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It’s All in the Timing: Screen Actors Guild Awards Lays Down a Marker for the Year’s Award Shows With Rousing, Impassioned Oratory
January 30, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

The standing ovation for Lily Tomlin (below) was to be expected. After all, she was at Los Angeles’ 6,300-seat Shrine Auditorium to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from her good friend Dolly Parton at the 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. Her speech was deft, witty and brilliantly timed, emotional and uplifting in the right places and subtle where it needed to be. There was hardly a dry eye in the house by the time she finished, but it was hard to tell if they were tears of laughter or tears of warmth and recognition.

The evening had its share of both surprises and predictable moments up to that point, where the TV awards were concerned.

The predictable: Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning Female Actor in a Comedy Series for Veep; Sarah Paulson winning Female Actor in a Television Movie or Limited Series for The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story; the 30-plus-member cast of Orange is the New Black winning for Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy Series —  even if, technically, OITNB isn’t really a comedy, not in the way Veep and The Big Bang Theory are. 

The surprises:  William H. Macy winning for Best Comedy Actor, for Shameless, over a field that included last year’s winner and odds-on favorite Jeffrey Tambor, for Transparent; Anthony Anderson, from black-ish; and past winner Ty Burrell, from perennial contender Modern Family. Another surprise, though perhaps a milder one: Bryan Cranston, winning for his portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson in the HBO television movie All the Way, over a field of worthy contenders that included The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed and John Turturro and The People v Oj Simpson Emmy nominees Sterling K. Brown — also nominated for This Is Us — and Courtney B. Vance.

Anyone who saw The Crown’s rise at this year’s Golden Globe Awards wouldn’t have been surprised to see John Lithgow and Claire Foy (right) take home SAG Awards for Male Actor and Female Actor respectively, despite a nominations list that included, in Lithgow’s case, Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey, and Mr. Robot Emmy winner Rami Malek, and in Foy’s case, House of Cards’ Robin Wright.

One didn’t need a crystal ball to see that the evening’s top TV award — Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama Series, the category that separates the Screen Actors Guild Awards from every other TV or film award — was poised to go to The Crown and, as Lithgow pointed out in his speech, its 50 cast members, almost as many years as Elizabeth II has been Queen of England.

Except a funny thing happened on the road between reality and inevitability. There was always a chance that the Game of Thrones cast might repeat, though it was unlikely, given The Crown’s buzz and Netflix accessibility at the moment. There was the cast of Downton Abbey, too, gathered together one final time, in a glow of sentimentality and nostalgia. Then there was the ensemble cast of new upstart Westworld, poised to inherit the mantle of HBO prestige drama and top ratings-grabber once Game of Thrones retires following its two shortened seasons.

When Foy won her SAG Award for The Crown, fellow Britisher and fellow nominee for Stranger Things, 12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown, jumped out of her seat, yelled, and punched the air as if she had won the award herself.

As the TV awards portion of the evening drew to a close, the all-important Drama Series Ensemble award — important because any actor worth her salt will tell you it’s all about the cast, not one individual  — went to . . . Stranger Things (right). And all pandemonium broke loose.

Stranger Things is the year’s most improbable, most eccentric, unexpected, unpredictable, and all-too-easily overlooked TV drama. A neurotic, lovable sci-fi parable set in a 1980s small forest town — eerie, mysterious, and suspenseful, yet wry, funny, and sharp as a tack — as though Northern Exposure had somehow morphed into Twin Peaks, with the actress from Edward Scissorhands surrounded by a cast of kids who look as if they stepped straight out of Stand By Me. Stranger Things has touched the popular nerve, even though no one can quite explain what it is.

Winona Ryder looked genuinely stunned as she took the stage, surrounded by a sea of screaming kids, led by the irrepressible Millie Brown; she mouthed the words “Are you kidding me?” and somehow had the presence of mind to leave out the f— word.

The SAG Awards are voted for by fellow actors — every working member of the SAG and AFTRA actors’ unions — which makes Stranger Things’ achievement all the more remarkable.

Even more remarkable, given that standing O’s are usually reserved for the likes of Lily Tomlin: the entire Shrine Auditorium crowd rose to its feet, mostly out of sheer delight and partly, perhaps, because of the strange alchemy that has formed around nearly everything to do with Stranger Things.

If ever there was a show that picked up where Freaks and Geeks left off, it’s Stranger Things. Freaks and geeks are not too popular right now, this week of all weeks. And David Harbour, the 41-year-old New York native and career character actor who plays Stranger Things’ police chief Jim Hopper (left), wasn’t about to let the gathering at the Shrine Auditorium — or viewers watching at home — forget it.

He read — no, shouted — off a prepared sheet of paper, even as he appeared visibly overwhelmed by the sheer surprise, and absurdity, of his little Netflix show and his Stranger Things colleagues winning over the acting ensembles from The Crown and Game of Thrones.

It was a rousing, impassioned speech that wasn’t political — no names or parties were mentioned — as it was a call to action for dignity and human decency and, in keeping with the underlying message of Stranger Things, understanding and respect for “the other.”

It was the kind of speech that transcends the moment and becomes part of the public dialogue. It was just a silly awards show, after all, the kind of exercise in Hollywood self-congratulation that many conservatives from the heartland take issue with. Stranger Things, and that galvanizing, literally heart-pounding speech from David Harbour (top), changed all that.

Yes, there are cynics who will say it was just another example of Hollywood snowflakes trying to force their pinko values down the collective throats of real America, but anyone who was watching closely knows there was more going on there. The timing — this Sunday night of all Sunday nights — could not have been more apt.

In just two short minutes, Stranger Things became the most talked-about television series in America, and one of its most important.


David Harbour’s acceptance speech in full:

“In light of all that is going on in the world today, it is difficult to celebrate the already-celebrated Stranger Things. But this award from you, who take your craft seriously and earnestly believe — like me — that great acting can change the world, is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and -women to go deeper and, through our art, battle against fear, self-centeredness, and the exclusivity of a predominantly narcissistic culture.

“[It is a call to arms], through our craft, to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society, by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired, they are not alone.

“We are united in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive. 

“Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 Midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters.

“And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy what we have envisioned for ourselves and the marginalized.

“And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy. We thank you for this responsibility.”

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