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Actor Overload: Great Ensemble Casts of the Movies

Actor Overload: Great Ensemble Casts of the Movies

Articles - Acting

Every once in a while a movie comes along with an ensemble cast so improbably spectacular that you just have to wonder who the director had to kill to get everyone on board. For Anglophiles, one such movie is Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, hitting U.S. theaters tomorrow. The spy thriller, based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carré, stars Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Hardy. The film’s smorgasbord of acting talent inspired us at MM to take a look at remarkable ensemble films from years past. There are certainly more films worthy of recognition than what we’ve listed here—Cannonball Run, A Bridge Too Far and Ocean’s Eleven (the original and the remake) among them—so if we missed your favorite, drop us a line in the comments.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
directed by Stanley Kramer

This ultimate screwball comedy features just about every comedic actor who Kramer could squeeze into its 154 minute run time. While comedy legends (deep breath now) Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jimmy Durante, Jim Backus, Peter Falk and Jonathan Winters (in his film debut) all had sizable speaking roles, Kramer didn’t use see his already stellar main cast as an excuse to skimp on the cameos. Among the actors with bite-size roles are Don Knotts, Buster Keaton, Carl Reiner, Jerry Lewis and the Three Stooges, who had the film’s shortest (and funniest) cameo; as a trio of firefighters who arrive on the scene to quench a blaze started by the obnoxious dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), the trio were on screen for all of five seconds. In addition to its comedy credentials, the movie earned its dramatic chops by casting Spencer Tracy as Culpepper, the much put-upon police captain who observes the wacky adventures (and stupid decisions) of the remaining cast with a sort of stupefied amazement that, in many cases, mirrors what the audience is feeling.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
directed by Sidney Lumet

OK, so Oscars aren’t everything. But still. While Murder on the Orient Express won only one golden statuette—courtesy of Ingrid Bergman’s performance as Greta, the slightly addled Swedish missionary who went to Africa to help the “little brown babies” there—you have to admit that the sheer number of Oscar wins and nominations racked up by the movie’s cast and crew is pretty impressive. Richard Widmark, who played the mysterious American businessman whose (spoiler) titular murder tilts Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) into full-on detective mode, reportedly only took the role so that he could meet the movie’s other stars. And really, with a cast that includes Bergman, Finney, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave and Lauren Bacall, who can blame him?

The Towering Inferno (1974)
directed by John Guillermin

While some other movies on this list have a larger cast than The Towering Inferno—and some even have a more eclectic range of actors—this 1970s disaster movie is remarkable in that it features one of the oddest, most Huh?-inducing on-screen interactions in the history of film. The heroic efforts of Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) and architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) have extinguished the fire that has consumed the tallest building in the world and killed hundreds of people in the process, among them a Senator (Robert Vaughn) and a public relations master (Robert Wagner) who chose the worst possible time to cut the phone lines in his office so he could canoodle with his secretary. As the survivors struggle down to the street level, Roberts embraces his girlfriend (Faye Dunaway), the building’s owner (William Holden) comforts his daughter over the death of her husband (Richard Chamberlain)… and the building’s chief security officer approaches an old man who is frantically searching for his (tragically deceased) girlfriend. When the security officer reaches the old man, the former places the girlfriend’s miraculously unharmed cat into the latter’s arms, says “Sorry” and walks back into the dramatically billowing smoke, leaving the old man with only his grief and his new cat. The old man is Fred Astaire. The security officer? O.J. Simpson. Short of Shaquille O’Neal sharing screen time with Peter O’Toole, it’s hard to conceive of a stranger on-screen pairing ever becoming reality.
Hamlet (1996)
directed by Kenneth Branagh

The number of Oscar wins the cast of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet has collectively racked up over the years is impressive, sure, but even moreso is the sheer number of recognizable actors, famous from a variety of different genres, whom Branagh managed to get. You want stage-trained Brits? How about Derek Jacobi, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Rufus Sewell, Julie Christie, Rosemary Harris and Branagh himself? Representing the colonies are Charlton Heston and Jack Lemmon, but if you prefer international actors, why, Gérard Depardieu is there, too. While Hamlet isn’t exactly the most knee-slapping of Shakespeare’s plays, some comedians show up as well, namely Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Kate Winslet, whose career would take a huge leap a year after Hamlet‘s release with her starring role in Titanic, earned her doomed-heroine-submerged-in-water acting chops as Ophelia. And let’s not forget about John Gielgud and Judi Dench as the Trojan monarchs Priam and Hecuba. The two legendary actors have no lines, but there’s a good reason for that: As subjects of a monologue given to Hamlet by the Player King, Priam and Hecuba aren’t actually characters in the play, and as such aren’t normally cast in it. Not that that stopped Branagh, but if you already got Richard Attenborough on your film for the meaty role of “English Ambassador,” you might as well go whole hog.

Gosford Park (2001)
directed by Robert Altman

You can’t write about ensemble movies without at least mentioning Robert Altman. In Gosford Park, one of the legendary auteur’s final films, a relaxed (…or not) weekend shooting party in an English country house is throw into disarray after family patriarch Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) is murdered in his study. Well, that’ll do it. Given that it’s directed by Altman, it’s no surprise that the film weaves together multiple story lines and character arcs, among them that of a devoted housekeeper (Helen Mirren), a hilariously fussy Countess (Maggie Smith), a valet with a mysterious past (Clive Owen), the world’s most ineffective detective (Stephen Fry) and a butler (or so he claims) with what may be the worst Scottish accent ever committed to film (Ryan Phillippe). The cherry on the top of this enjoyable film comes in the form of character Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), an American film producer who is at Gosford Park as research for his upcoming film, which so happens to be a Charlie Chan mystery about… well, the plot of Gosford Park, basically. (“…Most of it takes place at a shooting party in a country house. Sort of like this one, actually. Murder in the middle of the night, a lot of guests for the weekend, everyone’s a suspect. You know, that sort of thing.”) As the household devolves into chaos following the murder, Weissman can be seen now and again talking on the phone with a Hollywood studio, his commentary about his film serving as an amusing counterpart to Altman’s. (“They’re talking to me about rewrites about the part of the Cockney maid, and she ‘s running in and saying all these things… Look, I’m here. They don’t talk.”)

Love Actually (2003)
directed by Richard Curtis

The Brits are at it again with this ensemble romantic comedy, which follows eight couples (plus a few assorted hangers-on) as they look for love in the five weeks before Christmas. The overstuffed film casts a wide net, packing so many rom-com tropes into its 135-minute run time that at least one of them is bound to connect with every single person who watches the film. You want to see a man (Liam Neeson) trying to open himself up to love again after death of his wife? It’s here. How about an adorable eight-year-old trying to win over his first crush? Here as well. A man (Andrew Lincoln) who’s in love with his best friend’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wife (Keira Knightley)? An rich author (Liam Neeson) falling for his housekeeper? A wife (Emma Thompson) coping with the possible infidelity of her long-time husband (Alan Rickman)? A mousy office worker (Laura Linney) who pines for a coworker (Rodrigo Santoro) from afar? Ditto. Ditto. Ditto. Ditto. Love Actually’s diverse cast of characters is put through the wringer by love of the familial sort, the platonic friendship sort, the meet-cute sort, the sexual sort, the shooting-glances-across-a-crowded-room sort and the unrequited sort (boy howdy), making for an enjoyable movie, albeit one with no chance of actually resolving all the plotlines it’s introduced.

The Expendables (2010)
directed by Sylvester Stallone

It’s terms of having a critically loved, Oscar-winning cast, it’s no Hamlet, but for those with fond memories of ‘80s action films, The Expendables is hard to beat. The film features the acting talents of Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Randy Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Jet Li and Jason Statham. (OK, so those last two aren’t ‘80s action stars. Just go with it.) If you think that that cast is as testosterone-filled as it could possibly be, you’d be wrong. Next summer’s The Expendables 2 gives an extended role to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had an uncredited cameo in the first movie, and just about every action star absent from the first one (like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage) is either confirmed or rumored to be appearing in the sequel.

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