Film lovers enjoy watching a major star carry a film on his/her back, but when directors assemble several talented actors for their cast, it only raises the level of excitement. One of the oldest tricks in Hollywood’s book is to get an ensemble of A-listers to split screen time with one another, and studios use the opportunity to market the film as a must-see event. Of course, there are several instances where throwing a bigger cast up on the screen doesn’t lead to a better film, but some filmmakers have found a way to use an ensemble cast that delivers both commercially and critically.
George Clooney’s newest directorial outing, The Monuments Men, is the latest film to attempt this. Starring Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, and Cate Blanchett (among others), it has received plenty of attention for the impressive collection of actors featured in a World War II film. While there’s some question about the overall quality of the final product (early reviews have been mixed up to this point), there’s no denying that the cast should help make The Monuments Men watchable. With the film hitting theaters this week, we started thinking about our favorite ensemble casts in film.
The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed blockbuster sequel is a Batman movie by name, but the Caped Crusader shares the spotlight with several characters during its run time. After using Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne to carry Batman Begins, Nolan peeled back some of the other layers in Gotham City, giving supporting characters like the Joker and Harvey Dent a chance to be co-leads in this gritty crime tale. The trilogy as a whole was impeccably cast, but we’re singling out the middle chapter because it – more than the other two installments – was dependent on all the actors involved.
The late Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his turn as the Joker, and he unquestioningly gave audiences one of the most chilling and terrifying villains in recent memory. His greatness overshadowed the career-best work done by Aaron Eckhart, who underwent a Shakespearean arc – living long enough to see him go from idealistic hero to psychopathic villain. The actor used his qualities to make Dent a charismatic politician in the mold of JFK and convincingly went dark when he transformed into the grief-stricken Two-Face. The Joker (rightfully so) received much of the publicity, but both of Batman’s rogues were essential to the story.
Franchise staples including Bale, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman were also as reliable as ever. Bale used his chameleon-like method acting to transform into a determined hero, while using his humanistic side to fill out Wayne’s character (see: the scene where he mourns the loss of Rachel). Freeman and Caine provided much-needed moments of levity, and the latter rounded Alfred into something more than just a side character. Maggie Gyllenhaal – who took over for Katie Holmes – slid into the role of Rachel Dawes, improving upon the version in the first film (at least, in this writer’s opinion) by portraying the assistant D.A. as a confident, proactive professional. We’d be remiss to not mention Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, who infused Gotham’s honest cop with a strong sense of moral righteousness.
Saving Private Ryan
Tom Hanks may have been the biggest star on the planet when he starred in Saving Private Ryan, but Steven Spielberg’s masterful war drama does not rest solely on Hanks’ shoulders. The two-time Oscar winner was only one part of the eight-man team that embarked on the mission to save James Francis Ryan – and they all gave the performance of a lifetime.
Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, and Jeremy Davies made up the group of soldiers, with each bringing a unique personality trait to make the team interesting to watch. Mellish and Caparzo felt like they were lifelong friends thanks to the comradery between Goldberg and Diesel. Sizemore made Sgt. Horvath a tough-as-nails leader – the perfect second-in-command for the rock that was Hanks’ Cpt. Miller. Burns’ Reiben wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions that lived in the back of our minds and Davies provided a gateway for viewers to experience the unspeakable horrors of war through the eyes of an inexperienced, afraid corporal. All of the main characters had something about them that was relatable, making it easy for the audience to care about all of them.
Matt Damon – who played the titular Ryan – also deserves his fair share of praise. While he doesn’t show up until the final third of the movie, his character is arguably the most important one. The audience had to feel that Ryan was worth saving; that he deserved to go home. Through stories of girls falling off the ugly tree to his admirable decision to stay and fight, Damon’s Ryan was a morally sound everyman and viewers were able to see themselves as the private. Hanks was the only one to get an Oscar nomination, but the entire ensemble was award-worthy.
The first two films in the Alien franchise are considered to be all-time classics in the sci-fi genre. Both feature killer ensembles, but we’re giving James Cameron’s 1986 sequel the edge due to the entertaining addition of the space marines, which helped differentiate Aliens from the original by giving the movie an action vibe that contrasted with the slow-burn horror of Alien.
Similar to Saving Private Ryan, the actors portraying the marines gave each character a unique trait that made them all memorable. Michael Biehn’s Hicks was the fearless leader who was always in control. Hudson, portrayed by Bill Paxton, provided the film with a source of comic relief (“Game over, man! Game over!”) and also tapped into our basic fears of being hunted by the aliens. Other characters like Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston) went on to become favorites by being the hard-nosed, courageous heroes we all aspire to be. Even the non-marine members of the group stood out, as Paul Reiser’s Burke gave the movie a slimy human villain and Lance Henricksen’s Bishop changed our perception of androids by being a good-natured ally.
Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley needs no introduction at this point. The actress was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, in which she combined feelings of frustration, fear, bravery, and love to craft one of cinema’s greatest female heroes. Carrie Henn, who played Newt, also did a fine job. Never seeming out of place in the movie’s setting, Newt’s relationship with Ripley provided Aliens with much-needed heart and soul.
Star Trek (2009)
The original Star Trek crew that starred William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and company is a famous ensemble in its own right, as they were the ones who originally gave us iconic characters like Captain Kirk and Spock. However, the cast that JJ Abrams assembled for his reboot of the property had a monumental challenge ahead of them, being asked to refresh the franchise while honoring what came before. For that reason, the new Enterprise crew makes our list.
Under the intense scrutiny of die-hard fans and casual moviegoers alike, the potential for the movie to have actors doing impressions of the original cast was very high. However, when the film was released, it became clear that Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and the others had made the characters their own. Whether it was Pine nailing the brash bravado that Kirk is known for, or fan-favorite Karl Urban mastering the cantankerous humor necessary to portray Bones, the casting was one of the strongest aspects of the hit film. Most importantly, they were all able to honor the spirit of The Original Series and never looked out of place.
The movie is by and large a showcase for the younger Enterprise crew, but Eric Bana also deserves to be mentioned for his performance as Nero. While the villain is universally accepted as one of the movie’s shortcomings, Bana was able to make the most of the underutilized character, giving audiences a sympathetic (but also threatening) enemy that was easy to understand. Because of the brilliant casting decisions, Abrams was able to introduce a new generation to Star Trek and gave Paramount a go-to tentpole franchise.
Monuments Men isn’t the first time Clooney has headlined an ensemble. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is well-known for putting together star-studded casts throughout his career. Perhaps his biggest and most famous is the one he hired for his 2001 remake of the light-hearted crime caper Ocean’s Eleven.
As its ill-fated sequels would show, putting too many major stars in one film can sometimes be an excuse for celebrities to hang out with each other and goof around. But for the first film in the trilogy, the actors were dedicated to making a fun, entertaining romp that was both slick and smart. Clooney and Brad Pitt were at the top of their games, using their real-life friendship as a catalyst for terrific on-screen chemistry. The film even gave Damon a comeback role of sorts, after the actor had starred in a few duds in the years prior. Supporting players including Bernie Mac provided some big laughs (the infamous “white-jack” sequence) and made Ocean’s Eleven a blast to watch.
The audience had “heroes” that were easy to root for, but no story is complete without a good villain. Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict came off as a smug, heartless casino owner and it was easy for audiences to side with Clooney’s caring, kind-hearted Danny Ocean. Julia Roberts (coming off an Oscar win in Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich) brought Danny’s ex-wife Tess to life and used her charm and good looks to provide the thief with all the incentive necessary to pursue a new path in life.
Quentin Tarantino is famous for either introducing audiences to a bright new talent or reinvigorating the career of an established actor. That ability was on display in full force during Pulp Fiction, as performers such as Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman received their breakout roles while John Travolta and Bruce Willis became cool again. It’s amazing what a simple line like “Zed’s dead, baby” can do.
Even now, 20 years after its release, the roles featured in the film are considered to be the most iconic for most of the actors involved. Jules and Vincent went on to become two of the most famous movie hit men. Mia Wallace’s sultry persona is a perfect embodiment of the femme fatale trope. Butch Coolidge’s cockiness and confidence not only fit Willis like a glove; those traits made him a likable character. Bit parts proved to be substantial too, as the Wolf and Marsellus Wallace (among countless others) became ingrained in the zeitgeist.
Due to Pulp Fiction’s structure (it’s essentially three short films in one big movie), all the actors get their chance to shine. Travolta was able to channel his easy-going charisma (and Saturday Night Fever dance moves) during “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” where his dynamite chemistry with Thurman fueled the early part of the film. Willis was able to use “The Gold Watch” as an opportunity to fall back into action-hero mode. “The Bonnie Situation” proved to be the coming out party for Jackson, allowing the actor to unleash his emotions in a hilarious turn that would serve as the template for the many roles to come. There’s nothing like watching a great cast firing on all cylinders, and Pulp Fiction is the textbook definition of that.
Martin Scorsese’s 21st century filmography has mainly put Leonardo DiCaprio front and center, but in 2006’s The Departed, Marty’s muse was surrounded by several other acting greats. While DiCaprio’s unhinged performance as the paranoid Billy Costigan gave the film its sympathetic hero, the Oscar-winning film wouldn’t be complete without its two main villains: Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon.
Nicholson’s unpredictable Frank Costello was one of the main reasons why The Departed features one of the most terrifying scenarios put to film. The seasoned veteran was able to give the mob boss an authoritative presence and his stature as a movie legend allowed him to easily command the respect of other characters as well as the audience. Damon – who played against type – delivered an Oscar-worthy performance, creating a despicable, smug individual that viewers loved to hate.
Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, who played Costigan’s allies in the police department, were also fine additions to the cast. Sheen’s Queenan served as a father figure to the undercover cop, being a guiding voice and calming influence during the film’s most tense moments. Wahlberg (who earned the movie’s lone acting Oscar nomination) made the most of his limited screen time as Dignam, giving us a no-nonsense Boston cop capable of making us laugh.
Like so many talented auteurs, Paul Thomas Anderson has no issue attracting A-list talent to his films. Regardless of the subject matter, Hollywood’s best actors are always willing to work with him. Case in point: 1997’s Boogie Nights, which explored the workings of the porn industry during the 1970s and 1980s.
The ensemble is an overstuffed who’s who of famous character actors that is too long to list in this space. Among the standouts are Oscar nominees Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reiley, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (who gave one of his best performances). Whether it was lending gravitas to make an adult filmmaker seem respectable (Reynolds), a smooth-talking, good-hearted salesman (Cheadle), or lonely souls searching for love and recognition (Moore and Seymour Hoffman), all of the actors gave layers to their characters. In the hands of other performers, this outrageous group could have come off as one-note, but instead the characters were deep and relatable.
Boogie Nights also served as the coming out party for one Mark Wahlberg, who displayed impressive acting chops by delivering a performance that was at times dramatic and funny. Giving off vibes of confidence and cool on the outside, Wahlberg paints Dirk Diggler as a naïve, wide-eyed youth who craves the spotlight and is dependent on the acceptance of others to get by in life. Dirk may seem like he’s living the dream, but he’s actually a troubled individual – something Wahlberg is able to convey throughout the film.
One look at David O. Russell’s filmography, it becomes clear that he has a knack for encouraging big-name talent to work with him. That’s probably because his last three films have scored an astonishing eleven acting Oscar nominations (with three wins). Four of those nods came in the recently released American Hustle, in which the director reteamed with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence to tell a story about the art of survival set during the ABSCAM operation.
While some critics found the overall film to be problematic (not ours), one point the majority agreed on was that all the actors delivered great performances. With outlandish hairstyles and loud costumes, it would have been easy for the characters in American Hustle to become caricatures, but the talented thespians playing them allowed them to be seen as real people. Bale and Adams served as dual protagonists, making their characters relatable and sympathetic by injecting some honest emotion into their performances (see: Irving’s conflicting feelings about his friendship with Carmine Polito). Cooper’s overly ambitious Richie DiMaso not only provided some of the funnier moments (the running “ice-fishing story” gag with Louis C.K.), but also crafted a character that would do anything to be respected (another relatable trait).
Lawrence stole every scene she was in as the ditzy, hot-mess that was Rosalyn, blowing up science ovens and standing her ground with gusto. Jeremy Renner, the one actor in this ensemble to not get an Oscar nod, is also worthy of a mention. His Mayor Polito was very good-natured and likable, and Renner was also responsible for one of the film’s more heartbreaking scenes. Russell let his actors improvise and run loose on set – and lucky for him, he had this talented cast.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Star Wars was considered a major risk, but prior to the influential 1977 original, that was exactly the case. 20th Century Fox took a big gamble by bankrolling George Lucas’ space opera; a situation that was only compounded when the director hired a relatively unknown cast to play the three main roles.
With its otherworldly settings and (at the time) strange jargon about Jedi Knights and the Force, it helped immensely that a trio of humans was at the center to ground the concepts in some kind of reality. Mark Hamill became an instantly relatable protagonist, capturing that feeling of aspiring for more we all have. Harrison Ford turned in a star-making performance as Han Solo, using the character as ground zero for his trademark bravado and undeniable sense of charm. Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, became one of pop culture’s strongest female characters by proving that she had the tenacity to be more than just a damsel in distress. In an Oscar nominated turn, Sir Alec Guiness gave credibility to the project by establishing one of the greatest examples of the wise, old mentor archetype ever seen.
Of course, the most recognizable character to emerge from the original film was arguably Darth Vader. While the two performers responsible for bringing the Dark Lord to life never appeared on-screen, they were also important parts of this ensemble. Body-builder David Prowse was the perfect choice to portray Vader, as he used his large frame to give the character an intimidating screen presence. But it’s the baritone voice of James Earl Jones that made the villain whole. His now famous voice is a big reason why the film was so successful and it’s hard to imagine Star Wars leaving the same impact without his vocals.
As always, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive. Be sure to share some of your favorite ensemble casts below in the comments section. Whether it’s the band Cameron Crowe got together for Almost Famous, the cops and criminals of Fargo, or the Fellowship of the Ring, there are many to choose from.
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The Monuments Men is in theaters February 7.