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* Screen Actors Guild picks best performances of 2012
* Actors make up largest voting group at Oscars in February
* "Lincoln," "Les Mis," "Silver Linings Playbook" lead noms
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Hollywood actors name their picks for the best performances of 2012 in film and television at the annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards on Sunday in a ceremony that will likely define some of the top Oscar races in four weeks time.
"Lincoln," about U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's battle to end slavery, French revolution musical "Les Miserables," and comedy "Silver Linings Playbook," about a bipolar man's unlikely romance, head into Sunday's show with four nominations apiece, including the top prize of best ensemble cast.
Joining them with two nominations each are the cast of Iranian hostage drama "Argo" and British comedy "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" about a group of seniors who retire to a ramshackle hotel in India and featuring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy.
The Screen Actors Guild ceremony is among the most-watched during Hollywood's awards season because actors make up the largest voting group when the Oscars come around on Feb. 24.
Briton Daniel Day-Lewis is seen as a shoo-in for SAG's best actor prize after picking up a slew of awards already for his towering performance as Lincoln. Day-Lewis is also seen as a front-runner for a record third Oscar statuette next month.
But on Sunday, all eyes will be on the lead actress and supporting actor race, awards-watchers say. The SAG honors are chosen by some 100,000 actors working in the United States
"I am looking to SAG this weekend to give me a clearer idea of who might win Oscars. In the best actress category, it's a very, very close race between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence," said Dave Karger, chief movie correspondent at Fandango.com.
Chastain won a Golden Globe earlier this month for her role as a feisty CIA agent credited with tracking down Osama bin Laden in thriller "Zero Dark Thirty."
Lawrence also took home a Golden Globe for playing a young widow in "Silver Linings Playbook." But both SAG and the Academy Awards combine the drama and comedy categories, putting the two relative Hollywood newcomers in a head-to-head battle.
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The SAG supporting actor category is packed with Oscar winners, including Phillip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master"), Alan Arkin ("Argo") and Javier Bardem ("Skyfall").
But the trophy is expected to come down to a choice between Tommy Lee Jones's turn as radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln," and Robert De Niro's gruff, beleaguered father in "Silver Linings Playbook."
"Robert De Niro's last Oscar win was 32 years ago (for "Raging Bull"). So he is the one who seems most overdue, plus his performance in 'Silver Linings Playbook' was so touching and so surprising, and people seem to love that movie," Karger told Reuters.
Strong performances by Bradley Cooper, Australian actress Jacki Weaver and comedian Chris Tucker could also help "Silver Linings Playbook" to a best ensemble cast win on Sunday.
However, that may not be an indicator of Oscar best picture success for the quirky romance. "Sometimes smaller indie films with great acting can win the big prize at SAG but they don't have the technical credentials to win best picture at the Oscars," said Karger.
SAG also hands out awards for performances in TV dramas, comedies and mini-series. Ensemble acting nominees include the casts of "Boardwalk Empire," "Homeland," "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "Downton Abbey."
In TV comedy, old favorites "30 Rock," "Glee," "The Big Bang Theory," "Modern Family," "Nurse Jackie" and "The Office" were nominated for their ensemble casts.
The SAG Awards air on Sunday night from Los Angeles on cable TV networks TNT and TBS. (Editing by Eric Walsh)