The Best Ensemble Casts in Movie History

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Margin Call, a fact-based thriller concerning the beginning of the financial crisis, opens tomorrow with a stellar ensemble cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, and Mary McDonnell. (And Demi Moore. Hey, can’t win ‘em all.) Throw in last month’s Contagion (featuring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard, and Elliott Gould) and December’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Mark Strong), and this is starting to look like the Season of the Ensemble. In celebration of these smart, adult movies flush with Oscar winners and fine character performers, we’ve assembled some of our favorite big-cast ensemble movies after the jump — check it out, and throw in your own in the comments.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce

David Mamet’s 1984 play Glengarry Glen Ross won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and every one of its six male characters was a showcase role—there are blow-ups, break-downs, fake-outs, and generous helpings of Mamet’s trademark rat-tat-tat back-and-forth byplay and gutter-poet dialogue. No wonder the eventual film adaptation attracted such a top-notch cast — particularly when Mamet adapted the screenplay himself, throwing in additional pathos for Lemmon’s old-timer Shelley “The Machine” Lavine, as well as the entirely new (and juicy) character of “Blake,” the hot-shot company man from the main office (played by Alec Baldwin at his absolute nastiest). Mamet’s brilliant script thus moves from Baldwin’s fierce monologue to a series of masterful duet scenes between the paired-off cast members, culminating in a second half (or act, to use the stage parlance) that tosses the six characters together into the pressure cooker of their burglarized office, and watches them boil.

Reservoir Dogs (1992) Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Edward Bunker, Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s debut film was originally intended as a micro-budget affair, with the roles of his color-coded jewel thieves played by the writer/director’s friends (and himself, in the role of “Mr. Pink”). But producer Lawrence Bender got a script to Harvey Keitel, who not only signed on to play the pivotal role of “Mr. White,” but helped raise a more respectable budget. He even financed a trip to New York to look at additional actors that Tarantino’s LA-based production might have missed. As a result of either that trip or the street cred of Keitel’s involvement (or, more likely, a combination of both), the young video store clerk’s ingenious script became a hot commodity, attracting a cast of up-and-comers (Roth, Madsen), indie faves (Roth, Penn), and certified legends (Tierney and crime novelist Bunker). That cast is so good, even Tarantino’s middling acting isn’t a distraction.

The Women (1939) Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine

Don’t worry — we’re not talking about the horrifying 2008 remake, an atrocious faux-Ephron nightmare (and exhibit A in the lawsuit that Meg Ryan should have brought against her plastic surgeon by now). No, we direct you to the 1939 original, George Cukor’s fast, snappy, bitchy, marvelous film version of Clare Boothe Luce’s play (adapted by Jane Murfin and the inimitable Anita Loos). It features an astonishing 130 speaking roles, every single one of them played by a woman — a casting feat that would surprise us today, to say nothing of 70-plus years ago. It clearly made MGM nervous; their original ad campaign featured the nakedly overcompensating tag line “It’s all about men!” Right. Advertising be damned, The Women is about women — and what women they are.

Steel Magnolias (1990) Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah

It’s tough to mount a pro-Steel Magnolias argument these days; the mere mention of its title has tends to call up the worst connotations of bathos and melodrama, thanks to the film’s ubiquity on basic cable and the never-ending productions of the original play in community theaters from here to kingdom come. Cynics can turn up their noses — we’ll go to the mat for Steel Magnolias, particularly when it comes to its charismatic, natural, and powerful cast. (Okay, except for Daryl Hannah.) The bulk of its running time is spent in one location, with its six primary characters pushing, pulling, insulting, and comforting each other, and this crew clicks together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Short Cuts (1993) Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Lily Tomlin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Buck Henry, Lyle Lovett

Nobody did the big-cast interlocking-ensemble movie like Robert Altman. From Nashville to A Wedding to Gosford Park, he was a genius at casting a wildly disparate group of actors, tossing them together, throwing the script to the wind, and watching what happened. He put together his most impressive cast for his long-gestating 1993 passion project Short Cuts, a Los Angeles epic inspired by nine short stories (and one poem) by Raymond Carver. Altman found himself “hot” again after the unexpected success of his 1992 poison valentine to Hollywood, The Player; several members of the Short Cuts cast had appeared in that film, either in fictional roles or among the scores of celebrities playing themselves. The film he came up with was not only vintage Altman (funny, heartbreaking, prickly, and devastating), but one that all but vibrated with his oft-noted love for actors. Hell, even Andie MacDowell is good in this one.

Magnolia (1999) Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards, Melora Walters, Melinda Dillon, Felicity Huffman

The influence of Altman in general, and Short Cuts in particular, is keenly felt in Paul Thomas Anderson’s emotionally relentless multi-character mosaic, which shares Short Cuts’ setting (Los Angeles), ending (an unexpected natural disaster), and even one of its actors (Julianne Moore). But unlike other, lesser filmmakers taking a swing at the faux-Altman template, it never feels like we’re watching a series of separated, dispensable stories. Anderson’s film is all one, all of a piece — his characters are all drawn from the same bold and operatic well, careening recklessly from one emotional crest to the next, barely pausing to let us take a breath. Only Cruise (doing a delightfully subversive torpedoing of his all-American movie star persona) was recognized come awards season, but there’s not a weak link in this brilliant company of actors.

Ocean’s 11/12/13 (2001/2004/2007) George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bruce Willis, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Izzard, Vincent Cassel

When Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney signed on to remake the Rat Pack vehicle from 1960, they wanted badly to make it the kind of all-star production that seemed to have flown out the window in the age of the $20 million paycheck. But the heat resonating from the filmmaker (who was fresh off his double Oscar year, for Erin Brockovich and Traffic) and the “paid vacation” element of doing a Vegas heist movie attracted an impressive cast that was willing to cut their usual cost. Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, and Scott Caan all signed on, and Soderbergh impressively juggled that giant cast, giving everyone a chance to create a memorable character and get some laughs on their way to an ingenious closing heist. One of the many names tossed about for that film who didn’t come through was Bruce Willis (he was all but set to play the casino owner role eventually filled by Andy Garcia), but he was one of the names added to the roster when the inevitable sequel was made three years later; Catherine Zeta-Jones also came on as Pitt’s love interest, and Eddie Izzard and Vincent Cassel filled out the supporting cast. The later pair returned for the third and (so far) final film three years after that, with Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin (who had heated up the screen back in ’89 with the erotic thriller Sea of Love) filling in for the now-absent Roberts, Willis, and Zeta-Jones.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Windmark, Michael York

In his wonderful book Making Movies, the late, great Sidney Lumet tells a charming story about the first read-through of his all-star film version of the Agatha Christie classic. His cast was divided evenly between distinguished veterans of the London stage (like Gielgud and Redgrave) and big-name movie stars (like Connery and Bacall). “They began to read,” writes Lumet. “I couldn’t hear anything. Everyone was murmuring their lines so quietly they were inaudible. I finally figured out what was happening. The movie stars were in awe of the theater stars; the theater stars were in awe of the movie stars. A classic case of stage fright.” If they were intimidated by each other, then what the hell are we mere mortals to make of this cast of distinguished thespians? Finney is the common thread, starring as detective Hercule Poirot, investigating the titular crime; the rest of the cast are the suspects, coming on for a few minutes at a time to do their bits and specialties. But at the end of the film, they all come together for Poirot’s final “whodunit” speech — and Finney gets seventeen minutes to act in front of an audience that must surely been, well, more than a little intimidating.

The Wild Bunch (1969) William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson

Some big names were bandied about for Sam Peckinpah’s classic and controversial 1969 Western, including Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Richard Harris, and Steve McQueen. But personas that massive might very well have upset the delicate balance of Peckinpah’s picture, a tough and bitter mediation on machismo and survival in a changing West. Though many of the men he did cast were recognizable (and a couple could even be considered stars), the group as a whole had more of a “character actor” than “movie star” feel — and that was the right vibe for the grizzled, busted-out crew of aging outlaws.

Heat (1995) Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Dennis Haysbert, Ted Levine, Danny Trejo, Tom Noonan

Sometimes, a project can generate such anticipation while merely in pre-production that people will clamor to get attached, just to be a part of something big and memorable. This was presumably the case in 1995, when Michael Mann’s cop-vs.-robber tale Heat landed the dream duo of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino for its leading roles. (Mann had only “thought of people like DeNiro and Pacino,” and was as surprised as anyone when he got them.) DeNiro and Pacino had never shared the screen before (Righteous Kill was still years away, thank God), having appeared separately, in two different timeframes, in The Godfather Part II. The thrill of joining the movie that would bring the two Method titans together pulled in Val Kilmer (hot off Batman Forever) and Ashley Judd, as well as character actors like Mykelti Williamson (a year past Forrest Gump), Ted Levine (aka “Buffalo Bill” in Silence of the Lambs), future Machete star Danny Trejo, and little Natalie Portman. As a result, the A-list cast (and Mann’s stylish direction) lift this one well above its B-movie roots.