapid-tested and PCR-cleared within 24 hours,” said Odom Jr. “Now who’s ready to party?”
Some casts, citing quarantine regulations related to production schedules, attended remotely — including the lead television nominee, “Ted Lasso.” Appearing by video link with his castmates around him, Jason Sudeikis accepted the award for best actor in a comedy series. The Apple TV+ show was later named best comedy series ensemble.
While the Academy Awards aren't mandating vaccination for presenters (just attendees), it was required for the SAG Awards, which are voted on by the Hollywood actors’ guild SAG-AFTRA. Other awards went to Jean Smart of “Hacks," Kate Winslet of “Mare of Easttown and Michael Keaton of “Dopesick,” who dedicated his award to his nephew, Michael. Keaton has previously said he died from fentanyl and heroin use in 2016.
The SAG Awards also coronated “The Queen” actress Helen Mirren. The five-time SAG winner was honored with a lifetime achievement award.
“Honestly, any achievement that I’ve succeed in is the result of my mantra which is basically: Be on time and don’t be ass,” said the 76-year-old Mirren. “Thank you, thank you, S-A-G so much for this. I hate to say the word ‘sag’ at my age.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP