"The Help" became the best-picture Oscar front-runner last night, sweeping aside "The Artist" and "The Descendants." How did that happen? The chick-lit-flick ran away with three out of the five significant motion-picture categories: Outstanding Performance by a Cast, and a tag team of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for female actor in both lead and supporting categories.
Meanwhile, in the night's biggest stunner, French actor Jean Dujardin ("The Artist") took the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor honors, unseating the favorite George Clooney ("The Descendants"). Christopher Plummer ("Beginners") continued his winning streak, decimating his best-supporting-actor rivals. Ditto Spencer, whose win over cast-mate Jessica Chastain sealed Spencer's spot at the big show.
On the race to the Oscars, the two leading performance categories have become two-star races. As of last night, the balance shifted. The women's contenders for lead have been the ever-gracious Davis and Meryl Streep, who shared the screen in "Doubt" in 2008. That year, Streep got a best-actress nomination, while Davis earned best-supporting consideration. Both women lost. This time around, there is scant Oscar love for "The Iron Lady," which hurts Streep, while affection and respect for "The Help" boosts Davis.
And, similarly, last night, Dujardin eclipsed previous front-runner —- and Golden Globe winner -- Clooney. This show of strength for "The Artist" made for a tough night at "The Descendants" table, as the close-knit crew also failed to win the ensemble prize. In addition, Golden Globes nominee Shailene Woodley, who joined her co-star Clooney as a presenter onstage, wasn't even in the running with SAG and is not nominated for an Oscar.
Last year, all four SAG individual winners went on to win the Oscar —- and the ensemble cast winner, "The King's Speech," took best picture.
In other weekend awards news, the Directors Guild of America crowned Michel Hazanavicius of "The Artist" top dog, a validation that assures him front-runner status at next month's Oscars. Since the DGA awards began in 1948, they have predicted the Oscar winner in all but six years. The sense has always been that direction is the weakest category for "The Help," so it was no surprise that Tate Taylor was not a DGA contender. Still, there were some stinging disappointments. While Martin Scorsese's name came up jokingly many times at last night's SAG Awards, he lost the DGA prize for "Hugo" along with Alexander Payne ("The Descendants"), David Fincher ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), and Woody Allen ("Midnight in Paris").
We will continue to cover the formal destinations, detours, and tourist traps on the road to the Oscars. Yahoo! will have full coverage of the 84th Academy Awards, which will be held at Hollywood's Kodak Theater and broadcast February 26 on ABC.
Photo by John Shearer/Wireimage