All for one

SAG's ensemble laurel inspires a look back

In a world gone mad with kudocasts, every presenting group is looking for a way to rise above the fray. The Academy Awards have venerability and that iconic gold guy on their side. For the Screen Actors Guild Awards, now in their 12th year, three honors for ensemble acting — best cast in a motion picture, drama series and comedy series — separate them from the pack.

But what of the years before these awards were presented?

The great ensemble films that predated the ’90s were never validated with a cast award, and yet these films — from “Grand Hotel” to “The Best Years of Our Lives” to “Nashville” to “Annie Hall” — are nothing if not greater than the sum of their parts.

Yet finding consensus on which of these group efforts is a breed apart is not always a matter of universal accord.

For film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and the TV show “Ebert and Roeper: At the Movies,” one movie stands above all others in this regard: Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). In addition to Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the title roles, Ebert credits Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Gene Wilder, Michael J. Pollard, Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle and Evans Evans, noting that “the appearance of every single supporting character was an occasion for delight.”

Andrew Sarris, the venerable critic now with the New York Observer, prefers to spread the wealth, citing Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” (1937), Marcel Carne’s “Children of Paradise” (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943). “I’m always looking at these great films,” he says. “I never get over them.”

And those pics are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Just about every great film has a great ensemble,” says Sarris, who also teaches film at Columbia U., so doling out accolades, even for fun, is just “too large a subject.”

Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan would seem to agree. “One of the hallmarks of a great film is how well it’s cast,” he says. “It’s not always a truism that a great film has a great cast, but often.”

Nevertheless, Turan cites “The Godfather” as particularly noteworthy for the strength of its performances. “There’s a lot of great acting across the board in that film, even in the smaller roles,” he says. “Just think of Lenny Montana as Luca Brasi.”

Yet when it comes to narrowing the field, Turan turns to the early 1940s, putting three films from that decade at the top of his list: “Pride and Prejudice” (1940), which stars Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, but whose cast also includes Marsha Hunt, Maureen O’Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Edmund Gwenn and Edna May Oliver; “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), in which Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor are joined by Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond and Elisha Cook Jr.; and, of course, “Casablanca” (1942) with Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre again, plus Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt and the motley denizens of Rick’s Cafe.

Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, says that many factors contribute to the creation of a first-rate ensemble, but he suggests that consistent excellence of ensemble tends to signal a talented director, such as Orson Welles or Preston Sturges.

So it’s no surprise that Morgenstern offers the films of Robert Altman as exemplars of this alchemy, especially “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” “No matter how many times I see it,” he says, “it’s still magical, because all these people are employed toward the same end, the creation of a world. The film is populated not by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and a cast of supporting players, but by the population of that little mining town.”

Television allows more time for an ensemble to gel, of course, but Tom Shales, TV critic of the Washington Post, says it’s pretty easy to tell what’s going to work even early in the life of a series. “I think casting is the unsung hero of good television,” he says.

He singles out “Hill Street Blues” for praise in that regard. “There wasn’t a weak person in that bunch,” he says of the NBC skein, which ran 1981-1987. “Who knows if it would have caught on and survived without those particular people in those particular roles? One without the other puts you at a serious disadvantage.”

And for a sitcom, a strong ensemble is even more important, Shales says. Even in such star-driven cases as “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957), “The Honeymooners” (1955-1956), “The Phil Silvers Show” (1955-1959), “The Cosby Show” (1984-1992) and “Seinfeld” (1990-1998), the dynamic of a strong supporting cast was essential to the show’s success and, perhaps even more important, its longevity in the public imagination.

By contrast, a show like “Law & Order,” which is clearly an ensemble show, seems less dependent on individual actors, at least according to Shales. “The actors come and go, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference,” he says. “You’d have to say that the secret of that show’s success is not in its ensembles.”

On the other hand, Shales points to the iconic “Bonanza” (1959-1973) as a case in which every character had equal standing, and where the show’s success lay in the teamwork of its actors. “That was a classic ensemble,” he says, “because I don’t think one single character stood out. Nobody thinks of ‘Bonanza’ as ‘The Hoss Show’ or ‘The Hop Sing Show.’ “

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