In March 1995, famed actress Angela Lansbury took to the stage to speak about the art of acting and her wide-ranging career. In her words, “I've been Elizabeth Taylor's sister, Spencer Tracy's mistress, Elvis' mother, and a singing teapot.” So began the first-ever Screen Actors Guild Awards, a ceremony which honors acting in both television and film. The ceremony is hosted by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which is a labor union formed when SAG (founded in 1933) merged with AFTRA (founded in 1937) in 2012. The union boasts that they represent “more than 160,000 actors, announcers, broadcaster journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists, and other professionals.”
Their ceremony varies from other major awards, such as the Oscars, for several reasons. Firstly, SAG only doles out 16 awards each year. Secondly, it only honors performers, rather than more all-encompassing awards which also target production teams, make-up, costuming, directing, and more. The SAG awards also give out some unique awards like Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble, which honors an entire cast. They award excellent stunt work, too.
Finally, because it focuses so intently on acting, the major awards of the evening are not necessarily for “best picture,” but for best performances. Some awards include Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture, Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture, and for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Motion Picture. Cinephiles and entertainment insiders keep their eye on these winners because they’re often seen as a precursor to an Oscar win.
Throughout its 25-year history, the SAG Awards have targeted the very best actresses of the day. Among them? Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, and Kate Winslet (each with four nominations); Judi Dench (with six nominations total); and Meryl Streep (who has been nominated a whopping 10 times). Using data from SAG-AFTRA, Stacker compiled a list of all 25 SAG best actress award winners. Read on to find out what role helped them get the win, who they beat, and other interesting facts. Plus, learn who’s up for the award in this year’s ceremony on Jan. 19.
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In 1994, Jodie Foster won the honor for best actress at the first-ever SAG Awards ceremony for playing the lead character in “Nell,” which follows the story of a feral young woman who has devised her own language. This year, Foster will return to the ceremony to present the award for Outstanding Ensemble.
Susan Sarandon’s acting skills shone in “Dead Man Walking,” in which she starred as a nun offering spiritual counsel to a murderer, played by Sean Penn. Sarandon eventually won an Academy Award for Best Actress for that role, and won the corresponding SAG Award, too, despite being up against major contenders like Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.
Film critic Roger Ebert called the Coen brothers’ blustery black comedy “Fargo” “one of the best films I've ever seen.” Frances McDormand starred as a pregnant police chief investigating a disturbing murder and spouting loads of hilarious Minnesotan phrases.
The romantic comedy “As Good As It Gets” features two powerhouse actors: Jack Nicholson as a cynical, rude, OCD novelist and Helen Hunt as a waitress and single mother. The pair pulled off an impressive feat, winning both the SAG awards for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively.
“Shakespeare in Love” captures a fictional relationship between the famed poet (played by Joseph Fiennes) and a woman and aspiring actress named Viola de Lesseps (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). As The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote of the actress, “Gwyneth Paltrow, in her first great, fully realized starring performance, makes a heroine so breathtaking that she seems utterly plausible as the playwright's guiding light. In a film steamy enough to start a sonnet craze, her Viola de Lesseps really does seem to warrant the most timeless love poems.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Paltrow snagged a SAG Award for the role.
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Famous for featuring a rose-adorned, otherwise nude teenage girl, “American Beauty” tells the story of a disillusioned suburban family. Annette Bening embodies a real estate broker embroiled in an affair and trapped in a stale relationship. Bening beat out Hilary Swank, who was nominated for her role in "Boys Don’t Cry," though, later, Swank ended up clinching the Oscar over Bening.
“Erin Brockovich,” in which Julia Roberts played the titular role, tells a version of the real-life story of a lawyer fighting against wrongdoings by Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Hollywood Reporter wrote of Roberts’ performance, “[T]he actress seizes the film's eponymous role with fire-in-her-eyes possessiveness and injects the character with all the energy and drive she can muster. Her performance is a true star turn.” Roberts won both the SAG and Oscar awards for her deft acting.
“Monster’s Ball” follows a corrections officer who becomes entangled with a woman who is secretly the widow of a man he had executed. Though “Monster’s Ball” featured some heavy-hitters—Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, and Mos Def among them—Berry’s performance as the widow is considered among her very best. Not only did she win the SAG award, but she became the first woman of color to get an Academy Award for Best Actress.
When Renée Zellweger embodied Roxie Hart, the murderous heroine at the heart of “Chicago,” she sang and danced her way into critics’ and audiences’ hearts. Most cinephiles knew her as a sweet-faced ingenue, which made her turn into a cruel, exacting wannabe even more fascinating. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Zellweger is not a born hoofer, but then again Roxie Hart isn't supposed to be a star; the whole point is that she isn't, and what Zellweger invaluably contributes to the role is Roxie's dreamy infatuation with herself, and her quickly growing mastery of publicity.”
Charlize Theron hardly looked anything like herself playing Aileen "Lee" Wuornos, a serial killer and sex worker, in “Monster.” Her transformation went beyond gaining weight and shaving off her eyebrows. By and large, critics called her performance transfixing. She beat out Evan Rachel Wood, who, at 16, was the youngest nominee ever for her role in “Thirteen.”
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Hilary Swank was the first actress to win two SAG awards for Best Actress. In 2004, she got the honor for her performance in “Million Dollar Baby” beside actor-director Clint Eastwood, playing a female boxer. The film would later win seven Oscars, including one for Swank’s performance and Best Picture.
Reese Witherspoon beat Judi Dench, Felicity Huffman, Charlize Theron, and Ziyi Zhang for her role as June Carter in “Walk the Line.” A mashup between two biographies of Johnny Cash, the film follows the country music star’s tumultuous love affair with Carter, who may have written his hit song “Ring of Fire.”
Royalty was a hot topic for SAG in 2006: Forest Whitaker won Best Actor for his role in “The Last King of Scotland” while Helen Mirren won Best Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen.” (Though, of course, the Mirren film was about actual royalty in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, while the Whitaker role was about a cruel military officer.) Mirren also won an Academy Award for that part.
With Cate Blanchett, Marion Cotillard, Angelina Jolie, and Ellen Page in the running, few could have predicted that Julie Christie might have won. While Christie had many accolades to her name, including an Academy Award for “Darling” and a role in “Doctor Zhivago,” her 2007 SAG-winning part was in “Away from Her,” an independent Canadian film, an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story.
Meryl Streep has been nominated for this award the most of any actress ever with 10 nominations in all. Based on a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, “Doubt” follows the drama between nuns running a Catholic school and a young black student. As The Guardian wrote of Streep’s performance as the head nun, “At the center are two of the finest actors alive, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Once again, they prove capable of transforming themselves, creating persuasive characters without adopting excessive make-up or a battery of eccentric mannerisms.”
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Based on a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, “The Blind Side” follows a young man who fights an impoverished upbringing, gets adopted, and becomes a professional football player. Sandra Bullock plays that young man’s adoptive mother. Besides the SAG award, Bullock also won an Academy Award for Best Actress and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture.
“Black Swan” pits two fierce ballerinas, played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, against each other. As Portman’s character, obsessed with self-control, loses ground, the movie turns frightening and almost supernatural. The construction of the film and Portman’s electrifying acting led to a product that’s still discussed and dissected today among film buffs.
Viola Davis prevailed over Glenn Close, Tilda Swinton, Michelle Williams, and Meryl Streep to win for her role in “The Help.” Based on the book of the same name, the film chronicles an aspiring Southern journalist (played by Emma Stone) and her relationship to several black maids amid the civil rights movement. However, Davis later told The New York Times that she regretted acting in the movie. “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” she said.
Though “Winter’s Bone” helped Jennifer Lawrence break through, and “X-Men” and “The Hunger Games” propelled her to stardom, “Silver Linings Playbook” solidified her celebrity and earned the starlet her first SAG award for Best Actress. At just 22 years old, Lawrence became the youngest SAG winner ever.
In 2013, Cate Blanchett secured the SAG award for her starring role in "Blue Jasmine," a black comedy wherein a down-on-her-luck, once-rich New Yorker moves in with her sister in San Francisco. Many said the “Blue Jasmine” seemed to be director Woody Allen’s tribute to Tennessee Williams. As Vulture put it, “Blue Jasmine Is Woody Allen’s Streetcar Named Desire, With a Madoff Twist.”
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Julianne Moore took on the heartbreaking role of Alice Howland, a professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, in “Still Alice.” Moore apparently spent four months researching her role, which would win her the SAG award. In particular, she met many Alzheimer’s patients. As a result, dementia patients reported in one Guardian story that the movie portrayed their struggle with startling accuracy.
Based on a novel of the same name, “Room” chronicles the terrifying saga of a woman and her son held captive in a room. As reviewer Mark Kermode wrote, “As for the performances, Brie Larson and seven-year-old Jacob Tremblay are nothing short of perfect as the central couple around whom this trembling universe revolves.”
Up against Amy Adams in “Arrival,” Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train,” Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” and Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” wide-eyed American sweetheart Emma Stone won for her co-starring role in “La La Land.” It may be no surprise that Hollywood types loved this particular tale about an aspiring actress and a jazz artist trying to hustle and make it in Los Angeles. Stone had made her Broadway debut several years earlier in "Cabaret,” which likely helped her take on the role, as "La La Land" was a musical, too.
After her “Fargo” win, Frances McDormand won yet again for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in 2017. McDormand wasn’t the only one honored for the film. The other actors in the film, including Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, and Sam Rockwell earned the SAG award for Outstanding Ensemble, too.
“The Wife,” based on Meg Wolitzer's novel of the same name, is about the wife of a famous author. Her resentments and her role in his success are pivotal to the film, and the part was played artfully by Glenn Close. At 71, Close became the oldest recipient in this particular award’s history.
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- Cynthia Erivo
- Scarlett Johansson
- Lupita Nyong’o
- Charlize Theron
- Renée Zellweger
2019 will see some past winners, including Charlize Theron for playing Fox anchor Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell” and Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in “Judy,” nominated. Scarlett Johansson will also have her hand at the award for playing a woman amid a nasty divorce in “Marriage Story,” and so will Lupita Nyong’o, for playing a dual, terrifying role in the horror film “Us.” (Nyong’o was honored last year as part of the ensemble in “Black Panther.”) Relative newcomer British actress Cynthia Erivo is also nominated as Harriet Tubman in the film “Harriet.”
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