Saturday, June 24, 2017

The 50 Best Film Ensembles with Adam Spector: Part I

What makes a great ensemble? A small slice of awards season is focused on a best ensemble award (which is gravely misunderstood) but there’s not a lot of actual discussion on ensembles which is why after mulling over a few ideas to explore this topic (there’s a poll I’ve been running as well), and settling on a cross-blogging project with my friend Adam Spector of Adam’s Rib. We each independently listed our fifty favorite film ensembles and will have four rounds of discussion as we reveal our lists from bottom to top. Over the course of the series, the hope is to point out surreptitious strokes in casting; explore the way films are enhanced by actors on the bench; appreciate how certain groups of actors bounce off each other in a way to be more than the sum of their parts; and remember how certain actors in the background enhance our favorite films. In other words, we'll discover what a great ensemble is as we go along:

UPDATE: Part II here, Part III is here and here
Adam's list 31-50
31.   Juno (2007) 32.   Day for Night (1973) 33.   Citizen Kane (1941) 34.   Grand Hotel (1932) 35.   Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) 36.   Murder on the Orient Express (1974) 37.   Bonnie and Clyde (1969) 38.   Love Actually (2003) 39.   Prairie Home Companion (2006) 40.   Slacker (1991)  41.   Breaking Away (1978) 42.   Stand by Me (1986) 43.   The Princess Bride (1987) 44.   City of God  (2002) 45.   LA Confidential (1997) 46.   Big Lebowski (1998) 47.   Office Space  (1999) 48.   Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) 49.   One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) 50. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Orrin's Reaction:

Citizen Kane is obviously a masterpiece, but I feel like Magneficient Ambersons is the better ensemble. While Citizen Kane pretty much highlights a  single great performance, Magnificent Ambersons is a much more even-keeled piece and brings stars such as Anne Baxter and Tim Holt on board. It also allows Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten more screen time and those guys are both kind of wasted in Citizen Kane. For me, Cotten (a native Virginian! 804 represent!) is the man who symbolized his era more than Welles as an actor. 

If I had to choose a Coen Brothers film, Fargo would take the cake over Big Lebowski. It was the more respected film before sun-dried West Coast pot aficionados (and wannabes alike) made this film not just a cult classic but a cult in its own right. In terms of the ensemble, the oddball criminal roles of Jerry Lundegaard and Carl Showalter feel like roles that Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy (neither conventionally good looking guys) are born to play and Frances McDormand is simply enormous in this Oscar-winning role (deservedly so). 

On the other hand, it's nice to see Philip Seymour Hoffman pop up during that period in his filmography where he could do no wrong with his script choices and if you like seeing John Goodman go over the top, it will never get better than this. I concede that these performances all work and if the comedy is as sweet for you as it is for the Lebowski heads, then this film works based on the performances, but I wonder if you're not being too caught up in the cult status of the film when comparing this to other Coen brothers films.

It's been too long since I've seen The Princess Bride (around 5th grade) but I agree it's a good comic choice when you consider physicality: There are a lot of different textures of comic actors with different stylings and the way they cast for size (If I'm not mistaken, there's a giant character in there as well as some very scrawny characters) is pretty effective in contrast. That Cary Elwes didn't have much of a career after this, makes his performances here more iconic as he's so well cast as an Errol Flynn type. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one that I have on my list as well. How can you not? The leads both won well-deserved Oscars so it's hard to argue against them, and the supporting class includes Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in roles that really seem very un-DeVito and un-Christopher-Lloyd which takes on more meaning because I don't think audiences in 1975 had a way of knowing that DeVito and Lloyd would both establish strong screen personas: the former as a seedy (sometimes curmudgeonly) lowlife, and the latter as a wide-eyed crazy guy. And then Brad Dourif is really something else here.

Juno might be there if I expanded the list although I have trouble praising Michael Cera in anything. In particular, the way people bounce off each other is interesting. The uber-hip Ellen Page character contrasts extremely well against the famously gruff J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney (and by the way, thank you for spelling out that name so I don't have to look it up) fits perfectly as a pragmatic middle ground in an understated role. Similarly, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are roughly the same age and have generally played hippish yuppie types but there's a tension between them and their ultimate mismatch grows evident. They are a parallel to the Janney-Simmons pairing on the surface but a theme her is that relationships aren't just about surface-level matches (hence, the failed marriage).

Vanity Fair
LA Confidential is one I blanked out on but it's certainly worthy of inclusion. Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey play the three leads which is a pretty solid get (on two of those three fronts). Russell Crowe was on the verge of becoming the next big thing and Kevin Spacey was already at that stage. Character actor James Cromwell really is an extremely unlikely villain. And DeVito again! Ironically, I can barely remember what Oscar winner Kim Basinger did in this movie.

I never really thought abut Office Space until you bought it up but it certainly does have a multi-faceted and diverse  (if you count actor Ajay Naidu who seems to be pigeon-holed pretty badly into Indian roles) ensemble and David Hermann, who was a pretty solid sketch actor on the oft-maligned sketch series MadTV has one of his few visible roles as "Michael Bolton" there.  I was also not particularly impressed with Jen Aniston. Sure she's capable in the same way that successful sitcom actresses are when plopped on a marquee, but considering she showed even more depth and really could act in The Good Girl three years later. Retroactively, it makes her performance here look like Jen Aniston in her period of untapped potential. 
City of God is a good choice because casting child actors and unknowns is always impressive (although I can't speak to how well-known these actors were to the Brazilian film industry when director Fernando Meirelles cast them). It's similar to Mel Gibson's commendable way of assembling the cast of Apocalypto.

Orrin's List 31-50:
31. American Graffiti (1973) 32. Almost Famous (2000) 33. The Wild Bunch (1969) 34. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947) 35. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) 36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) 37. Django Unchained (2012) 38. The Player (1992) 39. Five Easy Pieces (1970) 40. Road to Perdition (2002) 41. Ball of Fire (1941) 42. Manchurian Candidate (1962) 43. 12 Years a Slave (2013) 44. Anchorman (2004) 45. The Station Agent (2003) 46. 12 Angry Men (1957) 47. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) 48. The Birdcage (1996) 49. Salt of the Earth (1953) 50. Dreamgirls (2006)

Adam's Response:
First I had to define what a great ensemble was.  For me it’s a group of actors where many of them make an impression, from the leads, to the supporting players to the ones that you might only have for one scene. 

Comparing our lists, it’s clear that Robert Altman immediately jumps to mind.  I had Prairie Home Companion and you had The Player.  I have a couple of his other films higher on my list, and could have had more if we expanded. That’s fitting for a man known for his ensemble casting.  In the 70s, that’s because he cultivated a cast stock company of actors he discovered.   In the 90s it was also because stars would take well below their usual salary to work with him.   I highly recommend Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff.  The book quotes actors describing why they were drawn to Altman and his projects.  It also describes how Altman created a collaborative environment on the set where everyone felt valued.  It’s fitting that the Independent Spirit Awards named their cast award (that includes the cast, director, and casting director) after Altman. 

If you blanked on LA Confidential I did the same with 12 Angry Men.  It was Sidney Lumet’s first film and the only one Henry Fonda produced.  Going in Lee J. Cobb was the only other known star in the film besides Fonda.  But Lumet had worked in live television, and surrounded Fonda with talent.  Some of them were veteran character actors like Martin Balsam and Ed Begley, who later won an Oscar for Sweet Bird of Youth [editorial note: Martin Balsam also won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for A Thousand Clowns].  Others were up-and-coming younger actors, who went on to have impressive careers, such as Jack Warden and Jack Klugman.   The actors gelled together, and with Lumet’s increasingly claustrophobic shooting, made the film just as riveting now as it was 60 years ago.  The Wild Bunch is another I should have included.  Holden and Borgnine were the stars, but it also helped propel supporting players Warren Oates and Ben Johnson to starring roles in the 70s. 

Ball of Fire is too often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be with Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, a young Dana Andrews and a fine supporting cast.  Road to Perdition is a bit uneven as a film, but it does have Paul Newman in his last great film role along with Tom Hanks, Jude Law, the always dependable Stanley Tucci, and of course Daniel Craig, showing his range four years before he became Bond.   

We both included comedies in our picks, and you’ll continue to see them in my selections.  As we have discussed in the Cinema Lounge, comedy skill often isn’t considered “serious acting” but actors themselves will tell you how hard it is.  Anchorman is an excellent choice.  Will Ferrell is always good at picking projects he doesn’t have to get all of the laughs.  The fight scene alone makes this one deserving, with Tim Robbins as the PBS anchor (“No commercials,no mercy.”) Luke Wilson, and Ben Stiller.   

Fargo, No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou? or countless other Coen Brothers films are also terrific choices, but that does not take away from the stellar ensemble work in Lebowski.  Jeff Bridges and John Goodman are the standouts, but the film gives so many other fun performances for them to play off of, from Peter Stomare and his nihilists, Julianne Moore in her Viking outfit, David Huddleston as the other Lebowski, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the slimy yes man, and of course John Turturro as “The Jesus.”  The more you go back to rewatch the films the more these other actors stand out.  Speaking of the late, great Hoffman kudos for including Almost Famous.  You’ll see that on my list later, 

Regarding Juno, I view Cera as a plus for this particular type of role, just as he was for Superbad.  Plus Juno, besides Page in the lead role, had Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner and the two of my favorites, Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons. 
Citizen Kane is much more than Orson Welles, cast-wise.  See it again, and watch how many of the other players stand out, even those that have limited screen time.   Everett Sloane, playing Bernstein, has a poignant scene as he describes a woman he never saw again but whose image is burned in his memory.  Cotten did not have as large a part as he did in Ambersons but he effectively serves as an audience surrogate as his character gradually grows disillusioned with Kane.  Dorothy Comingore is heartbreaking as the tragically untalented opera singer, while George Coulouris is hilarious as the textbook definition of an uptight banker. 

I never saw Salt of the Earth, but will look for it now. The only one on your list that I question is Five Easy Pieces. Nicholson had one of his iconic turns, but no one else really stood out.

Getty Images

Aside from its groundbreaking role in film history, Bonnie and Clyde boasts an abundance of talent.  Beatty and Dunaway (now also linked due to the Oscars mishap 50 year later) both give you the charisma and depth you expect from your stars.  Estelle Parsons deservedly won an Oscar for her turn as Clyde’s sister-in-law.  The film put Gene Hackman on the map and brought notice to a then little-known stage actor named Gene Wilder.   Michael J. Pollard also garnered an Oscar nomination as CW Moss, another member of the Barrow gang, and Dub Taylor is equally good as Moss’s father.   This brings me back to how I define an ensemble in the first place, where many actors play their part in making a great movie.  It’s the big names we notice at first, but one of the joys in going back and seeing these films again is experiencing the smaller, but no less crucial performances. 

Orrin: How to define a great ensemble is coming to me as I mill through this exercise.

There's a film with a deep bench supporting its stars like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or films by the Coen Brothers or Frank Capra which tend to surround stars with great talent. Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodward and Benedict Cumberbatch are all so memorable in 12 Years a Slave you forget Brad Pitt is there. The flipside of that is a film like Road to Perdition where Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci and Jude Law blend so seamlessly with such great performances that you hardly notice they're there. I only discovered the cast had such great actors in it retroactively, and of course this is (with the exception of Captain Phillips) the only time in the past 15 years or so that Tom Hanks has done something exciting.  

There are films which tend to deflect star power into something where a lot of people have a chance to shine like a Robert Altman film (The Player wouldn't fall into this as Tim Robbins gives such an enormous performances, but the rest of his films do), Grand Hotel  or Little Miss Sunshine. 12 Angry Men technically has Fonda as a lead but it's really everyone's film in a way. It's also a film in which one could argue that Ed Begley gives the most commanding performance.  

There's also great chemistry and the way certain stars bounce off each other. 
It's in this spirit that I selected Five Easy Pieces: To me the most striking contrast is between Susan Anspach and Karen Black. These two beautiful women of different classes represent entirely different things to Bobby and his struggle over which class he belongs in. I also like that many of the characters outside the two female leads seem to effortlessly fall into lower class or upper crust.

I also tried to highlight casting choices that are innovative or bold.  My pick Dreamgirls featured three big gambles among its five main principles: Beyoncee, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy and they were all extraordinarily successful. I agree that the three leads of Ball of Fire are great but I particularly like how they managed to cast seven actors of the older generation that meshed so well as the seven professors (which Hawks intended to be an allegory of the Seven Dwarves).

As for Salt of the Earth, the film was directed by blacklisted director Herbert Beiberman and a blacklisted screenwriter in 1953 which naturally meant it had no chance of getting distributed or funded by the studios it only played in 13 theaters despite great reviews. The film, about a mining strike, was co-produced with the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers and had only two union actors, Will Geer and Mexican Rusaura Revueltas who was deported mid-production. The rest of the cast was miners and locals (all of whom are surprisingly competent) and some of them were invited to review the dailies for accuracy and help out with production in other ways.

To close out this round, let me ask you one last question about a film I've never even heard of before: Slackers. I see muiltiple titles on it for IMDB and have never heard of such a film, so please fill me in.

Adam: I will need to find Salt of the Earth That had to have taken courage to make that film during the height of McCarthyism.   Since you enjoyed that, please see Matewan which I could have easily included on my list.  Directed by indie stalwart John Sayles, it’s also about a mining strike, this one in 1920s West Virginia.  

You asked about Slacker It’s the film that put writer-director Richard Linklater (whose work you will see again on my list) on the map.  He follows a series of strange people in Austin, going from one person to another.  It’s different from an Altman type of piece because there’s no larger story, and the film, for the most part, does not go back to characters it leaves.   These include an anarchist, a conspiracy theorist and a young woman trying to sell what she claims is Madonna’s pap smear.  The actors were unknown then and remain so 26 years later.  But each one of them present a vivid, fleshed out person who you enjoy spending a few minutes with.  You get a brief glimpse into their world and then move on to the next one.

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