What is an ensemble cast? How many actors constitute one? There aren’t any guidelines that determine what qualifies as a true ensemble, but if anyone can offer some insight it would be Woody Allen, who has been getting great groups of actors together for decades now. From Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters to Melinda and Melinda and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, he’s always had a keen eye for casting and the stars continue to line up to work with the iconic auteur.
With the home entertainment release of his latest, fore mentioned film at hand, I thought it’d be apt to honor some of the coolest ensemble casts ever assembled. Keep in mind: this isn’t a list of the best films featuring an ensemble cast. It’s about the best rosters of talent roped in for a single production.
This under-appreciated Tony Scott action spectacle was polarizing to audiences because of its ultra-violent approach, particularly toward women. But Patricia Arquette proved herself to be one tough chick, able to take a beating a give it back in equal measure. Together with her beau-to-be Christian Slater, she embarks on an odyssey to free herself from pimp Gary Oldman and, later, his criminal overlord Christopher Walken, all while L.A. detectives Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn are hot on the trail of drugs and blood. With bonus appearances by Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Michael Rapaport and more, True Romance is a twisted web of cameos and special roles filled by some of the coolest actors of the time.
The Thin Red Line
WWII films have a long history of stellar casts comprised of legions of screen legends. This 1998 genre entry continues that grand tradition with enough A-listers to make five separate movies. George Clooney, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Miranda Otto, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Nick Stahl, Elias Koteas and Jim Caviezel all appear in the prestigious picture at one point or another – a logistic achievement in and of itself.
This sweet rom-com gets me every time. Not just because of the cheerful dialogue and warm and fuzzy relationships, but also because of the charming cast of characters played by Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, Rodrigo Santoro, Shannon Elizabeth, Andrew Lincoln, Denise Richards and the adorable Thomas Sangster. Together, there are around eight revolving, relatable romances in the film, but we wouldn’t have cared about any of them if not for the lovable cast.
In telling this sprawling tale about the intersecting lives of a handful of Angelenos, director Paul Haggis needed an international cast to represent the diverse population of the City of Angels. He got it with Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Esposito, Shaun Toub, Daniel Dae Kim, Matt Dillon, Loretta Devine, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Keith David, Ryan Phillippe, Michael Pena, Tony Danza and Thandie Newton. Though Dillon was the only actor recognized by the Academy at awards time, the triumph of the film belongs to its eclectic cast.
The Magnificent Seven
Akira Kurasawa’s epic Seven Samurai was practically begging for a Hollywood adaptation when it was released in 1954. By 1960, director John Sturges had made it a reality with a pack of screen idols including the dashing Yul Brynner, the inimitable Eli Wallach, the ultra-cool Steve McQueen, the bad-ass Charles Bronson, the slick Robert Vaughn, the cool James Coburn and the “newbie” Horst Buchholz. The septuplet of stars had a great deal of chemistry that made their on-screen antics all the more enjoyable to watch, and fifty years later their work on this classic film has become the stuff of movie mythology.
The star power packed into these popular motion pictures is astonishing. With Hollywood heavyweights like George Clooney, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt leading an army of talent - young and old - including Don Cheadle, Scott Caan, Bernie Mac, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Eddie Jemison, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck and Julia Roberts, there's no shortage of charisma throughout the film. You may be wondering why I chose Oceans Twelve over the 2001 remake of the 1960 original; it's because this hit heist pic also features the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Albert Finney, Robbie Coltrane, Jared Harris, Vincent Cassel and Bruce Willis in appearances big and small. Not too shabby for a sequel...
Forget the awful 2008 remake. I implore you to give the original a chance. It’s a virtual who’s who of top Hollywood talent of the era. The premise is simple by today’s standards, but in 1939 its empowering themes were ahead of its time. Some of best actresses to ever grace the silver screen, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Lucile Watson and Marjorie Main delivered the message. All of the above are Oscar winners or nominees, making this cast of female performers one of the most celebrated of all time.
I’m not sure if Francis Ford Coppola knew what he was onto when he picked his rag-tag group of actors for this kick-ass 1983 film. After all, most of the actors were relatively unknown and untested at the time (save for C. Thomas Howell, who had just starred in Steven Spielberg's E.T.), but that quickly changed in the years following its release. Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane and Tom Cruise all appeared in the acclaimed teen drama, leaving behind one hell of a legacy.
Based on a book by William Steig the deliriously warped Shrek unfolds as a vividly rendered computer-animated romp with a heart as big as its hero. It also lovingly evokes the spirit of traditional fairy tales while spoofing such contemporary cultural cornerstones as The Matrix and Babe. Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) longs for peace and solitude but the likes of Goldilocks and the Three Pigs seek solace in Shrek's swamp after being expelled from a fiefdom run by the diminutive Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). Farquaad agrees to remove the fairy-tale characters from Shrek's land should the ogre rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a tower guarded by a dragon. With the trusty but jabbering Donkey (Eddie Murphy) by his side Shrek saves Fiona. He soon falls for her but fearing rejection dares not tell her of his love. Fiona meanwhile harbors a dark secret that could ruin her impending marriage to Farquaad.
Imagine a kinder gentler version of Myers' Fat Bastard from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. That's Shrek. Myers' Scottish brogue brings out the charm in an ogre emotionally crippled by a severe lack of self-esteem. Myers restrains himself but that's because Shrek plays the straight monster to Murphy's loud-mouthed Donkey. (Yes expect plenty of ass jokes at Donkey's expense.) Murphy's a riot as he lets loose firing off one zinger after another or bursting into song. A spunky Diaz ensures that her Princess Fiona could teach Charlie's Angels a lesson or two in romance and survival skills. As Farquaad--avoid saying his name too fast when in the company of children--Lithgow is suitably Napoleonic. He also claims some of Shrek's funniest moments including a priceless Dating Game take-off with Farquaad picking out his princess via selections put forth by a stolen Magic Mirror.
Shrek immediately sets aside any notions that this is a grand Disney-ified fairy tale plump with Broadway-style tunes. The first glimpse of Shrek comes when the ogre dashes out of an outhouse having employed a page torn from a book of fairy tales for hygienic purposes. Other bodily functions--executed with childish delight--soon follow. Shrek also tickles a parent's funny bone most notably with its song parodies (pity the bluebird that sings a duet with Fiona). Yet the film's strange and twisted ways do not prevent Shrek from being an enchanting paean to the power of love and friendship. Shrek does harbor a less benevolent agenda one which playfully skewers all things Disney. Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg--who left Disney under bad terms--pokes gentle fun at the company's canon of fairy-tale characters and the sterile environment of its theme parks. Disney execs may not laugh but everyone else will.