Picture this; Dave Grohl on drums, Flea on bass, Stevie Wonder on keyboards, Bruce Springsteen on rhythm guitar, Prince on lead guitar, Chris Martin on piano, Robert Plant on vocals. Surely a coming together this wondrous would lead to ultimate world peace and unity. But the odd guest slot aside, the music world rarely grants us such wish fulfilment, and neither do many other artistic endeavours. Escher, Bacon and Warhol never collaborated on the ultimate canvas. Faulks, Bradbury and Salinger never got together for the perfect read. But the movie world has no qualms about gathering its talent collectively for a grand coming together. The Lucas, Spielberg and Williams trio, the vast casts of Scorsese, Burton and Depp, Kurosawa and Mifune, Allen and Keaton, Woo and Yun Fat. The holy grail of this collaborative style of filmmaking is the ensemble cast, a stupendous combination of talent that makes every passing minute of a film a pleasure to behold. When there are so many vivacious characters crowding a film you aren’t going to be more than a second or two from enjoyment. Such combos can rescue an average script and turn fluff into eternal treasure. We’ve seen some great ensembles barge their way into other FilmsFilmsFilms entries, The Great Escape (1963), The Godfather (1972), Pulp Fiction (1994), Boogie Nights (1997), The Departed (2006), but here to bulk out your movie collection is the best ensemble of ensembles.
- THE LONGEST DAY (1962)
When it comes to research, Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 book The Longest Day set a new benchmark. To accurately retell the story of D-Day the first day of the Normandy Invasion, over three years of work was undertaken locating and interviewing survivors of the assault. In total more than 3,000 interviews were carried out. But rather than present the retelling as a staid historical account Ryan’s book read almost as a work of fiction, following particular characters and individuals through the day. It was a unique take that openly courted cinematic adaptation. Determined to present a thorough view of D-Day from all angles (though rather notoriously, the Canadian troops who played such a key role were absent) the studio not only plumped for a massive ensemble cast, but an ensemble of directors to, Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald and Darryl F Zanuck sharing directorial duties for the film’s different episodes and exteriors. At three hours the quintet certainly had plenty of running time to work with, and with around two thirds of the film dedicated to the beach assault itself, there’s plenty of war movie action for fans to enjoy; perhaps a little too much though, the constant barrage becomes a bit overwhelming at times. The graphic realities of battle are also largely absent and pale when compared to Spielberg’s shattering Saving Private Ryan (1998). But as a collection of acting talent The Longest Day is a veritable who’s who of early sixties performers and stands as possibly the most star packed movie of all time. Heading into theatrical battle were, among others, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, Robert Wagner, Frank Finlay, Leslie Phillips, Richard Todd, Gert Frobe and Curt Jurgens.
Tasty Morsel – The title for Ryan’s book was taken from a quote by German Officer Erwin Rommel aka. The Desert Fox, on 22nd April 1944 “…the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive…the fate of Germany depends on the outcome…for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”
- MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Writers don’t come much more prolific than Agatha Christie. A library of over sixty five crime novels no doubt keeps the Christie family well stocked in tea and scones. And while quantity doesn’t always equal quality, amongst the Oxfordshire writer’s work sits a handful of books that are true classics of the genre, none more so than 1934’s Murder On The Orient Express. The template for the whodunit thriller, Christie’s novel has been adapted for the big and small screen a number of times. The best of these remains Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version, chiefly due to the impressive cast he managed to pull together. The final line up included actors from every corner of the acting profession; Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Windmark, and Michael York. Some years later Lumet recalled the first read through when his cast of players gathered together for the first time. With that many egos and range of performers in the room, everyone was guarded, “When they began to read, I couldn’t hear anything” Lumet recalled. It seemed no one wanted to give anything away, the A-list movie stars wary of the stage actors, and the stage actors cautious of having to perform alongside their Hollywood counterparts. Lumet summed it up as a classic case of “stage fright”. But whatever bonding session Lumet put them all through it worked and the final film was a triumph. Anchored around Albert Finney’s central performance as Hercule Poirot, the varied cast bring all of their experience and talent to bear to create a superb whole. Everyone gets their moment to shine, but no performer out-does another. When the finale arrives its Finney’s turn to take the spot light, with that classic reveal that everyone done it in the end. It’s a seventeen minute tour-de-force from Finney that caps off the thriller movies best ensemble outing.
Tasty Morsel – Finney was third choice for the Poirot, the role already having been offered to Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield.
- GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)
A film where explosive swearing is the rule of thumb and Al Pacino is in the cast; you’d be forgiven then for thinking that Pacino proceeded to chew enough scenery to create an Everest sized sawdust pile. But in James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s stage production Pacino is the understated one. That’s the sort of movie Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) is, a tale of two days with a group of four real estate salesmen that’s unexpected, riveting and an acting master class yet to be rivalled. As you’d expect from a film based on a play it’s a character study with very few set changes. But when the central players are made up of Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jonathon Pryce and Alec Baldwin scene and set changes matter not. It’s a cast that could have acted the script on a bare stage and no one would have complained. Director James Foley later remarked than even when the actors weren’t required for a scene they would turn up on set just to watch their colleagues work, such was the level of performance being created. Though it failed to light up the box office, the film has become legend amongst aspiring actors, the gold standard of onscreen performance by which all other serious slices of cinema are judged. It’s telling that the Academy didn’t bestow any Statuettes for acting honours to any of those involved in the film; it would have been impossible to single out any one performance. First performed in 1983, the stage play had already drummed up significant interest in Hollywood when talks of a film adaptation began in the late eighties. Tony Mantegna, who won a Tony Award in 1985 for his portrayal of the central Ricky Roma role, expressed a keen interest, as did Richard Gere, Robert De Niro, and Bruce Willis among others. But Foley was given free reign to choose the specific actors he wanted, and once assembled he set about the unusual task of shooting long sections of script each day. It was a unique take which retained the stage play feel of the original script and allowed the group of actors to craft one of the most highly regarded ensemble films of all time.
Tasty Morsel – Alec Baldwin’s infamous “coffee is for closers” speech was written by David Mamet specifically for the film and did not feature in the original stage play.
- HEAT (1995)
Need a stylised but earthy crime drama? Michael Mann’s your man. The writer/director quietly honed his particular brand of neon-lit action during the eighties with the likes of Manhunter (1986) and his stint as executive producer for the TV show Miami Vice. Critical plaudits followed for his The Last of the Mohicans (1993) but it was Mann’s next project that cemented the Angelinos reputation as the go-to-guy for slick but gritty LA based drama; his 1995 remake of his own made-for-TV film LA Takedown (1989). Itself based on the real life pursuit by Detective Chuck Adamson of career criminal Neil McCauley, one of the ideas that drew Mann to the story was a bizarre meeting between the lawman and the thief at a coffee shop where the pair discussed the possible outcomes of their ongoing duel. Using his beloved hometown as the canvas, Mann envisioned the ultimate contest between LA’s best cop and its top criminal. And there were only two names in the running, two giants of the craft who had yet to feature together in the same cinematic frame, to fill their boots. The fact that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro would finally be going head to head would have been enough to sell Heat (1995) alone, but Mann didn’t rest there. As well as these two greats, the director managed to pack out his cast with the likes of Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbeart, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman, Hank Azaria, Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins, Xander Berkeley and Jeremy Piven, among others. The short central diner scene (filmed straight off with no rehearsals, as insisted upon by De Niro and Pacino) is the bristling core of the movie. But around it every other scene sizzles, infused with utter realism on a background of an otherworldly cityscape thanks to a full cast that are all on top form and the sort of cinematography known to make film fans weep.
Tasty Morsel – Mann did away with his original LA Takedown ending which had Waingro shooting De Niro’s McCauley through his hotel door, before Hanna knocks him out of the room’s window to his death, leaving the McCauley character dying in the cop’s arms.
- HAMLET (1996)
Anyone who studies the English language at school has to do battle with Shakespeare at some point. And a battle it is, trying to decipher what might as well be a foreign language, just so we can figure out whose doing what to whom. Cliffs Notes have saved many a student’s sanity. But if you stick with the immortal Bard long enough you’ll get that light-bulb moment when you realise why lecturers have been banging on about his genius for so long. My moment came during A-levels when I was wrestling with Shakespeare’s magnum opus Hamlet. Struggling with such a weighty piece of theatre I broke the story down to as small a part as I could reasonably get my head around; I took one single line and focused my grey matter. What I realised was that Shakespeare made every single line of text its own mini masterpiece. Each single word was specifically chosen to add layers and symbolism to an ongoing plot. With this much detail to pack in, any film adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest work needs to be steered by an acting genius. Hamlet (1996) had just such a master on hand in Kenneth Branagh, this generation’s Olivier. The Belfast born thesp offered up one of the most spectacular achievements in twentieth century cinema by acting a show stopping rendition of the title role in front of camera, and marshalling one of the most star laden casts behind camera as director. Branagh cast not only well schooled Shakespearean actors (Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, John Gielgud), but Hollywood A-listers (Kate Winslet, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie), acting legends (John Mills, Jack Lemmon, Gerard Depardieu, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench), comedy heroes (Ken Dodd, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams) and an assortment of other fascinating performers (Rufus Sewell, Richard Briers, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington). There isn’t a part in the film that isn’t played by a familiar face adept at holding an audiences attention. Not content to rest there, Branagh also delivered a visual delight to match the legendary dialogue (it was the first unabridged theatrical version of the play), each scene packed with colour and interest, and many additional asides added to the traditional text, flashbacks, dream sequences and more. All told, Hamlet marked the greatest ever cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare play and one of the finest gatherings of actors in the history of Hollywood.
Tasty Morsel – It’s rumoured that Billy Crystal and Robin Williams were asked to remain away from the set when not filming for fear they would amuse the cast and crew to such a degree the shoot would be delayed.
- THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
The directorial equivalent of Daniel Day Lewis, genius helmer Terrence Malick only graces cinema every few years; but when he does, what movies he delivers. When Malick announced that he was returning to the director’s chair after twenty years absence to film an adaptation of James Jones 1962 novel The Thin Red Line his phone lit up. And in a nod to the star laden war movies of the fifties and sixties Malick was able to utilise his near mythic filmmaker status to acquire one of the biggest casts of the last century, including Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Adrian Brody, John C Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney, Nick Stahl, Thomas Jane, John Savage, and Tim Blake Nelson. On top of that Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, and Mickey Rourke all filmed scenes for the movie which eventually ended up on the cutting room floor. Jones novel had already been adapted for film two years after publication by Andrew Marton in 1964, and two years after Marton had contributed to the ensemble war piece The Longest Day. Where as Marton’s film concentrated on one soldier’s growing dejection through a series of battles in the far-East arena of World War II, Malick spread his story across a range of supporting players who pepper the plot and accompany Caviezel’s Private Witt on his journey from disgraced abstainer to tragic hero. Landing in cinemas the same year as Saving Private Ryan (1998) did Malick’s film few favours though. Spielberg’s movie had such a visceral impact that Malick’s more contemplative, reflective offering got blown out of the water. But in hindsight it stands as a fascinating counterpoint, a geographical accompaniment to Spielberg’s war on European soil. Malick only stayed away from the director’s chair for a mere seven years next time, releasing The New World (2005) as a beguiling follow-up.
Tasty Morsel – Such was the amount of footage shot and significant cuts to the running time, a number of actors were surprised to see the majority of their work missing from the final film. Notably, Adrian Brody, who was assured he would be carrying the movie, was less than pleased when he onscreen time amounted to five minutes and two lines of dialogue.
- MAGNOLIA (1999)
The danger of the large ensemble cast is too many cooks spoiling the broth. With so many different characters having their own stories, a plot can quickly unravel if they aren’t all marshalled from start to finish with a sure hand. The lazy answer is to make all the characters somehow related (hello Love Actually (2003), Valentine’s Day (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011)). The smart answer is to write a great script. With only his second directorial effort Paul Thomas Anderson had shown his talent in handling a heavyweight laden cast of performers all chipping in on a brilliant screenplay, Boogie Nights (1997). His third offering, Magnolia (1999) raised the bar even further, and even though its central thread was a narrative spun around three instances of incredible coincidence, not once does the film feel contrived. The success of Boogie Night provided Anderson with the rare freedom to do whatever he wanted for his next picture and the director took full advantage, bringing his own script to the screen with a hand-picked cast of top acting talent. Tom Cruise lobbied Anderson for a part in his ensemble but was nervous when Anderson offered him the role of Frank Mackey, the self-help expert who schools nervous men on who to successfully pick up women. It turned out to be Cruise’s best performance for years and put a welcome smudge on the actor’s typically squeaky clean cinematic image. That the performance didn’t steal the film is a credit to the other cast members who offer up slightly less controversial but no less memorable character studies, John C Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, William H Macy, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, and a supporting cast of many familiar faces and names. Some critics bemoaned the film’s climatic turn towards the surreal, with the scene-to-scene cast sing-along for “Wise Up”, and the sudden froggy downpour. But it was the perfect way to tie together the different threads of a moving and deeply affecting ensemble piece without the jarring full-stop of the atypical Hollywood ending.
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for a small cameo from Anderson as the man confiscating the “Exodus 8:2” sign from an audience member at the start of the “What Do Kids Know?” show.
- HARRY POTTER AND THE … (2001- 2011)
When J.K Rowling concocted her million selling Harry Potter novels she wrote with some very particular faces in mind. For some characters, such as Hagrid and Prof. Snape, she even pictured the very person she wanted to play the part should her books one day find their way onto the big screen. When Warner Bros. decided to bankroll the Potter adaptations most of Hollywood’s A-list dusted off their wizarding robes and sharpened up their British accents. But Rowling stood her ground and did what any right-minded Potter aficionado would have done; she insisted on a full British cast. The Potter films became a celebration of British acting talent and film production. The Hogwart students aside every role went to a familiar Brit, most of whom were tailor made for their roles thanks to Rowling’s unique characterisation and eye for picking the right person for the job. Who better for Lord Voldermort than Amon Goeth / Francis Dolarhyde himself Ralph Fiennes? Who could have filled Hagrid’s size forty fours better than Robbie Coltrane? Who could have grounded the noble Sirius Black better than Gary Oldman? It was a roll call of greats from the first film to the last. The movies themselves were note perfect, the magical school setting pulling in the kids, the surprisingly heavy horror tones entertaining the adults. And Hogwarts is a world we can all picture ourselves living in. The cosy feasts in the great hall, the never-ending supply of secret corridors, the friendly ghosts wandering the grounds. The teachers are more surrogate parents, and the even the most strict of the bunch is the film stealing Professor Snape, brought to life by Alan Rickman doing his best Alan Rickman impression. By the time The Deathly Hallows (2010) rolled around the central trio were superstars themselves. It completed the greatest triumph of ensemble filmmaking Britain has ever seen.
Tasty Morsel – Coltrane’s towering Hagrid body double was 6ft10 international rugby player Martin Bayfield.
- OCEAN'S ELEVEN (2001)
How the studio behind Ocean’s Eleven (2001) managed to afford the combined wage bill for Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (1960) remake is a wonder of the modern age. I expect most of the cast agreed to pay cuts thanks to the promise of six weeks pissing about on the Las Vegas strip; Sinatra and his Rat Pack cohorts certainly had fun with the original. But you’d also expect the combined smuggery and blinding good looks of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts to have created an unapproachable vanity piece. Somehow, the opposite came true. The cast look like they’re having so much genuine fun the resulting movie is the most effortlessly watchable film of all time. Sensibly, Soderbergh surrounded the hefty A-list mob with a sparkling supporting crowd who threaten their own heist and almost steal the picture. Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner and Bernie Mac have so many great moments between them you’re never more than a few seconds away from a film highlight. Combined with a sassy script chock full of winning lines the cast ensure that all 111 minutes are prime cuts of the shiny Hollywood machine operating at its very best. What amazes even more is that the story doesn’t get lost under the weight of all the talent going about their business. Clooney’s Danny Ocean smoothly sets out the magnitude of their operation early on, robbing three of the biggest casinos in Vegas in one night. It is an operation so blindingly impossible you keep waiting for a sudden plot turn to make the task conveniently achievable. But it doesn’t arrive and in the end it’s a combination of perfect scams that completes cinema’s greatest ever robbery. You’ll sit scratching you head along with Garcia’s Terry Benedict before laughing at how wonderful the whole operation was. The two sequels Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) added even more star power (Vincent Cassel, Catherine Zeta Jones, Albert Finney, Al Pacino) but their scores weren’t quite so mind blowing as Danny’s original swindle, and that anticipated smug-self-satisfaction finally showed up to sour the party.
Tasty Morsel –Luke and Owen Wilson were original cast to play the brother Virgil and Turk, but dropped out to film The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), while Matt Damon’s Linus role was originally intended for Mark Wahlberg.
- THE EXPENDABLES / THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2010 / 2012)
The rumours and expectation surrounding Sylvester Stallone’s 2010 action fest The Expendables (2010) were nearly as entertaining as the movie itself. The muscled superstars of eighties cinema had long since disappeared by the turn of the twenty-first century. But one of their number clawed his way back into Hollywood’s good graces, Sly Stallone mounting a comeback via the success of Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008). The films revealed two things. First, fans were willing to part with cash for the nostalgic feeling of seeing their old action heroes kick some ass. Second, said action heroes, despite getting on in years, still looked good on the big screen. Stallone hatched a plan to try and reunite as many of the old guard as possible for one last bazooka fuelled blast. He also picked up his pen to write the script and got behind the camera to marshal the fireworks. The story itself was pulled straight out of the A-Team handbook. Stallone as Barney Ross heads a crack team of mercenaries called in to diffuse tricky situations with a large quota of quips and Uzis. His right hand man is cockney skinhead Jason Staham, with the rest of the squad is filled with the tantalising combo of martial arts legends Randy Couture and Jet Li, former sparring partner Dolph Lungren, the ever dependable Terry Crews, and Stallone chum Mickey Rourke. The bad guys were equally star laden, with Eric Roberts and WWE star Stone Cold Steve Austin heading the roster. But it was the action-porn coming together of Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger that really pulled in the punters, one scene that placed the threesome onscreen for the first time ever in a Pacino/DeNiro Heat -esque moment of cinema history. This scene was expanded to a whole movie with The Expendables 2 (2012), which saw the Planet Hollywood trio tool up and take names. A second sequel is in the offing which will hopefully deliver a plot that matches the brilliance of the cast.
Tasty Morsel – The role of Hale Caesar was originally written for Wesley Snipes. With Snipes neck deep in tax conundrums it was rewritten for Forest Whittaker. When Whittaker pulled out 50 Cent grabbed the part, before it eventually fell to Terry Crews.