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Ensemble Casts on the Path to Best Picture

Will actors eventually be selected out of their central role in movies, increasing replaced by animation,  performance capture, and other evolving forms of digital characters?  That irrational fear has been drifting in and out of Oscar conversations for years. Just as the pleasure of reading books has endured while movies became the world’s foremost storyteller, films driven by great performances remain as popular now as they’ve ever been.  In the end, no technology can ever replace what gifted actors are able to do. This year, a handful of film ensembles remind us of the irreplaceable power of performances.

Two essential forces often compete to dictate the Best Picture race — the director and the ensemble cast. The Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble award has come to mean much more than just a precursor for Best Picture. They have gone out of their way to define their ensemble prize in terms of their unique collaborative contribution — Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.  Those of us who look to the SAG Awards to see what might win Best Picture must balance our regard for the acting branch as the largest block of voters who choose the top prize at the Oscars with our awareness that sometimes it really is all about the acting.  When a film wins Best Picture without an Oscar for its director — as was the case with Crash, Chicago, and Shakespeare in Love — the SAG ensemble prize is often an early indication that its strength is perceived to be the collective contribution of its cast more than a result of the director’s control.

It doesn’t always follow that the ensemble prize will result in a Best Picture win, but it can certainly help. Without a SAG nomination, Best Picture contenders have an uphill battle to win in the actor-dominated Academy. Without any acting nominations, it is nearly impossible to win Best Picture.  It can happen, but it’s rare.

The Departed, The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men were films driven more by their directors’ overarching vision than by their impeccable ensembles, although No Country for Old Men easily won both, exemplary of the kind of ensemble work that usually prevails in the Oscar race — big stars at the top of their game hitting it out of the park. I would argue that this went double for The Departed. Even though Little Miss Sunshine won the ensemble prize that year, it failed to win Best Picture — perhaps because its directors were not even nominated.

The SAG and Oscar voters are inclined to admire ensembles with a dynamic mix of seasoned veterans and fresh-faced up-and-comers, especially when everyone is firing in sync on all cylinders.  Films stacked with big stars delivering exceptional performances across the board are tailor-made for SAG ensemble, and primed for the Best Picture Oscar.

2012 is full of films that scratch that itch, which could make this year’s SAG ensemble competition more fierce than ever.  We’ve been treated to films that feature big stars and beloved acting icons, as well as movies that introduce notable actors new to the scene who aren’t as well known, delivering exceptional work nonetheless.

While almost every film — foreign or domestic, independent or big budget — is technically an ensemble, and almost every film could qualify for the ensemble category, this year offers several standouts that rise above the rest.

Like a great jazz band, a vibrant film ensemble provides each player a memorable showcase. As with an extended drum riff, when an actor has a chance to deliver a monologue or death scene or declaration of love, that’s the moment a singular performer gets to shine. Once it’s over, he retreats back into the ensemble to blend in harmony, making the film work as a whole. A well-trained actor will know not to steal center stage from the lead, just as the smallest player must have his character’s moves down pat, even if he has no lines. The young actors learn from the vets; the vets are reinvigorated by the newcomers.  That’s what it is like to belong to a great ensemble.

To that end, there are many memorable ensembles this year. They range from historical epics to thrillers, from coming-of-age to sci-fi and musicals. The genre matters less than the collaboration of actors. The network of association among actors, how many friends they each have in the SAG and in the Academy, will have inevitable effect on the outcome of voting.  A large ensemble obviously garners more supporters than a smaller cast simply by virtue of the sheer numerical links in these chains.

The top contender for the SAG ensemble prize is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Never has Spielberg relied so heavily on actors before, which is probably why none of his previous films has ever won an acting Oscar. The man is beloved by hundreds upon hundreds who have worked with him. It is said that if you can just get fifteen minutes alone with Spielberg on set it can change the direction of your career. So it will be noted and applauded by the acting community that Spielberg has laid this brilliant film at their feet and  restrained his own directorial flourish, entrusting the actors to manifest the emotion instead. No less than the best in the business are showcased in Lincoln. They each hit it out of the park, starting with the film’s star, recently dubbed by TIME magazine the “World’s Greatest Actor.” Rising to the responsibility of playing Lincoln was no easy feat for Daniel Day-Lewis, who is already in possession of two Best Actor Oscars. If he wins a third he will have made Oscar history. Only a consummate actor is able to work so seamlessly within an ensemble as Day-Lewis does in this film, equally generous to lesser-known supporting players as he is to the famous faces. His quiet relationships with each character thread throughout Lincoln like a mesh of veins delivering oxygen to the heart and brain.

Watching Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones in the later stages of their careers  is a reminder of what great acting really is all about — their bold, confident choices radiant from years of experience.  Jones is having a particularly stunning year with his work in Hope Springs and now, as Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. Sally Field was mocked for many years after she won her second acting Oscar but the woman is a genius. She gained weight and gave up her easy charms for the part of the troubled Mary Lincoln since neither she nor Spielberg felt the need to sugar coat this portrayal of a very complex woman. It is easily one of the best performances of the year.

James Spader, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, S. Epatha Merkerson and many many more hailing from the ranks of television, theater and film — the sheer number of actors in the film alone could push it into the super-ensemble category. Although the film isn’t as feel-goody as some of the other ensembles this year, the actors guild will be paying close attention to Lincoln. To many of the 100,000 voting members, this will be a textbook manifesto for defining the art of acting.

Second to Lincoln, or possibly advancing ahead, will be Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, which is not only populated with a team of outstanding actors, it is also feeds a theater geek’s sweetest memories of the time — or many times — when they saw Les Miz on Broadway. Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks and Russell Crowe — a dream cast all singing live, an actor’s ultimate challenge. Some great catastrophe will have to occur with Les Miz for it not to be one of the strongest ensembles heading into the SAG awards. Many observers think it will all come down to a battle of titans between Les Miz and Lincoln.

The third strong contender is Ben Affleck’s Argo. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are the two vets but there’s also Bryan Cranston and Affleck himself.  The movie is so lean it has no weak link and that flawlessness extends to the work from all the actors.  This troupe really gets the idea of what ensemble means.  The central emotionality of the film rests on Affleck’s shoulders and since he’s an actor with wise rein on his ego, he understand the value of balance.  His ability to provide a solid center of gravity for the rest of the cast to orbit is one of the many thing that gives Argo its spring-loaded clockwork intensity.

After Argo comes Silver Linings Playbook which works incredibly well as an ensemble piece.  It features several standout performances, topped by the trio of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. As he does in all his films, David O. Russell relies on everyone, not just the stars. Some of the throwaway lines delivered by supporting characters are among the best moments in the film. Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker make the most of their limited screen time.  Russell is terrific with actors. Unlike other more controlling directors, he gives them freedom to really let loose and run with it.

The Master is a unique case.  Actors aren’t often handed roles like Paul Thomas Anderson writes, so most are unaccustomed to judging such esoteric work.  However, the extravagant opportunities The Master provides came together beautifully and it’s undeniably one of the best ensembles of the year. With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams all delivering knockout performances it’s hard to imagine the Screen Actors Guild not recognizing their daring achievement.  Though I suspect the film is more likely to win acclaim in the individual categories more than it will in ensemble.

After that, the remaining top contenders for Best Ensemble will probably be Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hobbit, but until we get a look at each of these it’s impossible to say for sure.  Nomination ballots will be mailed on Wednesday, Nov. 21 and voting closes on Monday, Dec. 10.  Everything is bearing down on us very quickly these next few weeks, so it’s difficult to know how circumstances will play out with the late entries.

Flight is one of the more cleverly assembled ensembles of the year, particularly in the fascinating diversity the casting. Robert Zemeckis and his team deliberately did something most filmmakers don’t: he cast people of color throughout the film. Why does this matter, you might ask? It matters because such a move, as simple as it may seem on the surface, is a break from the homogenized norm that’s not done nearly enough these days. Along with Denzel Washington’s best performance to date, or certainly high among them, the impressive ensemble includes Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Brian Geraghty, and Bruce Greenwood. Flight is all about the acting that tumbles out of its pivotal effect sequence.

Beyond the major films, what other ensembles are there to watch for?

One unknown is Cloud Atlas, although it delivers much of what actors expect when choosing their ensemble prize. Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Ben Wishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and of course, one of the most popular actors in Hollywood, Tom Hanks, all play multiple roles from under a wild range of makeup facades. This is an actor’s dream. It’s something done quite often on stage but rarely seen on film. The standouts here are Broadbent and the unknown Doona Bae. Although Bae doesn’t appear to have much of a shot at an individual acting nomination, she lights up Cloud Atlas with a beam that shines through the entire film, something not easily done when up against so many good actors with  distinctive roles to explore.  Cloud Atlas might represent a bridge across the chasm many actors fear between technological revolutions threatening to leave actors behind.  Blending tradition and innovation in grand fashion, here is a film that manages to walk both paths brilliantly.  But the mixed reviews and disappointing box office will likely hurt its chances.

Although the two leads in Moonrise Kingdom are relative unknowns, the supporting cast is a SAG voter’s dream team: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. Moonrise Kingdom is one of Wes Anderson’s very best films, but it’s one that might fare a lot better if this were a weaker year for the Big Oscar Movies. Caught in the undertow of an incredibly strong year, this is one of the films I worry will be pushed aside to make way for the bigger ones destined to dominate.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a another wonderful old-school ensemble, headed up by the remarkable Judi Dench. It features some of the most respected vets in the business, like Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson. If ever there was a film tailor-made for the SAG ensemble, this one fits the bill. But will it have enough steam left by the end of the year? Will it be able to take its place alongside some of these other massive undertakings? It’s tough to say but definitely worth keeping in mind.

Don’t be surprised if Hitchcock turns up on the list for Best Ensemble as it features two of cinema most admired legends in bravura turns.  But while Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins loom large, it’s impossible to overlook the impressive work of Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Toni Collette, James D’Arcy (wonderful in Cloud Atlas), and Michael Stuhlbarg (also great in Lincoln).

Anna Karenina presents a richly drawn if somewhat opaque performance by Kiera Knightley at its center, and an abundance of greatness in supporting roles raises Joe Wright’s edgy update of the classic novel for consideration.

Arbitrage is by far one of the least-discussed ensemble films of the year, featuring what might be Richard Gere’s best performance to date, as well as fine turns from Susan Sarandon, Nate Parker, Brit Marling and Tim Roth. Of course, it’s such a strong year that relatively smaller films will have a tough time in this category.

2012 offers an embarrassment of riches with so many films competing for awards. In the end, to focus on the SAG ensemble, we are probably looking at something like:

Lincoln, 
Les Miserables, Argo, 
Silver Linings Playbook, 
Django Unchained vs. Zero Dark Thirty
.  Dark horse are Cloud Atlas, Moonrise Kingdom.

The chart

Year SAG Oscars
1995 Apollo 13 Apollo 13
Get Shorty Il Postino
How to Make an American Quilt Braveheart
Nixon Brave
Sense and Sensibility Sense and Sensibility
1996 The Birdcage Jerry Maguire
The English Patient The English Patient
Marvin’s Room Secrets & Lies
Shine Babe
Sling Blade Fargo
1997 The Full Monty The Full Monty
Boogie Nights As Good as it Gets
Good Will Hunting Good Will Hunting
L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential
Titanic Titanic
1998 Shakespeare in Love Shakespeare in Love
Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella) Life is Beautiful
Little Voice Elisabeth
Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan
Waking Ned Devine The Thin Red Line
1999 American Beauty American Beauty
Being John Malkovich The Insider
The Cider House Rules The Cider House Rules
The Green Mile The Green Mile
Magnolia The Sixth Sense
Year SAG Oscars
2000 Traffic Traffic
Almost Famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Billy Elliot Billy Elliot
Chocolat Chocolat
Gladiator Gladiator
2001 Gosford Park Gosford Park
A Beautiful Mind A Beautiful Mind
In the Bedroom In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge! Moulin Rouge!
2002 Chicago Chicago
Adaptation. The Pianist
The Hours The Hours
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Two Towers
My Big Fat Greek Wedding Gangs of New York
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ROTK
In America Master and Commander
Mystic River Mystic River
Seabiscuit Seabiscuit
The Station Agent Lost in Translation
2004 Sideways Sideways
The Aviator The Aviator
Finding Neverland Finding Neverland
Hotel Rwanda
Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby
Ray Ray
2005 Crash Crash
Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain
Capote Capote
Good Night, and Good Luck Good Night, and Good Luck
Hustle & Flow Munich
2006 Little Miss Sunshine Little Miss Sunshine
Babel Babel
Bobby Letters from Iwo Jima
The Departed The Departed
Dreamgirls The Queen
2007 No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men
American Gangster Atonement
Hairspray Juno
Into the Wild Michael Clayton
3:10 to Yuma There Will Be Blood
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Doubt The Reader
Frost/Nixon Frost/Nixon
Milk Milk
2009 Inglourious Basterds Inglourious Basterds
An Education An Education
The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker
Nine A Serious Man
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire Precious
Up in the Air
Up
The Blind Side
Avatar
District 9

2010s

Year SAG Oscars
2010 The King’s Speech The King’s Speech
Black Swan Black Swan
The Fighter The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right The Kids Are All Right
The Social Network The Social Network
127 Hours
Inception
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
2011 The Help The Help
The Artist The Artist
Bridesmaids Tree of Life
The Descendants The Descendants
Midnight in Paris Midnight in Paris
Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close
War Horse
Hugo
Moneyball