Oftentimes, a film’s advertising focuses primarily on star power. A cast lead by a DiCaprio or a Clooney will play up the pedigree of actor, occasionally throwing a few Academy Nominees in supporting roles. It is kind of like back in the 1990s when an basketball team that had Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal on it was surely going to win a few games and get a lot of press. Those men just bring greatness with them.
Then there are the films that stack the deck with big names in hopes of drawing in as large an audience as possible. A lot of failed Oscar-bait such as Pay It Forward, Nine and Bobby tend to front load themselves with top tier names, making their hollow thuds come February that much louder.
Of course, there’s the rare exception where the work itself attracts some of the best working actors available. When David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross was adapted for the screen in 1992, every role was filled with a major name – from Jack Lemmon’s antsy, desperate salesman to Al Pacino‘s macho, uber-confident con artist.
Glengarry is one of the best examples of an ensemble cast in cinematic history. But there’s a distinct difference between an ensemble cast like the Mamet work and a supporting cast. An ensemble is clearly meant for each role to share equal importance. A supporting cast, however, is another story. Here are some of the most impressive supporting casts out there. Some of these films are sadly forgotten or overlooked, but surely their casting directors deserved plenty of recognition.
15. Thirteen Days
Tim Burton‘s ode to the worst filmmaker of all time doubles as a chance for the director to show off his usual band of oddball character actors. The film stars Jeffrey Jones (pre-sex offender status) and Bill Murray comically re-enacting the already eccentric onscreen personas of Wood’s own troupe.
Ed Wood also features Martin Landau as a note-perfect washed up Bela Lugosi, with whom Wood formed an unlikely and ultimately tragic friendship. The actual Wood’s own career may have ended in a downward spiral of sexploitation films, smut novels and alcoholism, but Burton’s tribute to him is a triumphant celebration of can-do spirit in the face of impossible odds. Murray is particularly delightful as Bunny Breckinridge, a sardonic, openly gay friend who wrangles transvestites for the director. Burton’s movie turned something that was a little tawdry into something memorable.
13. Gosford Park
Robert Altman’s films play like early, more scripted and precise mumblecore. His naturalist style often has the camera panning across multiple conversations, such as in the opening shot of his Hollywood satire The Player (itself an homage to the opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil). It is a unique aspect of his films that are different than the typical summer “White House blows up” opening scenes.
His anti-Hollywood, subversive sense of humour drew in a lot of curious big name actors to fill his largely ensemble casts, the most accomplished being his 2001 murder mystery Gosford Park. From Bob Balaban’s vegetarian Hollywood producer (who wears fur) to Michael Gambon’s crusty English nobleman, each role is cast to perfection. The script was written by Julian Fellowes, whose Downtown Abbey was originally intended as a spinoff from Park. Sometimes art can be difficult to appreciate. However, like a fine wine, it is more appreciated with year that passes more and more.
12. Capricorn One
During and following the Watergate scandal in 1972, America was a haven for conspiracy theorists. This was less than a decade after an extremely unpopular war, a harrowing battle for civil rights and the assassinations of three political leaders. But of the conspiracies surrounding the 60s and 70s, Watergate was the only one to ever be fully realized.
As a result, Hollywood was left reflecting a paranoid wasteland under the Ford and Carter years. One of the more outlandish theories explored was the notion that the moon landing was faked and filmed in a studio somewhere in Burbank, California; a theory that, thanks to the internet, still persists today – possibly even on a larger scale than in the days of inception.
Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One follows three astronauts forced to recreate a successful Mars landing in a studio, only to suddenly be murdered soon after. The cast is a major selling point, led by living embodiment of the 70s Elliot Gould who is supported by James Brolin, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Karen Black and Kojack himself, Telly Savalas.
11. Shutter Island
A Scorsese film always draws a major actor, usually led by whoever happens to be serving as the director’s muse (in early years it was De Niro, today DiCaprio fills those shoes). Scorsese’s films and the star actor usually rise in fame and status like two shooting stars headed toward the same part of the galaxy. It is a testament to actors and directors making beautiful art together.
In Shutter Island, the director’s adaptation of the paranoid, claustrophobic Dennis Lehane novel finds him returning to his roots and inspirations more than any other recent work – summoning the spirits of Val Lewton, Roger Corman and German expressionism. The cast is as such packed with not just big names like DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Sir Ben Kingsley, but even the smaller roles are filled by well-known character actors such as Jackie Earl Haley, Elias Koteas and, in a sublimely surreal performance, Ted Levine.
10. Miller’s Crossing
Like Scorsese, there are few actors that don’t want to work with the Coen Bros. Whatever they seem to touch turns right into gold. Their 1990 Irish gangster film, a loose adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key, finds the perfect balance of Coen regulars like Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro and headliners Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden. The two standouts, however, are surely Albert Finney’s arrogant Boss Tweed-figure and J.E. Freeman’s psychopathic, homosexual hitman.
The dialogue in the film reads like poetry, with a rhythm David Mamet would envy. It’s no surprise that the brothers suffered writer’s block halfway through and set it aside to write Barton Fink, a film about writer’s block. Fortunately, the entire cast and crew made it through the film to create a cast as solid as the bench for the San Antonio Spurs during their championship years.
9. The Untouchables
Like many directors, Brian De Palma works with a stable of reliable actors, but his best cast finds most of them absent. Working from a script by David Mamet, De Palma’s cartoonish, vividly coloured Prohibition-era Chicago has more in common with the TV show it was upon which it was based than any of the facts surrounding the takedown of notorious bootlegger and crime kingpin Al Capone.
Initially, Capone was to be played by Bob Hoskins, whose stature and appearance was more in line with the actual mob figure. However, Hoskins had just come off the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and the studio was concerned his appearance as a heavy would generate laughter. The role was filled with Robert De Niro.
Apart from De Niro’s over the top performance, Untouchables also earned Sean Connery his only Oscar win. The rest of the cast includes Andy Garcia, American Graffiti’s Charles Martin Smith, improv legend Del Close, Patricia Clarkson and cult favourite Billy Drago.
Look for an uncredited John Barrowman as a street extra.
8. The Poseidon Adventure
The 1970s was the golden age of the disaster film. Outside of groundbreaking films such as Chinatown and The Godfather, it seemed what audiences wanted to see most were their favourite actors blown up or drowned real good. Producer Irwin Allen was the brainchild of such films. Earthquake!, The Towering Inferno and, to much lesser box office or critical success, The Swarm were all brainchildren of Allen’s. Of the master of disaster’s oeuvre, The Poseidon Adventure is the one film in which his trademark ensemble cast has a lead. Inferno had Paul Newman and Steve McQueen battling for the lead role and Earthquake! has a tendency to throw every famous person it can at you in a mishmash, confused mess.
Adventure found a lead in Gene Hackman‘s tired priest figure, who after a cruise liner overturns must lead a group of survivors to safety. Those survivors include Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, and Shelly Winters. And the captain who capsizes the ship? Leslie Nielsen.
7. True Romance
Quentin Tarantino was still a year away from becoming a household name when his script for True Romance was filmed by director Tony Scott. Still, his penchant for idiosyncratic dialogue drew what some would argue is one of the most impressive cast of its kind. The resulting film is a jumbled mess, some one-off scenes such as the tete-a-tete between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper are inspired bits of eccentricity, others fall on Scott’s clearly tone-deaf ears.
But it’s hard to resist a movie that features Gary Oldman as a pimp who desperately wants to be black, Val Kilmer as Elvis, Brad Pitt as a stoner, James Gandolfini as a heavy, Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore, the infamous Tom Sizemore, as overzealous police officers and Canadian character actor Saul Rubinek in a revelatory performance as a coked out film producer. To get all of these actors to work together and create something worthwhile was a feat itself.
6. Runaway Jury
This entire list could be comprised of John Grisham adaptations. The Firm, The Rainmaker and even The Gingerbread Man (the writer’s only credited screenplay) boast embarrassingly large casts.
Jury was the last adaptation of his legal thrillers (though two family films have been made from his other works), and much of its marketing was focused on the pairing of Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman as opposing shadow operators during a gun trial. The two had been roommates as struggling actors in the 70s, but had never appeared onscreen together.
The rest of the cast in what is otherwise a mediocre legal thriller is equally impressive, with John Cusack, his lifelong friend Jeremy Piven, Bruce Davison, Orlando Jones, Bruce McGill, Cliff Curtis, Nora Dunn, an uncredited Dylan McDermott and the recently departed Bill Nunn.
5. The Insider
Michael Mann‘s All The President’s Men-esque true thriller about Brown and Williamson whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and the legal battle to get his 60 Minutes interview aired is one of the director’s most accomplished works. If anything, it features an antithetical Russell Crowe performance as the middle-aged, beer-bellied Wigand – a role sucked dry of the hubris his Oscar winning turn in Gladiator provided a year later. Pacino also delivers solid post-Scent of a Woman shouting as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman.
The smaller roles are comprised of Mann regulars like the always reliable Bruce McGill and Debi Mazar. It also includes Canadian everyman Colm Feore as a Southern attorney, Phillip Baker Hall as CBS’ Don Hewitt and the legendary character actor and raconteur Stephen Tobolowsky as CBS news president Eric Kluster.
The biggest turn, however, comes from Christopher Plummer, delivering a dead on Mike Wallace when he’s in the interview chair and a heartbreakingly intimate look at the journalist off-camera.
4. Crimes and Misdemeanours
It’s been said that Woody Allen trusts his casting director completely, which has admittedly led to some missteps in the past. Woody Allen surrogates have ranged from decent (John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway) to just imitative (Larry David in Whatever Works) to downright baffling (Jason Biggs in Anything Else or Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity). Usually, it’s best for the neurotic New Yorker just plays himself.
Of the many actors in Allen’s casts, he has said that Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanours is the only one to read the dialogue precisely as it was written. One of Allen’s best films follows two stories – Landau’s murderous ophthalmologist and Allen’s put-upon documentary filmmaker – that blend into an unexpected Dostoyevskyian tragicomedy. Like in Law and Order, a show that both made their careers in, both Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach appear – though never in the same scene (ADA McCoy and Detective Briscoe didn’t share much screen time, either).
But the treasure is Alan Alda, doing a grating impression of MASH creator Larry Gelbart, who both Allen and Alda despised.
3. The Client
The Client is, arguably, the best of the Grisham adaptations; a taut, intelligent and highly accessible blockbuster shot against the cold, unforgiving steel of downtown Memphis and the childlike innocence of its poverty-stricken outskirts. Every lead is expertly cast, from Tommy Lee Jones‘ obscenely entertaining, scripture quoting prosecutor to newcomer Brad Renfro’s intimidated witness.
No one’s ever claimed Joel Schumacher makes perfect cinema, but The Client and Falling Down come as close as he ever will to greatness.
It doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast is loaded with every character actor working in Hollywood at the time of the film’s shooting schedule. There literally isn’t a single role who isn’t at the very least a “that guy” to most audiences. Jones’ team is run by West Wing alum Bradley Whitford, the late, great J.T. Walsh, Anthony Heald, Will Patton and William Sanderson. Susan Sarandon‘s side is loaded with Anthony Edwards, Ossie Davis and Mary-Louise Parker. The criminal element is comprised of Anthony LaPaglia, Kim Coates and Chicagoan Ron Dean. Even an unknown William H. Macy serves as the film’s doctor. And I’ve yet to mention Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta as a sleazy tabloid journalist. What a cast.
2. The Sentinel
Following the success of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, Hollywood was inundated with imitations. Some, like Richard Donner‘s excellent The Omen, succeeded. Others, like Michael Winner’s ethically challenged The Sentinel, are considered to be disasters. In reality, the film isn’t all that bad, just not particularly good (and at times less than coherent) – and the fact that Winner used actual deformed individuals to play demons a la 1932’s Freaks is rightfully controversial.
Though led by relative unknown Cristina Raines, the cast lends the film some credibility it otherwise might not have had. Other tenants in Raines’ creepy tenement building include Burgess Meredith, John Carradine and Jose Ferrer. Outside the building, however, is where the cast gets supernaturally good, rounded out by Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach, Jeff Goldblum, Ava Gardner, William Hickey, Christopher Walken, Beverly D’Angelo, Chris Sarandon, Jerry Orbach and Tom Berenger. Another shining example of good casting and good acting.
Let’s just list them: Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Sydney Poitier, River Phoenix, Sir Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Donal Logue, Timothy Busfield, Stephen Tobolowsky and James Earl Jones. Each name listed above plays a pivotal roles in Phil Alden Robinson’s early hacker/crime caper/comedy. The story, which follows Redford and his team as they attempt to steal the ultimate hacking device, was inspired by actual 70s hacker Captain Crunch. Crunch (real name John Draper) was a phone phreak who discovered that the whistle given in boxes of the popular cereal emitted a tone identical to AT&T’s long distance line, allowing him to make free phone calls anywhere in the world.
Strathain’s Whistler, a blind man with perfect pitch, is based on Draper; and Aykroyd’s Mother is jokingly said to have had “some trouble with the phone company.”
The film is somewhat of a forgotten jewel these days, rarely referenced as a highlight of anyone’s career. But it stands as an excellent heist picture during the days of early computers.