(Los Angeles Times) - "Argo" took home a single prize at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards Sunday night, but it was the one that mattered most. Winning the trophy for performance by a cast in a motion picture, Ben Affleck's CIA drama solidified its status as the front-runner in an Oscar race that had been muddled for weeks. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" nabbed two of the top acting prizes: Daniel Day-Lewis was named lead actor for his performance as the 16th president, while Tommy Lee Jones was named actor in a supporting role for his portrayal of Rep. Thaddeus Stevens. But the film's momentum in the Oscar best picture race has been stalled by its SAG cast loss and by its defeat at the hands of "Argo" at Saturday night's Producers Guild Awards.
The SAG cast award is often seen as a bellwether for the best picture Oscar because many of the guild's members also belong to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and actors comprise the largest voting bloc of the academy.
"Argo" also bested "Les Misérables," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" for the SAG cast award. The film, in which Affleck stars alongside Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, centers on a CIA agent tasked with the dangerous assignment of rescuing a group of American diplomats caught up in the Iranian revolution of 1979. Affleck also directed the movie, which has taken in $118 million at the domestic box office, and produced it with Grant Heslov and George Clooney.
"I absolutely thought there was no way we would win this award," Affleck said backstage at the Shrine Exposition Center. "You look at 'Silver Linings Playbook,' 'Les Miz,' 'Lincoln' — I thought, 'well, no matter what happens, I know we won't win, and I'm OK with it.'"
Accepting the award, Affleck thanked not only the "Argo" actors who joined him on stage but also all of the people who appeared in the film, including those whose dialogue was in Farsi and extras who didn't even speak. "They wanted to kill it to make the movie better," he said.
Jennifer Lawrence, 22, took home her first SAG win Sunday, for her lead role as a resolute but mentally unstable young widow in "Silver Linings Playbook." The actress, whose parents joined her at the show, first thanked MTV for the prize because it was her role on the program "My Super Sweet 16" that allowed her to receive her SAG card. She also thanked her director, David O. Russell, whose son has mental health issues.
"You made a movie for your son, so that he wouldn't feel alone and so that he could feel understood," she said. "And I think I can speak on behalf of most of us in saying that you helped more than your son. You've helped so many sons and daughters and … cousins, wives, everybody."
SAG voters named Anne Hathaway female actor in a supporting role for her performance as Fantine in "Les Misérables." Hathaway made sure to thank her mother — also an actress — for voting for her, in addition to jokingly lauding the union for its dental insurance. "I got my SAG card when I was 14. It felt like the beginning of the world."
Day-Lewis, who throughout the awards season has been proclaimed the front-runner for the actor Oscar, continued his winning streak that began at the Golden Globes this month. Though "Lincoln" didn't win the cast award, he made sure to congratulate his fellow performers, proclaiming the statue "an ensemble award." (Jones, though, was not present to accept his statuette.)
Accepting his trophy, Day-Lewis described how he approached the daunting role. "For some reason, the guiding principle of the Hippocratic Oath kept nagging at me: First do no harm," he said. "And then it occurred to me that it was an actor that murdered Abraham Lincoln. Therefore, somehow it's only fitting that every now and then, an actor tries to bring him back to life again."
The guild gave its Life Achievement Award to Dick Van Dyke for his decades of work in film and TV. Alec Baldwin presented the honorary prize to the 87-year-old actor, filling in last minute after Carl Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore were felled by the flu. Van Dyke was present at last year's show to honor Moore with her achievement award.
"If this heavy object means I can refer to all of you as my peers, then I'm a happy man," said Van Dyke.
The awards ceremony marks the show's first year following the merger of SAG with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, creating a group with more than 165,000 members that brings together actors, stunt performers, dancers, broadcasters, voice-over talent and television hosts.
With the SAG ceremony over, four weeks remain before the Academy Awards. "Lincoln" heads into the Oscars with nominations in 12 categories, while "Life of Pi" has 11, "Les Misérables" and "Silver Linings" each have eight, and "Argo" has seven. Nine films are in contention for the best picture Oscar.
Next weekend, Affleck will compete at the Director's Guild Awards against Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Tom Hooper ("Les Misérables"), and Ang Lee ("Life of Pi").
But the actor-turned-director has no shot at the director Oscar, having been left off the nominees list. While many awards-watchers initially perceived his snub as a big negative for "Argo's" best picture Academy Award chances, in recent weeks the omission has actually seemed to energize the film's campaign for the top Oscar.
Affleck addressed the slight backstage on Sunday night. "I don't do handicapping. I didn't get nominated as a director and I thought, 'OK, that's that,'" he said. "But then I remembered that I was nominated as a producer, which is really exciting. It's a wonderful opportunity to be on the ride."
Should "Argo" capture the best picture Academy Award on Feb. 24, it would mark the first time a movie won the top prize at the Oscars without a best director nomination since "Driving Miss Daisy" did so in 1990