This year's Screen Actors Guild (SAG) election has all the charm of a professional wrestling match in a sweltering, second-rate arena. If politicians are sometimes an embarrassment as actors, actors don't do any better as politicians.

he election, for which voting ends Nov. 8, features the head-to-head clash of SAG president Kathleen Nolan, running for re-election, against SAG vice president Burt Freed, who is trying to depose her with the support of the unions board of directors. The big names in Hollywood, usually the key to any SAG election, are divided right down the middle on the two candidates.

While both candidates reject the idea that star-lists are important, both are busily compiling their own. Nolan has Lorne Green, Shirley MacLaine, Cloris Leachman, Gregory Peck, Burt lancaster and Jack Klugman. Freed counters with such names as Edward Asner, Bernie Casey, Carroll O'Connor, and Karl Malden.

"This isn't the star contest, is it?" asked Nolan, a fiery redhead in her 40s who once played Kate on the series "The Real McCoy." "I'll match you star for star. I'll give you two Gregory Pecks for one Kirk Douglas. What does that prove?"

Accusations are flying. The Freed forces claim Nolan, the union's first female president, improperly dispensed union funds for everything from personal travel to decorating her presidential office at SAG headquarters in Hollywood. Nolan responds that Freed's backers are engaged in a "conspiracy" to take over the 36,000-member union through "McCarthyite tactics."

"This election has turned into a circus," Nolan fumed on the sun-drenched patio of her lawyers spacious Cold Water Canyon home. "And I don't want to participate in a circus. I think it's demeaning to all actors."

Freed forces, who dominate the SAG board of directors, have initiated a special audit of Nolan's $20,000-a-year expense account. They claim she has wasted union money on "business" trips to Europe and the East. The issue of misuse of union funds, Freed forces say, is particularly important to SAG members, an estimated 80 per cent of whom are unemployed.

"I object to the struggling actor being provided with misinformation that the Guild is accomplishing great thigs for them in Europe and in Washington in what Kathleen calls "the big picutre," says Ron Soble, a pro-Freed SAG board member. "All those things have not given one positive result to the people who are out of work. What they need is bread and butter, she's giving them pie in the sky."

Nolan, not suprisingly, disagrees, saying that her travel is primarily concerned with promoting causes that help actors. Traveling to Europe for international conferences of actors, she believes, improves SAG's image, going to White House receptions, as she did this January to meet Jimmy Carter, helps actors get a foothold in the door of power.

"All these people want is power within the Guild," Nolan says. "They want a different philosophy. They want a different kind of unionism, wages and working conditions.

"The question is whether you want an insular Guild or a truly national union."

A presumed SAG orientation toward "big issues," like going to Washington to testify on the family hour and other media issues, disturbs some members. "As a union I think we are where we started off," states Carroll O'Connor, a one-time Nolan backer and now a key financier of Freed's campaign. "She's active but I don't know if her activity helps anybody. She buzzes around but I don't know if the buzzing does any good."

But the charge that seems to most sting Kathleen Nolan is that she has used the SAG presidency to bolster her acting career. A letter being circulated around town by the Freed forces is being used to support the claim. Written in June on union stationery to ABC president Fred Pierce, the letter discusses SAG's opposition to the use of popularity pells compiled by a private firm in network casting decisions.

That part is not at issue. But what follows next in the letter is Switching abruptly from the discussion of polls. Nolan brings up the possibility of a new series for me on ABC," adding she feels "comfortable" there. Following that point Nolan urges Pierce to "communicate some of our conversation to Freddy Sherman." ABC's chief of programming. What part of the conversation is not specified.

Nolan denies the letter proves anyting, and insists the discussion of the ABC series was purely hypothetical and does not indicate an attempt to use improperly her union position. In fact, according to Nolan's attorney. Jerry Roth, she has had to turn down $60,000 worth of work this year because of pressing union business.

"Some of Mr. Freed's stuff is evil, really evil," Nolan claims. The letter has everything to do with the use of polls, not with an inquiry for a job at ABC. This kind of thing drives me nuts."

The campaigns will probably heat up still more. Freed says he intends to spend $6,000; Nolan will put out less than that, she claims. And there may be post-election law suits.

Frank Maxwell, a SAG board member and Freed supporter, is threatening to sue Nolan for slander because she accused him of engaging in "McCarthyite" tactics. "I'm not a candidate so she has no excuse to go after me," Maxwell explains. "She accused me of McCarthyism, which both I and my lawyer think is slander. This could affect my career. I was blacklisted back in the '50s, and I take this sort of thing very seriously - it's not something I think should be said glibly."

Not to be outdone, Nolan's lawyer Roth has been talking openly about filing his own slander suit against his client's detractors after the election. Nolan, however, is less sure if that's the way she wants to go. "I speak for myself," she says.

Despite the discussion of issues and ideas by both sides, the intensely personal character of the campaign threatends even the pretense of union solidarity.

"You can't help it, but in the end it all boils down to her personality against ours. That's what it's all about," admits Freed supporters Soble. "If she was a man, I'm afraid it would have gotten down to a fist fight already."