By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The actors who portrayed the brutality of American slavery in the film "12 Years a Slave" won the most nominations for Screen Actors Guild awards on Wednesday, giving the movie momentum in the run-up to the industry's top awards, the Oscars.
"12 Years a Slave," based on the real-life story of Solomon Northup, garnered nominations in four of SAG's five film categories, including the organization's top award, best ensemble cast. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the free black man sold into slavery on Louisiana plantations, was nominated for best actor.
And in another endorsement of film on American black history, the Hollywood actors group revived the awards fortunes of the civil rights drama "Lee Daniels' The Butler," nominating it for best ensemble cast and Forest Whitaker as the White House butler and Oprah Winfrey as his troubled wife in best actor and best supporting actress categories.
Rounding out the best ensemble cast category - a key indicator for the Oscar best picture - were family dysfunction drama "August: Osage County," AIDS treatment tale "Dallas Buyers Club," which also landed a total of three nominations, and the 1970s con-artist drama "American Hustle," which earned two.
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards are a key indicator during Hollywood's busy awards season that culminates with the Academy Awards, which will be handed out in March, because actors make up one of the largest voting groups for the Oscars. Winners of SAG awards will be announced in a ceremony in Los Angeles on January 18.
The SAG nominations underscored the big year for black and race-themed films and for black filmmakers like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen, the British director of "12 Years a Slave."
"Perhaps they've come about because with a black president in the White House, it's somehow easier to talk about these subjects than it was before," said Scott Foundas, chief film critic at Variety.
The nominations also reflected a predilection for intimate films made with small budgets. "Dallas Buyers Club," starring Matthew McConaughey as a straight rodeo cowboy fighting for access to AIDS treatment, was made for a mere $5 million, while "12 Years a Slave" came in under $20 million. That contrasts with blockbuster action films that often cost over $100 million.
Although "12 Years a Slave" from Fox Searchlight Pictures won the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, it had failed to win the best picture prizes from the top critics' groups, which favored "American Hustle," the space thriller "Gravity" and the quirky computer-age romance "Her."
"I'm very excited for my dedicated actors who worked so hard to bring the story of Solomon Northup to the screen," said McQueen. "They gave their heart and soul for this picture."
Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o were nominated in the best supporting categories for their roles as the evil slave master Edwin Epps and the slave girl Patsey who he loves.
VETERAN ACTRESSES RULE
SAG members also threw their weight behind the performances of veteran actresses and nominated five for best actress who have all won Oscars.
Judi Dench, the oldest in the category at 79, was nominated for her role as the elderly Irish mother seeking the son taken from her when she was a teenager in "Philomena," while Meryl Streep was recognized for her turn as a bitter family matriarch in "August: Osage County," the film adaptation of an acclaimed Broadway play.
Cate Blanchett, the youngest at 44, was nominated for her lead role as a socialite fallen on hard times in director Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," while Sandra Bullock received a nod for her turn as an astronaut tumbling through space in "Gravity." Emma Thompson rounded out the list as the embittered "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks."
Joining Ejiofor and Whitaker in the best actor category were McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club," veteran Bruce Dern, for his role as a crotchety old man who thinks he has won the sweepstakes in "Nebraska," and Tom Hanks as the ship captain in Somali pirate thriller "Captain Phillips."
In the best supporting actor category, Jared Leto earned a nomination for his role as a transgender woman in "Dallas Buyers Club," a film for which both he and McConaughey had to lose a lot of weight.
"I had not made a film in almost six years," said Leto. "To return to the screen with this love and support is absolutely insane and amazing."
Also nominated in the best supporting actor category is James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack in June and received a posthumous nod for his role in independent relationship comedy "Enough Said."
Alongside Winfrey in the best supporting actress category was last year's best actress Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for her role as a loopy wife in "American Hustle."
Among the notable omissions Wednesday were the ensemble cast in the Coen brothers' acclaimed portrait of a folk singer "Inside Llewyn Davis" and the newcomer in the title role Oscar Isaac, and the biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and its star in the role of recently deceased Nelson Mandela, Idris Elba.
SAG also announced nominations for best television performances of the year, giving best ensemble cast nods to best drama Emmy winner "Breaking Bad," along with "Boardwalk Empire," "Downton Abbey," "Game of Thrones," and "Homeland."
The upstart in television, streaming company Netflix, garnered three nominations for its new original programs, political thriller "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development."
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy in Los Angeles and Patricia Reaney in New York; Editing by Vicki Allen)