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.
Legally Blonde with its ditzy charm more than implausible (but still fun) plot and likeable characters launched Reese Witherspoon's career into the stratosphere--let's hope Blonde 2 doesn't bring it plummeting back down to earth. When last we left sunny Elle Woods she'd surprised everyone--including herself--by graduating from Harvard Law School while maintaining her principles and earning fellow students' respect. In the sequel Elle is on the brink of making it big in her job at a law firm until she decides animal rights are her new cause--you see her beloved Chihuahua Bruiser's mom has been found as a subject in a cosmetics testing lab and Elle needs to get her out in time for her impending wedding to Emmett (Luke Wilson). After the firm fires her Elle decides it's time to change animal testing laws so she hits Washington to join the staff of Representative Rudd (Sally Field) as a lobbyist. As sweet as she is callow our girl Elle soon learns politics makes strange bedfellows and when all doesn't go as planned she calls on all her allies--Sid the doorman (Bob Newhart) Paulette the stylist (Jennifer Coolidge) her Delta Nu sorority sisters and unexpectedly a few Washington higher-ups to help pass "Bruiser's Bill" and free animals everywhere.
Witherspoon is saddled with the unenviable task of having to carry this mess of a movie which falls way below the standard set by the first (which while no Oscar contender was amusingly original and delightfully heartfelt). We are well aware of the formula here: Elle's going to get what she wants whether by default or design and win over even her enemies in the process. What happened to Elle on the way to Washington? She's a style-obsessed dingbat true--but she did graduate from law school with determination hard work and some luck. Here she is so incredibly unbelievably stupid and naïve you'd think she was sending up her own character--this film has her almost completely relying on her rich friends well-placed connections and incidental accidents to get what she wants instead of using what was intriguing about this character in the first place--a self-awareness that yes she's a ditz but she knows how to use her type of smarts to accomplish goals. Sadly Witherspoon's once-charming character is so dumbed-down even the savviest actress couldn't overcome its problems. As for the supporting cast Wilson is lackluster as Emmett Coolidge's stylist has some of the--if not the only--funniest lines in the film and Regina King gives a solid performance as staffer Grace Elle's enemy as does Field as convincingly sly Rep. Rudd.
Somebody at MGM should have snatched the rose-colored-lensed camera out of director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's (Kissing Jessica Stein) hands at the first sight of the dailies. We've got: a nearly brain-dead heroine hackneyed supporting characters a contrived plot and gay dogs. That's right gay dogs. Nothing says "I believe in animal rights" like dressing your male dog in pink tutus and carrying him around in a pet purse--that's dignity for you. Herman-Wurmfeld's confectioner-sweet pink cloud concoction is so sticky syrupy and air-popped you may find yourself floating in your theater seat it's so much fluffy entertainment. What's kind of odd is that all this fluff is juxtaposed with the downright dull storyline of getting a bill passed through Congress--funny movie fodder that's not. On the flip side you won't find yourself feeling bored as much as guilty for laughing at its few admittedly laugh-out-loud scenes.