This is Part III of a series in which Adam Spector of Adam's Rib and I count down out top 50 film ensembles of all time. Part I is here and Part II is here. Because Adam and I went into so much detail, we split this entry into two with the other entry here.
11. The Sting 12. Dazed and Confused 13. Do the Right Thing 14. Eight Men Out 15. Fast Times at Tidgemont High 16. American Graffiti 17. Short Cuts 18. Glengarry Glen Ross 19. Prince of the City 20. The Royal Tenenbaums
In your attempts to disqualify certain films from my list for not being ensemble films, you make an interesting point. While we've both pointed to films with ensembles we admire (Dead Poets Society or Back to the Future fall into this category), the ensemble film itself is a genre of sorts both in how it's presented to the audiences and how those audiences look for familiar conventions (for example, the skillful spreading out of a narrative over several characters) within those films.
Put in more commercial terms, an ensemble film is also how a movie is sold: Look at the posters to Grand Budapest Hotel or Emilio Estevez's Bobby and the main message is "look at how many stars we were able to get into one picture!"
I would argue that the "ensemble film" angle is pretty much the only reason anyone could possibly have gotten excited about the 2012 film The Avengers (or any of its subsequent sequels and pseudo-sequels) and why it's the fifth highest grossing film ever.
Part of what we've applauded is bold ways of going about casting (in commercial terms, we can call this a gimmick although I don't think it deserves the pejorative connotation). Salt of the Earth used actual miners, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 used actual ex-convicts, Around the World in 80 Days loaded the cast with cameos, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (and Stephen Soderbergh's Informant also tried this) used a who's who of comic actors, but as you point out in the latter case, just putting in those people on screen doesn't equal great results.
An example is Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee's bold approach (or gimmick) was having a full cast loaded with more black people than I imagine audiences even knew of at the time. I imagine it was just Denzel Washington, (Lawrence Fishburne who worked with Spike Lee on his last film), Ossie Davis and that guy who won an Oscar for An Officer and aGentleman were the only black people audiences could name at the time, and he showed one could fill a great film with a dozen or so black actors all turning excellent performances. He even took a chance on his own sister and it worked! What's more, there's a lot of texture and color in all of the parts which must have been a game changer. And that's not to mention the humanizing turn of Danny Aiello.
Prince of the City, similarly, is a bold achievement in casting. It condensed a highly detailed police case with an incredibly dense source material, Robert Daley's 1978 account of an informant in the police department responsible for 52 indictments. The fact that the final screenplay has over 100 speaking parts must be a big deal as it's mentioned on both TCM and IMDB's trivia section (and pretty much any review of the movie if you google "over 100 speaking parts" "prince of the city"). But at the risk of offending the Sidney Lumet estate (and you for graciously lending me the DVD), this is another case where bold casting doesn't necessarily equal a great ensemble in my opinion. I don't really need to argue this through quantitative means because I got all the evidence I need when I went over to the IMDB page to write about the actors and couldn't remember any of them except for the ones I already knew (all three of them). All I remember about this film a mere three weeks after watching it is Jerry Orbauch has a sinister smile and that Bob Balaban is in the film with an inordinate amount of hair. And I'll go a step further and posit that because the ensemble fails, the film fails as a whole to justify its 3-hour running time (something that admittedly tries my patience more with home viewing). The film needed some of the color that say Danny Aiello or Ossie Davis bought to their parts.
A great example of a supporting role that adds color is in my favorite Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Charles Durning delivers a larger-than-life performance that plays on our imagination of Southern populist archetypes as Pappy O'Daniel. It was because of that performance that whenever I see Durning in a film's opening credits, I get a tinge of anticipation over what he will do. That's how character actors and ensemble pieces serve as gateways to other films. It's how Prince and the City (at least for me) failed to introduce me to a single intriguing actor, but how I started to get intrigued enough to decide to give The Sting a try.
I'm glad I did because there are a million great things about both the film and its ensemble. Chief among them, Robert Shaw is a terrifying villain. His physical embodiment of the part was so masterful, that I half-believed he trained himself not to blink. It also helps that Charles Dierkop mirrors the gravity of his presence so well as a personal bodygyard. I also think it's interesting to note that Eileen Brennan is downright oozing with sexiness here and this is only seven years removed from her role in Private Benjamin where she's largely an asexual and menacing counterpoint to the happy-go-lucky troops under her command. There's also Robert Earl Jones in a part that treats race as such a non-issue, it almost feels like the part could have been written for a white person. I suppose that's good? But appropriately enough, this is largely about the lead and that's Robert Redford. I always found it odd that Paul Newman and Robert Redford are two actors of roughly equivalent caliber yet Paul Newman has nine Oscar nominations and Redford has one. I just looked it up and it's apparently this movie that Redford has his only Oscar nomination which is fitting since he really steals the show. His character is a guy who has to project confidence for a living, but Redford imbues the role with a definite sense of anxiety layered underneath and that adds a much needed sense of tension.
The other actor that I felt glued to here was David Strathairn who is perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in Good Night and Good Luck but who I have come to know on a weekly basis from the SyFy series Alphas (which made my top ten a few years ago) where he plays a Professor X type. It was really surreal to see him play a youthful athletic type and I was really impressed.
I didn't get around to watching Short Cuts, but, hey I've seen seven Robert Altman films at this point, and while I like his style just fine, I couldn't get myself to watch another one of his films because I know so much what to expect. To use a Passover reference, let me ask you the manishtana of movie questions (and feel free to imagine the voice of an 8-year old singing these words): "Why is this Robert Altman film different from all other Robert Altman films?, from all other Robert Altman films?"
The other film I never got around to watching was Dazed and Confused? Are you sure you're not confusing that with Slackers? They seem like the exact same thing?
There’s nothing wrong with all-star casts in and of themselves, but like anything their worth depends on how they are used. In 1974, Sidney Lumet directed Murder on the Orient Express, which came earlier on my list. That worked because the actors although stars were right for their parts and served the story. However, there were other films in that era, such as The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and other disaster movies, where as you noted the all-star cats didn’t really add much and were more of a marketing gimmick. Some later Woody Allen films, such as To Rome with Love, felt the same way. It can be used to mask a mediocre story or production.
By contrast, filling the screen with unknown actors, especially if they are indigenous to that area, can lend a film authenticity. For example, I recently saw Tanna, set on the remote Pacific Coast Island of that name, where the roles were played by members of a local tribe. That may be an extreme example, but for Matewan, also earlier on my list, John Sayles said that he cast many actors from areas of West Virginia similar to where the film was set.
That brings us to Prince of the City, on which we will likely never agree. Lumet cast many unknown New York theater actors. Many of them were not heard from again in any major way, but I don’t think that takes away from their performances. For that movie and for those roles they succeeded. Together, they all successfully portrayed an insular world gradually closing in. Treat Williams didn’t become the major star he seemed destined to be at one point. Still here he has both the cockiness and vulnerability to be the tragic hero the film needs. And the film was not without standouts, including Orbach who fit as a tough sarcastic New York cop so well he would return to it often for the rest of his life, Lindsay Crouse, and the aforementioned James Tolkan.
So let me move to where we do agree. The Coen Brothers are masters at finding the right actors to bring color to supporting roles. It started with their first film, Blood Simple, with M. Emmet Walsh as the greedy private eye. They worked with Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, John Carroll Lynch, Peter Stomare, Ben Gazzara, Jon Polito, Tim Blake Nelson, and so many other That Guy actors. You could argue that they cast their films like no one else. Charles Durning in O, Brother Where Art Thou?, as you noted, has fun with Southern archetypes. He did the same thing in The Muppet Movie as the villain, Doc Hopper.
The truth is that Durning is a true supporting actor who made the leading men, and the films, better, whether it was George Clooney in O, Brother Where Art Thou?, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, or even the Muppets. I am glad that he led you to The Sting, which was his big break. Ironically, The Sting is often grouped together with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as both were directed by Gorge Roy Hill, and of course featured Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But those two films are very different. Butch Cassidy is a true buddy movie centering on the two title characters. The Sting, as you noted, has so much more than the two stars. Someday I need to go back and see more of Robert Shaw’s films, as I have only seen him in four. The physical embodiment you speak of is both Shaw’s talent and a happy accident. Shortly before filming Shaw hurt his knee playing tennis. With little alternative, Shaw made the limp part of the character, which somehow added to the menace. Besides the actors you note, there’s also Harold Gould, who steals every scene as the elegant Kid Twist, and Ray Walston who performs verbal gymnastics as the fake race announcer. You had an insightful take on Redford, projecting confidence but with anxiety layered underneath. He did the same in The Candidate and All the President’s Men.
John Sayles excelled at ensemble casting, and I could have included much more of his films than I did. Eight Men Out was such a nuanced, complex take on the Black Sox scandal that it could have only worked with a wide range of talented actors. Sayles has never relied on star power, and it’s no accident that he relegated Sheen to the background while Sweeney and Cusack did more of the heavy lifting. Before this Cusack had been doing mostly teen films. Clearly Sayles saw something in him that others missed. Cusack’s final monologue perfectly captures Buck Weaver’s love for the game and the bitterness at the way he was treated. Sayles discovered Strathairn and cast him several times. It looked like Strathairn might become a leading man after Good Night and Good Luck but you get the sense that he prefers to let others have the spotlight.
Let’s close with your two questions (we need two more to fully merit your Ma Nishtana reference, but there’s one more entry left). Short Cuts certainly shared the ensemble DNA of many of Altman’s signature films, Nashville in particular. I included this because each smaller story could have worked as its own film, largely on the strength of the acting. Altman combines stars such as Jack Lemmon, some of his usual suspects, such as Lily Tomlin and Lyle Lovett, with character actors and others who later Jason Leigh pulls off playing a phone sex line worker getting a caller off while simultaneously taking care of her young kids which such aplomb that it should have gotten her an Oscar nomination 22 years before she finally got one.
Finally, while Richard Linklater directed both Slacker and Dazed and Confused, both are set in the Austin era, and both feature excellent ensembles, they are not very similar. The former, as noted earlier, goes from one set of characters to the next, never to return. The latter is more of an American Graffiti type ensemble film, where the characters have their own adventures but they all connect. Dazed and Confused created the Matthew McConaughey persona while also providing an early showcase for Ben Affleck and Parker Posey. Linklater filled out the cast with up-and-coming character actors, including Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Joey Lauren Adams, Rory Cochrane and Wiley Wiggins. Give it a chance.