Well, Stranger Things indeed! SAG wasn’t as predictable as I thought it might be this year. From what names were in the envelope, to what presenters and winners were saying onstage, this was about as fiery and fun a SAG Awards show as I have ever seen.

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The actors union’s lively televised awards show capped a weekend that also included the Producers Guild and ACE Eddies to kick off a campaign Phase 2 march to the Oscars where the industry itself –the best and most reliable reflection of Academy Award voters, gets to weigh in — with a large number of other guild banquets in the coming weeks. The 120,000 or so eligible SAG voters tend to be a little more populist in their thinking but carry a sharp track record in portending Oscar glory.

They produced a show with a lot of diversity and some genuine surprises, chiefly with an upset Outstanding Cast win for underdog Hidden Figures over more favored nominees like Moonlight, Fences and Manchester By The Sea — the latter coming into tonight with a leading four nominations but going home empty-handed and inadvertently producing the other big shocker of the evening. That would be the loss for star Casey Affleck, who until now has virtually run the table at the Golden Globes, many other critics ceremonies, and was heavily favored.

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Instead, the Lead Actor SAG honor went to a visibly shocked Denzel Washington of Fences who also directed and was a producer on the film. He has mostly stood by and watched his Fences co-star Viola Davis take the prizes this season (as she also did earlier tonight at SAG, winning in support). Washington becomes the first actor to actually direct himself to a SAG award, his first in a career that has included two Oscars. This invariably adds a great deal of suspense to the Best Actor Oscar race, which is actually the next stop Washington and Affleck will square off, as Washington was passed over in the BAFTA nominations where Affleck is also favored on February 12. Well, it makes things a little more interesting for Oscar pundits.

As for that big Hidden Figures victory, I had opined in a predictions column on Friday that I thought it might have had a good chance at SAG except for the fact that 20th Century Fox had not sent physical DVDs to the guild membership, instead opting for digital screeners. Manchester, Moonlight and Fences all sent both formats, which seemed to give them an advantage that turned out not to have made a difference. You could see the absolute shock — and joy — on the part of the cast in pulling off this victory for a little movie from writer-director Ted Melfi (who was pulled up onstage by the cast) that has defied expectations all along the way and proven that heart, emotion and a hell of a true story can overcome anything — both with awards and at the box office, where it just crossed the $100 million mark. The SAG win mirrors a previous SAG triumph for The Help, a movie to which Figures has been compared and also co-starred Octavia Spencer. Like Figures, The Help hoped the win would boost its Best Picture Oscar chances, but in the end Spencer was the only nomination that movie was able to cash in on Academy Award night.

Many think the Cast award is SAG’s equivalent of Best Picture, but the guild insists it isn’t and exists just to honor great acting ensembles. That would explain why Oscar front-runner La La Land wasn’t even nominated in that category as it really is a movie focused on its two stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Stone, with a charming and genuine acceptance speech, took the Lead Actress award as I suspected she might and gave La La a piece of the SAG pie it needed to continue momentum that started this weekend with a win at the ACE Eddies for editor Tom Cross, and then a big victory from the often predictive PGA last night. It hasn’t stumbled a bit, and should it win for Damien Chazelle at next Saturday’s DGA awards, will become an even more overwhelming favorite than it already is, especially since key rivals — and critical darlings Moonlight and Manchester — have gotten off to a slow start this weekend on the guild circuit.

The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Jan 2017
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In fact, other than SAG Supporting winner Mahershala Ali it was a shutout for both. I thought Moonlight, with that extraordinary ensemble, would pull off the SAG Cast award. It might be significant that it failed to do so, or simply that SAG/AFTRA voters fell harder for Hidden Figures which is helped also by the fact it has become a major box office hit.

Although, to paraphrase Pharrell Williams’ song, I see this victory as a real boost for that film, it will be a real uphill climb to turn around the Best Picture momentum advantage La La Land has with 14 Oscar nominations versus three for Hidden Figures. But again Stranger Things have happened. Don’t forget Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea are still very formidable contenders as they have been all season long. Still, Ali, Davis and Stone are the real beneficiaries here and become the ones to beat on February 26. After this weekend, La La remains in the Best Picture driver’s seat with Hidden Figures added to the spoiler list, and now we have a race for Best Actor.

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On the TV side of things, let me just say it was a hell of a weekend for — wait for it — Stranger Things, which upset the apple cart with a big Drama Series win last night at PGA, and then again tonight wining Outstanding Drama Series Cast at SAG in just its freshman year on Netflix. As if the upset win wasn’t enough, the exuberant reaction from the cast onstage and wild roller-coaster of an acceptance speech on their behalf from David Harbour was one for the ages.

What a night for Netflix, which took not only the Drama Cast award with Stranger Things, but also Comedy Cast Award (for a third straight year) for Orange Is The New Black. If the latter — along with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and William H. Macy individual comedy wins for their long-running shows — represents the tried-and-true route SAG has often traveled in recent years, the buoyant Stranger Things’ win, along with individual prizes for John Lithgow and Claire Foy in The Crown (yet another new Netflix show), refreshingly show the guild is moving right into the present and could have significant impact in leading the way to the Emmys this year instead of following as they usually do.

As for the show itself, SAG pulled off an enormously spirited affair that along with last night’s non-televised PGA show, and Meryl Streep’s much talked about Golden Globes speech, sets the table for what is going to be a very politically tinged awards season. Well, that is if the speeches — and the reaction to them — at these events are any indication of where we are heading. Clearly this is an industry that is not going to be shy about saying what is on their mind regarding the various actions of the new Donald Trump administration.

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Associated Press

Right off the bat with Ashton Kutcher, and continuing with great speeches from Louis-Dreyfus, Ali, Bryan Cranston, Sarah Paulson (asking for contributions for the ACLU), Harbour, and Taraji P. Henson, not to forget Life Achievement winner Lily Tomlin’s funny and politically biting thank you, SAG showed it wasn’t going to sit back and take it.

I have a feeling this will all keep getting more intense. Awards ceremonies give the industry the kind of bully pulpit that will send Trump up the wall, and straight to Twitter. At the PGA Awards, John Legend, who was just there to present a clip from La La Land , almost forgot to do that because he went off-prompter to rail against Trump before saying he was donating money to ACLU and urging action.

Interestingly, when The Voice producer Mark Burnett took the PGA Reality Series award, he was audibly booed, at least in my section at the Beverly Hilton. Although his speech was all about how great it is to work on The Voice, the boos were obviously because of his past role in elevating Trump’s profile as host of Burnett’s The Apprentice. 

Today’s developments with Iranian Oscar Foreign Language Film nominee Asghar Farhadi announcing he will not attend the Oscars due to indignation at the travel ban imposed on people from Iran and several other countries, as well as other related events, can only mean things will be heating up considerably heading toward what seemed to be a somewhat predictable Academy Awards.

Now I believe Oscar night may turn out to be verrrrrrry interesting in ways pundits can’t predict.