In Los Angeles, New York City, and beyond, countless hopefuls, wannabes, and aspiring stars claim to be actors. Anyone who wants to separate the pretenders from the real thing, however, need only ask to see their SAG card. The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is the labor union that represents America’s 165,000 true working professional actors and other media professionals, and a SAG card is the most coveted credential in show business—except for a SAG Award, that is.
One of the most significant events during the annual awards season in the run-up to the Oscars, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards honor outstanding achievements in film and prime-time television from the year prior. Now entering its 26th year, the 2020 SAG Awards will air live on TNT and TBS on Sunday, Jan. 19. Just like every year, those who win the trophy—a bronze statuette of a naked man holding comedy/tragedy masks—in their category are considered front-runners for an Academy Award. Just as with the Oscars, a nomination in the Best Actor category is the highest honor that a male actor can earn for a lead role in a movie. Whoever wins will come away with a major accolade that instantly earns him a place among the Hollywood elite.
Stacker compiled a list of the past 25 SAG Best Actor award winners in the quarter-century since Tom Hanks famously flashed his SAG card at the very first SAG Awards in 1995. Some wins were expected, others were controversial. Some were awarded to actors who were already global superstars, and others made stars out of relative unknowns. All, however, go down in the annals of history as turning in a performance that was so good, thousands of their peers judged it to be the finest piece of acting of the entire year.
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Tom Hanks presented Alan Alda with the Life Achievement Award at last year’s SAG event, but it was hardly the actor extraordinaire/Presidential Medal of Freedom winner’s first time on the stage. A quarter-century ago at the show’s inaugural in 1995, Hanks became the first-ever winner of the SAG Best Actor Award when he took home the trophy for his role in 1994’s “Forrest Gump.” He beat out a crowded field that included both Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman for their work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” and Paul Newman for “Nobody’s Fool.”
Although Anthony Hopkins, James Earl Jones, Sean Penn, and Massimo Troisi were distant contenders for Best Actor at the second annual SAG Awards, it was no surprise that Nicolas Cage emerged on top for his role in 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas.” His work in the critically acclaimed film also earned him the title of Best Actor at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
In the third year of the SAG Awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor for his lead role in “Shine.” While critics and fans alike praised his performance, some considered it an upset — and it’s easy to understand why given the competition. Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for his role in “Sling Blade,” as was Woody Harrelson for “The People v. Larry Flynt,” Tom Cruise for “Jerry Maguire,” and Ralph Fiennes for “The English Patient.”
“As Good as it Gets” was a defining role in the long and storied career of Jack Nicholson—and his performance was enough for a Best Actor SAG Award. He played opposite Helen Hunt, who went home with an award of her own that night. Hunt won Best Actress for the same movie.
1999 was a year of awards season upsets. Although “Saving Private Ryan” was considered a shoo-in, it lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to “Shakespeare in Love,” which also won the top honor at the SAG Awards. Joseph Fiennes was nominated for Best Actor for his role in the period piece, but he lost to Roberto Benigni for his part in “Life is Beautiful,” an international critical and commercial success that earned Benigni an Oscar, as well.
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Before his fall from grace nearly two decades later, Kevin Spacey was in his heydey as 1999’s “American Beauty” swept the first SAG Awards of the new millennium, winning every major category except Best Supporting Actor (that honor went to Michael Caine for “The Cider House Rules”). The critical and commercial blockbuster won five Oscars, including Best Picture and, again, Best Actor for Spacey.
At the seventh Annual SAG Awards, “Traffic” earned Benicio del Toro the title of Best Actor, a prize he would also go onto win at the Oscars for the same role. “Traffic” also won the top honor at SAG that year and picked up four Academy Awards. The accolades speak volumes about the movie’s critical reception, considering the competition—“Erin Brockovich” came out that year, as did “Chocolat,” “Almost Famous,” and “Gladiator.”
Although Russell Crowe lost out to Benicio del Toro the year prior, he was back at the SAG Awards with another Best Actor nomination—and this time, he wouldn’t go home empty-handed. The Aussie’s role in “A Beautiful Mind” came out on top of a crowded field that included Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Sean Penn for “I Am Sam.”
SAG honored Daniel Day-Lewis with the Best Actor award for 2002's “Gangs of New York,” which wasn’t a surprise given the movie’s reception by both audiences and critics alike. What was a surprise, however, is what happened later during that year’s awards season. In one of the greatest Oscars upsets since “Saving Private Ryan,” the Martin Scorsese period piece won exactly zero Academy Awards on 10 nominations.
As the SAG Awards entered their 10th year, a decade in, big movies like “Seabiscuit,” “Mystic River,” and a “Lord of the Rings” sequel were all in the running. It was a different blockbuster fantasy franchise movie, however, that earned Johnny Depp the award for Best Actor—“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
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With movies like “The Aviator,” “Hotel Rwanda,” and “Million Dollar Baby” in the mix, the competition was stiff at the 2005 SAG Awards. In the Best Actor category, however, few were surprised that Jamie Foxx came out on top for his performance in the biopic “Ray.” Foxx won an Academy Award in the same category.
Two great actors whose lives would end tragically in the coming years were up for Best Actor at the 12th Annual SAG Awards. Heath Ledger was nominated for “Brokeback Mountain,” and Philip Seymour Hoffman got the nod for “Capote.” It was Hoffman who went home with the trophy, and he would also win Best Actor at the Oscars.
Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin earned him the title of Best Actor at the 13th Annual SAG Awards. He beat Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred in a different movie about turmoil on the African continent, “Blood Diamond.”
Daniel Day-Lewis, once again, won Best Actor. This time, it was for his role as an early oil tycoon in “There Will Be Blood,” which also earned him Best Actor at the Academy Awards.
Sean Penn’s portrayal of murdered American gay rights activist Harvey Milk—the country’s first openly gay elected official—earned him a Best Actor at the 15th Annual SAG Awards. “Milk” earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Actor, which Penn won again at the Academy Awards.
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Jeff Bridges struck Hollywood gold with his portrayal of a dysfunctional country music star attempting to rekindle a dwindling career in “Crazy Heart.” His performance earned him Best Actor not only at the SAG Awards but also at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
Although blockbusters like “The Fighter,” “Black Swan,” and “The Social Network” were among the stiff competition during the 2011 awards season, it was “The King’s Speech” that won the day. The movie earned top honors at the Oscars and the SAG Awards, and Colin Firth won Best Actor at both events and at the Golden Globes.
It was 2011's “The Help” that won the top SAG award, but “The Artist” won the Oscar for Best Picture this year. Jean Dujardin won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his part in the film, but not before taking home Best Actor at the SAG Awards for the same movie.
At least two 2012 films doubled up major awards in 2013. “Argo” won the Best Picture at the Oscars and the top honors at the SAG Awards. “Lincoln” also earned double accolades from SAG and the Academy Awards—Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for both.
At the 20th SAG Awards, Hollywood met the occasion with a laundry list of highly acclaimed movies from 2013. “12 Years a Slave,” “The Butler,” “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “American Hustle” were all in the running. It was “Dallas Buyers Club,” however, that earned Matthew McConaughey the SAG Award for Best Actor.
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Eddie Redmayne won the SAG Award for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” His work would also earn him an Oscar for the same role. Far from a gimme, he beat out the likes of Michael Keaton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Carell, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
2015 was a good year for movie buffs—“Spotlight,” which took top honors at the SAG Awards and the Oscars came out that year, as did “Black Mass,” “Steve Jobs,” and “Straight Outta Compton.” It was “The Revenant,” however, that earned Leonardo DiCaprio both a SAG Award and an Oscar for Best Actor—and earn it, he did. DiCaprio has repeatedly said that the man-vs.-wilderness-vs.-bear movie—and the physical endurance, freezing cold, and hours in the makeup chair he endured—was the hardest part he ever played.
Denzel Washington earned the Best Actor nod for his role in “Fences.” According to Variety, however, Casey Affleck was heavily favored to win for his performance in “Manchester by the Sea.” Even Washington himself, the publication wrote, appeared shocked when his name was announced.
The 24th Annual SAG Awards were a bit of an oddity. Daniel Kaluuya was nominated for Best Actor for “Get Out”—it’s rare for a horror movie to find its way into the top categories. That aside, it was Gary Oldman who took home the trophy for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.”
Signaling a quarter-century of SAG, Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddy Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” earned him the title of Best Actor. The drama surrounding the moment, however, extended far beyond the stage. Just days before the SAG Awards, the movie’s director, Bryan Singer, was accused of sexual assault by several men who were underage at the time of the alleged encounters—he had been fired by the studio earlier during production.
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- Christian Bale
- Leonardo DiCaprio
- Adam Driver
- Taron Egerton
- Joaquin Phoenix
Whoever wins Best Actor at the 26th annual SAG Awards on Jan. 19 will have towered above one of the best class of candidates in the show’s history. Christian Bale is nominated for “Ford v. Ferrari,” Leonardo DiCaprio is back for “Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood,” Adam Driver was nominated for “Marriage Story,” Taron Egerton got the nod for “Rocketman,” and Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for “Joker.”
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