While Lord knows the last thing the Oscar telecast needs is to be longer, one category I would love to see added to the proceedings is Best Ensemble. The Screen Actors Guild, among other entities, recognizes the achievements of ensemble casts, and it’s invariably the only award that captures my interest (even when the end result is The Full Monty). Nothing against the accomplishments of individual actors, but many of my favorite movies feature entire casts—leads, supporting performers, bit players along the margins—working either in concert or discord, but always functioning along the lines of how David Milch viewed Deadwood. “(I)t’s a single organism,” Milch said about his show, “and I think human society is the body of God, and in a lot of ways it’s about the different parts of the body having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time…(a) more confident sense of their identity as members of something larger than themselves.” One need not be as devout as Milch to see the appeal of that perspective, or to reconfigure it to suit a different worldview as some of the filmmakers on my list have done.
A favorite ensemble, for our purposes here, need not fit one narrow definition. It could be a movie with no clear protagonist, or one where the ensemble serves as backdrop or counterpoint to the main characters. It could be a “tapestry film,” represent or subvert a specific genre, or be pure Hollywood product. In a sense, I suppose almost any movie could fit the bill (and let’s hear them), but in actuality there are few films that I remember with regard to their exemplary casts. Feel free to argue otherwise, but much as I admire No Country for Old Men—and despite its SAG award last year for “Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture”—I don’t think of it in terms of its ensemble, as the three principals are basically loners who never really interact with one another (one or two gun battles and a hotly debated motel scene notwithstanding). My selections are movies featuring fairly large herds of individuals who clash or collude directly, whose lives intersect or intertwine, who sustain the illusion of continuing to lead their lives beyond the frame, long after the credits roll.
1. Casablanca (1942): Forget about Bogart and Bergman for a moment: behind their star-power is a teeming cast that makes a studio backlot come to life as an exotic locale. Ditto a screenplay (by Julius and Philip Epstein) filled with memorable dialogue spread out so generously even the minor players get good zingers. The opening ten minutes, before we meet Rick (it’s another fifteen after that until Ilsa appears), establish the stakes and set the tone. Jeremiah Kipp’s wonderful review for Slant notes that when we first see “the wizened faces of foreigners in the crowd ... (w)e’re immediately reminded that old Hollywood was populated with émigrés from Europe, fleeing Hitler to discover a new life in America, and the creases in their faces say more than the terse studio narration and globetrotting maps that set the scene.” Even with justly famous supporting turns from Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Dooley Wilson, as well as a scattering of familiar mugs in the crowd (Sydney Greenstreet here, Peter Lorre there), it’s those even further along the fringes—playing waiters and bartenders, gamblers and dealers, customers and vendors, pickpockets and pickpocketees—who make equally vivid impressions. Rick and Renault, Ilsa and Laszlo ultimately leave Casablanca, but it’s the masses who stay behind that linger in my memory, the ones who continue to scheme and dream.
2. Tootsie (1982): Such is the abysmal state of contemporary comedy that we’re lucky when one person manages to be funny. This modern screwball classic—a rare foray into farce by Sydney Pollack, and one of his best-directed films—has around ten performers earning big laughs. Behind Dustin Hoffman’s dazzling work (really a trio of turns as struggling actor Michael Dorsey, successful soap opera star Dorothy Michaels, and character-within-the-soap Emily Kimberly) are Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Geena Davis, Doris Belack, Pollack himself, and Bill Murray, who looks like he wandered in from another movie and happily decided to hang out in this one. The wit and warmth of Tootsie derive from how each character reacts to Dorothy—by turns love, lust, suspicion, hostility, respect, jealousy, amusement—and how those reactions change the man portraying her. Blessedly, the life-lessons are secondary to the jokes, particularly during one long night from hell where percolating sexual confusion comes to a hilarious boil, thanks to a comic ensemble at the top of its game.
3. L.A. Confidential (1997): Just as Pollack regrettably never directed another comedy, Curtis Hanson mystifyingly has yet to try his hand at another thriller. (I know you thrive on unpredictability, but this is your niche, man.) Like No Country for Old Men, L.A. Confidential revolves around a trio of leads: bookish Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), thuggish Bud White (Russell Crowe), and morally bankrupt Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), all cops investigating a byzantine multiple-homicide case set in 1950s Los Angeles. Unlike No Country, the three interact through volatile and shifting alliances and antagonisms—with Exley as the nexus—that alter whom they initially appear to be. Hanson’s sure-handedness with his ensemble cast extends from the superb triumvirate (Spacey was still finding his footing as a star, while Crowe and Pearce were then-unknown quantities in the States) to veteran character actors revealing unsettling new dimensions (James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Ron Rifkin, Danny DeVito) to bit players embodying the tiniest roles with utter conviction. Making the most with little screen-time are Gwenda Deacon as a grieving mother, Jeremiah Birkett, Salim Grant and Karreem Washington as a trio of interrogated African-American suspects, and Simon Baker (now starring on the TV series The Mentalist) as an aspiring James Dean-ish actor whose fate—likely brushed aside in any other movie—propels a reluctant protagonist to action.
4. Gosford Park (2001): Any list of best ensembles would be incomplete without a Robert Altman film. (One could even justify five Altman films.) While a few more obvious choices could each make a valid claim, it is this sly, subversive take on the British-murder-mystery-at-the-country-estate genre that sticks with me. Julian Fellowes’ expansive screenplay is less a whodunit than a why-he-deserved-it dramatization of between-the-wars English social classes—i.e., the nobility, their servants, and the veil of separation between them. So effortlessly does Altman shepherd his sprawling cast (Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Northam, Kelly Macdonald, Richard E. Grant, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates, Stephen Fry) through several interlocking stories that it takes a second viewing to train your eye on the crucial developments occurring between Clive Owen and Helen Mirren around the edges of the frame. With this, Gosford Park concludes on a note that, for an incorrigibly unsentimental filmmaker well into his autumnal period, was recurring yet rarely more moving: how the seemingly inconsequential proves itself essential.
5. Yi Yi (2000): Edward Yang’s final film, an intimate epic about the travails of a Taiwanese family between a wedding and a funeral, has been perhaps inaccurately dubbed Altmanesque. While the former’s camera was constantly on the move, Yang creates almost unnervingly still foreground-background compositions to underscore how each individual is connected to a larger community—in this case, the vibrant urban landscape of Taipei. Tensions between the global and the familial, between togetherness and loneliness, are most evident when Nien-Jen Wu’s well-meaning if somewhat adrift patriarch (appropriately named N.J.) brokers a business deal with a laid-back Japanese billionaire (Issey Ogata) while simultaneously rekindling a near-romance with a westernized old flame (Sun-Yun Ko). But other stories, especially those involving N.J.’s children (Kelly Lee and Jonathan Chang), are given their due. A little boy’s profoundly simple insight—“I want to tell people things they don’t know ... (and) show them stuff they haven’t seen”—brings the film to an inspiring close. Yet I find Yang’s actual accomplishment with his ensemble even more remarkable: together, they add nuances to what we think we know, and offer new perspectives to what we believe we see.