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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The actors of civil rights drama "The Help" topped Screen Actors Guild Award nominations on Wednesday with four nods including best film cast, leading a list of nominees that saw many surprises in Hollywood's current awards season.
"The Help" was closely followed by silent-era drama "The Artist" with three nominations for its actors, including best cast in a film.
Joining them in that key category were the performers in critically acclaimed drama "The Descendants" and unexpected picks in director Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and the raunchy comedy "Bridesmaids."
The Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, awards are among the most-watched honors during Hollywood's film awards season, leading up to the Oscars in February, because actors make up one of the largest voting groups for Academy Awards.
As a result, SAG nominees typically figure prominently on many ballots by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which gives out the Oscars.
The SAG Awards will be given out in Los Angeles on January 29, and televised on cable TV networks TNT and TBS.
SAG surprises included the ensemble nod for "Bridesmaids" because dramas typically are favored over comedies during awards season. The joke-filled movie about women in a wedding party also earned Melissa McCarthy a best supporting actress nod.
While movies such as "The Artist," "The Help" and "The Descendants" have made many critics' and industry groups' lists of top movies, "Midnight in Paris" will get a big boost in this year's Academy Award race by virtue of its SAG nomination.
Next on Oscar watchers' list is Thursday's Golden Globe nods.
Among acting races, Leonardo DiCaprio earned a surprise SAG nod for best actor as FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover in "J. Edgar" and Brad Pitt's role as a math-minded baseball man in "Moneyball" put him in the race, too.
They are joined by another unexpected choice, Mexican-born actor Demain Bichir in "A Better Life." Rounding out the category will be widely touted George Clooney playing a struggling father in "The Descendants" and French actor Jean Dujardin as a silent-era film star in "The Artist"
Left out of the SAG actor race was Michael Fassbender, who has earned acclaim portraying a sex addict in "Shame."
Among actresses, many had come into SAG nominations as highly acclaimed including perennial favorite Meryl Streep as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" and Glenn Close in the role of a woman masquerading as a male butler in "Albert Nobbs."
Viola Davis portraying a maid in "The Help" and Michelle Williams as screen siren Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn" also had been expected to pick up SAG nods. Rounding out nominees in that category is Tilda Swinton for the dark, independent drama "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Joining McCarthy in the supporting actress category were two "Help" actresses, newcomers Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer. Also vying for that award will be France's Berenice Bejo for "The Artist" and Janet McTeer in "Albert Nobbs."
Christopher Plummer, who is racking up trophies for playing an elderly gay man in the comedy "Beginners," made the supporting actor group, as did Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn."
But that category came with surprises, too, in the name of Nick Nolte in the little-seen mixed martial arts drama "Warrior," Jonah Hill for "Moneyball" and Armie Hammer with "J. Edgar."
While movie honors take top billing at the SAG Awards, the group that represents actors in the film and television industries also votes on performances for TV shows.
In the TV arena, many of the nominees include favorites from past seasons. The best ensemble cast in a drama nominees were the performers in "Boardwalk Empire," "Breaking Bad," "Dexter," "The Good Wife" and one newcomer, "Game of Thrones."
Nominees for acting in a TV comedy were "30 Rock," "The Big Bang Theory," "Glee," "Modern Family," and "The Office."
Editing by Philip Barbara and John O'Callaghan