LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sean Penn's wilderness drama "Into the Wild" topped a surprising list of Screen Actors Guild nominees on Thursday with four nods overall, including best ensemble cast and best actor for its star Emile Hirsch.
Absent from the widely watched group of nominations for SAG's top honor, best film cast, were romance "Atonement" and musical "Sweeney Todd," leaving award watchers scratching their heads as they tried to handicap Hollywood's Oscar sweepstakes.
"SAG pulled some major surprises here. This really shakes up the race," said Pete Hammond, a columnist for awards Web site TheEnvelope.com.
Hirsch was nominated for his portrayal of a young man on a journey of self-discovery to Alaska, and Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener earned supporting actor and actress nominations for "Into the Wild," which Penn directed.
Crime thriller "No Country for Old Men" and legal drama "Michael Clayton" earned three nominations each. "No Country" was nominated for best film cast, while co-stars Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones garnered supporting actor nominations.
"Clayton" snagged a best actor nod for George Clooney, who played the troubled title character, and nominations for co-stars Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton in the supporting roles. But it, too, was snubbed from the list for best cast.
Joining "Into the Wild" and "No Country" in that category were three other films: musical "Hairspray" and crime drama "American Gangster" and western "3:10 to Yuma," which had been viewed as largely out of the awards race only to gallop back.
"Yuma" stars Russell Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster in a tale of old West bank robbers. The movie was a box office hit, yet none of the actors were nominated individually.
"We're always hoping the synergy and heat between actors produces something greater than the sum of the parts, and that is something we are always looking to do in movies we make," said "Yuma" director James Mangold.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will be handed out on January 27 in Los Angeles, often indicate who will be nominated for the film industry's top honors, the Oscars, because actors make up the largest group of Academy Award voters.
The Oscars are the world's top film award and are given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in February.
Joining Clooney and Hirsch among SAG's film actor nominees were Daniel Day-Lewis in oil prospecting drama "There Will Be Blood," Ryan Gosling for comedy "Lars and the Real Girl" and Viggo Mortensen for crime thriller "Eastern Promises."
Experts said they were surprised that Johnny Depp, who plays a barber on a killing spree in "Todd," was left off the best actor list, as he was widely seen as a shoo-in.
Best actress nominations went to Cate Blanchett in drama "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," Julie Christie in Alzheimer's tale "Away from Her," French actress Marion Cotillard as singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose," Angelina Jolie as the wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl for "A Mighty Heart," and Ellen Page in teen pregnancy comedy "Juno."
Among supporting actor nominees, the fifth nod went to Casey Affleck playing Robert Ford in "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford."
Cate Blanchett snared a second nomination as a supporting actress playing singer Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." Joining her, Swinton and Keener were veteran Ruby Dee for "American Gangster" and newcomer Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone."
TV nominations for best cast in a drama featured "The Sopranos," "Boston Legal," "Grey's Anatomy," "The Closer" and "Mad Men." Nods for best comedy cast went to "Entourage," "30 Rock," "Desperate Housewives," "The Office" and "Ugly Betty."
Editing by Eric Walsh