Subtlety in a performance isn't always awarded as much as it should be, especially when trying to prove one's worth in front of an academy of acting peers. If nothing else, the Screen Actors Guild Awards may be the most respectable to actors and actresses than a thespian finds in any other award academy. That respect may be why so many of the actors who won at the SAG Awards usually repeated their wins at the Oscars.
But once in a while, those awards diverged into awarding someone who took a harder edge in their performances. Johnny Depp winning in 2003 for "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" might have been considered an extreme of physical transformation compared to the eventual Oscar winner Sean Penn for "Mystic River." And Daniel Day-Lewis winning for "Gangs of New York" in 2004 over later Oscar winner Adrien Brody for "The Pianist" showed what a force of nature Day-Lewis was and still is.
The same situation applied to the SAG Best Actress category in the last decade. We saw Julie Christie win at these awards in 2007 over Marion Cotillard who went on to the Oscar. The idea of experience winning over mid-range career repeated the following year when Meryl Streep won the SAG for "Doubt", then lost to Kate Winslet for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
You can see an occasional pattern there of dependable actors and actresses who give more forceful performances impressing their fellow peers. This year, we have the chance to see numerous surprise wins based on so many performances that run the gamut in subtlety to knocking you over. The surprising equation for this year may be in John Hawkes who went to more extremes in "The Sessions" than even Daniel Day-Lewis may ever do again.
Of course, we also have another showdown between Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix where the latter's performance may be too obvious in hitting moviegoers between the eyes. Only Bradley Cooper and Denzel Washington could be considered the more subtle performances of the year, even if they had their share of shouting match scenes. It's why this award will possibly go to Day-Lewis or John Hawkes, with emphasis on the latter for taking on Day-Lewis's "My Left Foot" mode from 20 years ago.
For this year's actress category, we have even more interesting possibilities. The only thing missing is Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild", seeming to prove that the SAG Awards wait and award those of a certain age. If the SAGs go by extremely challenging performances, then it may prove a two-way race between Jessica Chastain and Naomi Watts.
Watts in "The Impossible" went through extreme difficulty filming her scenes in real water while also managing to be emotionally wrought. The expected winner, Jennifer Lawrence, has to be considered the more mainstream performance based squarely on dialogue and personality. It's why she may be a repeat of the earlier examples by losing the SAG and then winning the Oscar.
We may see the same thing with the supporting categories where the experience of Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, and Sally Field may prove win-worthy over their younger competitors.
Any real shock would be if the experienced cast of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" wins for outstanding cast in a motion picture over "Argo", which has a perfect combination of actors and actresses from every generation.