Cillian Murphy wins best actor at SAG awards as he now looks near-unstoppable favourite for Oscar

Corkman wins at 30th Screen Actors Guild awards in Los Angeles for lead role in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy has been named best actor at the 30th Screen Actors Guild awards in Los Angeles for his lead performance in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Murphy spoke with dignity as he received the “Actor” statuette. “This is extremely special because it comes from you guys,” he said to his fellow performers. “Twenty-eight years ago I was trying to become an actor. I was a failed musician and I felt like an interloper. But now, looking out and all of you guys here today, I know that I’m part of something truly wonderful.”

Paul Giamatti, nominated for Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, had been felt to be a marginally more likely winner at SAG. By pipping him at the post, Murphy, winner of the Bafta last weekend, now looks to be a near-unstoppable favourite for the equivalent Oscar next month.

In contrast, the best female actor race has opened up a little. Lily Gladstone, who plays a doomed Native American in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, slipped past Emma Stone, favourite for Irish production Poor Things, to take the prize for female actor in a film. Gladstone looked to have stumbled in the Oscar race when she failed to get even a nomination from Bafta. But she is now back in it. “Thank you to all of the compassionate souls in this room and all the storytellers here tonight,” Gladstone said. “Keep speaking your truth. Keep speaking up for each other.”

Oppenheimer had a good night, also taking the prize for best cast in a motion picture and, for Robert Downey jnr, best supporting actor. Downey jnr, who plays antagonist Lewis Strauss in Nolan’s film, has been perfecting his speech game throughout the season. “Unlike my fellow nominees, I will never grow tired of the sound of my own voice,” he said at the podium.


Da’Vine Joy Randolph, apparently unbeatable at any ceremony this season, took best female supporting actor, for her turn as a bereaved mother in The Holdovers. “How lucky are we that we get to do what we do?” she said. “In what other profession are people able to live so many lives and touch so many hearts of those they have never gotten to meet?” Randolph and Downey jnr seem certain to repeat this at the Oscars. The ensemble prize has helped tighten Oppenheimer’s already firm grasp on the best picture Academy Award.

This year’s ceremony, an amusingly informal business, was, for the first time, streamed on Netflix. That meant no commercials and also allowed – unthinkable on puritanical US network TV – a certain amount of swearing on stage. “Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say in front of Oprah,” Idris Elba said in the opening bit. “F**k, that’s Oprah!” An amiable chaos situated the show somewhere between the hoity-toity Oscars and the ramshackle Golden Globes. “I’m a little drunk. I thought I could get drunk!” Pedro Pascal, star of The Last of Us, said after winning the prize for best male actor in a drama series. “It’s an incredible f**ing honour. We’re on Netflix.”

Other winners in the television section included Ayo Edebiri, self-declared honorary Irishwoman, who took best female actor in a comedy for The Bear. That show also landed the award for cast in a comedy series. “One last hurrah,” Alan Ruck, who plays the hopeless Connor Roy in Succession, said as the profane saga took the award for cast in a drama series.

First staged in 1994, the SAG awards are a relatively new edition to the Oscar run-in. From the start, however, they have offered reasonably reliable pointers to the awards that matter most. The electorate, drawn from members of the combined Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (Sag-Aftra), has a sizeable overlap with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which chooses the Oscars. The acting branch at the academy is by some margin the largest. Last year, all four of the Sag winners in the film section repeated at the Oscars. Everything Everywhere all at Once, which won the ensemble prize, also took the best picture Oscar.

This year’s awards were special, coming after a strike, organised by Sag-Aftra, that closed down the industry during late summer and autumn of 2023. Fran Drescher, charismatic president of the body, gave a stirring oration to her troops. “You survived the longest strike in our union’s history with courage and conviction,” she said. “The journey was arduous. It came with great sacrifice and unrelenting stress. Your collective dignity and perseverance to stand up and say ‘We deserve better because we are better’ resulted in an historic billion-dollar deal.”

There was good news for Team Murphy on the other side of the Atlantic also, as Emily Watson won best supporting performance at the Berlin Film Festival for her turn opposite the Corkman in Tim Mielants’s Small Things Like These. Based on a novel by Claire Keegan, the searing drama, which Murphy co-produced, opened the festival – one of the big three in Europe, alongside Venice and Cannes – to rapturous reviews on February 15th. “I had a front-row seat watching Cillian Murphy unravel, and it was truly a privilege,” Watson said. “He had a dream that I was going to be in the movie, and here I am.” The English actor plays a mother superior in a film touching on revelations concerning the Magdalene Laundries.

Attention now turns to the Oscars on March 10th in Hollywood.

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Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist