Ensembles are no longer that rare a beast; since the near out-and-out collapse of the star system and the slow ascension of sheer product to the upper echelons of movie marketability, mid-budget films have slid in to take over as the place du jour for discerning actors looking to ply their wares. Remember all those Irwin Allen disaster movies of the ’70s when the big selling point would be the huge cast? Well, in the last two or three decades these big groups of big (or big-ish) actors have migrated down the chain to the side of the business where money is better spent on marketable names than lavish effects and samey plotlines.
The difference between a true ensemble and simply a great cast is in the former’s definition: to work as an ensemble, the majority of the players must somehow come together and work off each other. It is the difference between a starrily-cast shaggy dog story like The Grand Budapest Hotel or a multi-story feature like Love, Actually or Short Cuts, and a smaller display of people shouting at each other in the same room like the Silver Linings Playbook ensemble. It is the difference between those Arrested Development scenes where individual cast members branch off for smaller stories, and the ones where every key Bluth family member is called together. Hold out your hands; link your fingers together; baby, you got an ensemble goin’.
To celebrate the UK release of Spotlight this week, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards this weekend, here’s our top 10 onscreen ensembles.
10. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
The central trio of Jim Jarmusch’s listless, Absurdist masterpiece rarely seem to be acting, which is perhaps why the film has such a devastating effect. Stranger Than Paradise is most certainly a comedy, but even at their funniest the characters are perpetually bottoming out, uncertain of what to do or say or think; John Lurie, an avant-garde jazz musician cast here as grouchy hepcat Willie, seems particularly lost despite his presumed status as leader. His wiry, hysterically misanthropic low energy contrasts with best friend Eddie, played with relaxed humour by Richard Edson, and his Hungarian cousin Eva who, as embodied by Eszter Balint, seems both the most confident and the least motivated. Naturally, all the pouting and bickering slowly builds towards a climax laden with (suppressed) emotions and an ironical kicker, but Jarmusch is keen to prevent his leads from finding too much enlightenment. If one thing is proved with this arch and minimalist road trip, it’s that sometimes the best and most believable ensembles can actually be the least sparkly.
9. From Here to Eternity (1953)
The stage is set in the opening scene, as new transfer Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) rubs up against his superiors by refusing to join the boxing team – this group includes Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster), who isn’t as hard on Prewitt but can hardly be called nice. Soon after, the two leads all but separate for their own stories – Warden conducts a memorable affair with his boss’ wife (Deborah Kerr) while Prewitt roustabouts with the men and slips deeper and deeper into his own demons. There is much to impress within the plotlines individually, though the strength of the large ensemble really crackles on those occasions when the worlds collide; Ernest Borgnine, for instance, is particularly memorable as rascally demon Fatso Judson, a professional on base but a murderous lout elsewhere. Kerr, for her part, is another extraordinary anchor whose tale is skilfully interwoven throughout, while Frank Sinatra and Donna Mills won Oscars for truly firecracker turns. A good cast is a good cast, but the real ensemble test is putting two random characters together and seeing how the actors connect. From Here to Eternity passes with flying colours.
8. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Arguably the most successful of Woody Allen’s now somewhat infamous Huge Casts, relationship dramedy Hannah and Her Sisters takes the idea of mixing and matching its cast for interesting results and positively flies away with it. The title characters – played by Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest – are given equally-weighted screentime, with delightful interludes following their parents (Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan), lovers (Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow) and, curiously, Hannah’s hanger-on ex (Allen). Each of the film’s acts is punctuated with a big Thanksgiving meal which is both a nice narrative contrivance and a recurring excuse to bring just about everyone together and show how beautifully, naturally and generously they can play off each other. Allen’s zest and talent for crafting remarkable performance material has rarely been so unassailable; it even reflects in his own performance, which holds its own against the assorted legends (don’t forget this film won two acting Oscars, for Caine and Wiest) and is probably the notoriously one-note actor’s best work. Despite all this, there is no single standout star here – and, for an ensemble, what better compliment could there be?
7. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1976)
Famously, this film follows three couples who keep trying to sit down for a pleasant meal together but are forever interrupted – which is precisely why the acting needs to be as good as it is. The women are haughty, the men bizarrely shifty; all are snobs, and all are superficial, but each one of them is imbued with individual quirks and a different set of reactions to the increasingly lunatic situations thrown at them. Fernando Rey receives top marks for his hilarious brand of jowly deadpanning, though it’s perhaps Stéphane Audran as Mme. Sénéchal who holds the gang together by presenting an almost totally unflappable woman who nevertheless bears a discernible aura of uncertainty; she is perhaps the only one who begins to doubt the couples’ entitlement, though of course has no means to express this. It is a strangely affecting performance in a film that otherwise reaches for zany creepiness. The supporting players, meanwhile, flit in and out with precision and skill, imbuing their brief confusing intrusions with some serious characterisation. The actors – and director Luis Buñuel – know exactly what they’re doing in every frame of this surrealist classic.
6. Force Majeure (2014)
As a film, Force Majeure has plenty of attention and acclaim. As an ensemble feature, it is perhaps overlooked – the four adults and two children are simply stunning, and Kristofer Hivju should’ve walked away with every award on the planet for his befuddled, just about naturalistic, comic performance. His expressions alone are funny, yet don’t detract from the drama. So too Johannes Bah Kuhnke, whose perennial self-justifications become increasingly absurd yet never less than believable; Lisa Loven Kongsli, viewing her husband with exasperation and something approaching pity; and Fanni Metelius, as the outsider who only vaguely comprehends how stupid the whole thing is. And when they’re all together, the sparks are palpable.
5. American Beauty (1999)
Two families, both alike in indignity, plus a snooty lover and a teenaged sex object: every archetype in this knowing film is brought kicking and screaming into three fully-humanised dimensions. Many have leveled sexism accusations at Alan Ball’s screenplay, pointing towards the shrill, shrewish wife Carolyn and the insecure, over-sexualised Angela as evidence. Accept these criticisms or not, one can’t deny that in the hands of Annette Bening and Mena Suvari, these problematic figures are reborn into onscreen magic. Kevin Spacey, of course, won the film’s only acting Oscar; a good case, however, could be made for any of the core ensemble to have matched him. Wes Bentley and Chris Cooper are incredible on their own and positively electric together as a loggerheads father and son; and even Alison Janney, with her five or six lines in just as many minutes of screentime, conveys an entire character history with every exquisitely pitched, rather haunting, expression. Would it have been a lesser film without these actors? That’s the question – which says rather a lot.
4. Gosford Park (2001)
Act 1: the ‘downstairs’ staff arrange a weekend’s festivities while their Lord of the Manor (Michael Gambon) welcomes his guests to the front door. Act 2: the ‘upstairs’ guests carouse, flatter, argue and drink while the service staff cope with a mysterious new employee. Act 3: after a shocking murder, both sides of the house become party to an Agatha Christie style whodunit and fall into despair, disdain and finally revelation. Who stands out among the more than 20 leading characters? Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith won many a prize for their (amazing) polar-opposite roles, but a near-comically tyrannical Gambon, a loomingly inquisitive Stephen Fry and even, bizarrely, Jeremy Northam’s Ivor Novello all remain memorable. Add in a quietly powerful Kelly MacDonald, a perplexed Bob Balaban, a beguiling Clive Owen (and everyone else under the sun), and Robert Altman’s cluttery drama of manners is poised at all times to leave a lasting impression.
3. The Godfather (1972)
The core cast, of course, smash it: Marlon Brando in the title role, with the always-excellent Al Pacino, James Caan and John Cazale as the Corleone brothers, Talia Shire as embattled sister Connie and a quieter, yet utterly towering, Robert Duvall as adoptee Tom Hagen. The supporting bench though is so deep you hardly know where to cap it. Imagine this near three-hour saga without Richard Castellano as Peter ‘Take the cannoli!’ Clemenza, Alex Rocco on nauseatingly smooth form as Moe Greene or, naturally, the late Abe Vigoda looming and lurching in the background as the hangdog Sal Tessio. Then there’s the tertiary characters, each of which is so memorable and so fundamentally well-played that listing them is simply beyond the word count. Part II loses some of the original’s ensemble brilliance through its time and space hopping, but by the end it proves the genius of the initial casting: Michael’s descent, Fredo’s execution, Kay’s entrapment – all so profoundly felt, simply because of Part I‘s setup. Few films have created such a rich universe through sheer performance; The Godfather really is the Don – or at least among the Five Families – of great ensembles.
2. 12 Angry Men (1957)
A great personality test is your answer to the question: who’s your favourite cast member of the original 12 Angry Men? Many platitudinous politicians over the years have invoked Henry Fonda’s heroic, principled Juror #8, but of course the 11 men around him provide the real fabric in this fraught judicial debate. Jack Warden (#7) couldn’t care less and just wants to get to the game; John Fiedler (#2) wants everyone to get along but quickly realises the importance of a strong personal stand; Jack Klugman (#5) has something of a temper, but passionately stands up against class prejudice; ad man Robert Webber (#12) is a smooth operator while elderly Joseph Sweeney (#9) is probably the man you most want on your side. For the record, though Lee J. Cobb (#3, memorably the last to vote Not Guilty) and Martin Balsam (#1, the calm and placative foreman) are great to watch, a personal favourite is E.G. Marshall as the robotic Juror #4 whose journey provides fewer emotional fireworks but a calmer, invested exploration of logic and reason. He also demonstrates the ensemble’s greatest strength: half are calm, half are not, but it is the differing levels of energy and emotion that make this one of the most well-balanced, mathematically perfect ensembles ever arranged.
1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Four credited actors, four Oscar nominations, and four very heavy breakdowns. Not that you notice the characters’ similarities immediately, because the foursome are portrayed with such individualised clarity. Four very real and fully-formed people shouting at each other is a surprising treat. Richard Burton is the bitter professor constantly simmering with frustrated rage, sarcastically sniping at his wife Elizabeth Taylor, whose hatred positively boils over at every chance. Their foils are the idealistic younger couple played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis, who become quickly corrupted by all the madness on show until their own relationship and values may be damaged irreparably. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may be too melodramatic for some, but there is remarkable technical skill and intelligence in the way the actors balance against each other; this film is the definition of a great, all-guns-blazing, clockwork-perfect ensemble.
That’s it! Who’d we miss out? The Avengers nearly made it. And Ghostbusters. Do the Right Thing, perhaps? What about the convincing ensemble of Triumph of the Will (oh, wait… )? Let us know!