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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After months of talking and weeks of voting, Hollywood's actors finally name their picks for the best performances in the films and TV shows of 2011 at the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday.
The SAG honors, which are closely watched in the race for Oscars, follow the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and other awards given by media watchers, as well as acknowledgements from the U.S. Producers Guild and Directors Guild, which represent their respective professional groups in industry matters.
"The Artist," a romantic tale of a fading actor whose career is eclipsed by the woman he loves just as talkies are putting an end to silent pictures, has won top awards from many of those groups including the Directors Guild on Saturday night and will look to do as well with SAG voters on Sunday.
But "Artist" faces stiff competition from civil rights-era drama "The Help," which comes into Sunday night's awards with more nominations, four, more than any other movie, as well as from George Clooney-starring "The Descendants".
The actors in all three of those movies, along with the performers in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and the ladies of comedy "Bridesmaids," will compete for the night's top honor, best ensemble cast in a film.
The SAG Awards are a key barometer of which films and actors have a good chance at winning Oscars, the world's top film honors given on February 26 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, because performers make up the largest voting branch of the academy.
In other SAG races, Clooney, playing a father struggling to keep his family together, squares off against Jean Dujardin of "Artist" fame and Brad Pitt for his role as a numbers-crunching baseball executive in "Moneyball." The other two nominees in that category are Demian Bichir in the little seen "A Better Life" and Leonardo DiCaprio for "J. Edgar."
The SAG race for best actress is seen as a tight one among Meryl Streep playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," Viola Davis as a maid in "The Help" and Michelle Williams for her turn as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn."
Rounding out that category are Glenn Close in a gender-bending role as a butler in "Albert Nobbs" and Tilda Swinton as a troubled mother in dark drama, "We Need to Talk about Kevin."
SAG also hands out awards for best supporting roles in movies, and it honors performances in TV dramas, comedies and mini-series. But because of SAG's importance in the Oscar race, the film categories are most closely followed.
The SAG Awards air on U.S. TV on Sunday night from Los Angeles on cable networks TNT and TBS.
Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte and Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Sandra Maler