To know the Academy, to get Best Picture, it has to start with the actors. While actors can bring you over the hump completely, having their support most surely helps. The one way a film comes into the Oscar race is with a large cast. Films with smaller casts, like Gravity, or even La La Land have a harder time winning. Actors tend to like actor-driven work. It’s partly because they’re actors – and it’s partly that the more actors in a film, the more friends they have in the industry, but it’s also that a smaller cast can put all of the weight on the film’s likability on just a couple of people.
This year, there is an extraordinary abundance of great ensemble casts. It isn’t just Netflix, though when it comes to ensembles Netflix is coming in hot. So many of the strong films this year feature strong ensemble casts.
One thing to note about the Oscar race in recent years, thanks in part to the #oscarssowhite hashtag but also in the growing consensus for the Oscars and the industry at large to be more inclusive, and in the era of the expanded ballot, there has been at least one film with an all black cast nominated for Best Picture not every year, but almost every year since 2009:
2009 – Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
2011 – The Help
2012 – Beasts of the Southern Wild
2013 – 12 Years a Slave+
2014 – Selma
20152016 – Moonlight+, Fences, Hidden Figures
2017 – Get Out
2018 – Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman
Only twice since has there been all nominees with an all white or mostly white cast. There are a few films this year with all black casts hovering around the Oscar race:
Dolemite is My Name
Queen & Slim
This year, there are several films that have a strong all-female ensemble cast, or mostly female. How have those fared over the years in the era of the expanded ballot? I count this as the core cast are majority female, not just the lead performance.
2009 – Precious
2010 – Black Swan, The Kids Are Alright, Winter’s Bone
2011 – The Help
2016 – Hidden Figures
2018 – The Favourite
This year, the all female cast ensembles that are in this year’s Oscar race include:
And additionally, we might as look at casts that feature other cultural or ethnic groups that might factor in, specifically all Asian casts:
Since we’re talking about actors, we aren’t going to go into directors but this also applies to writers and directors too.
For our purposes today, let’s look at the strongest ensembles so far, with an eye on these strong influences that could make a difference when SAG starts nominating for their Best Ensemble Cast award.
Which ensembles are the strongest so far? A great ensemble cast will usually include several bravura lead performances but also notable standout supporting performances. How it generally works with SAG, though not always, is that big stars have more of an impact than start people aren’t that familiar with. To that end, Netflix seems to be very strong with that kind of ensemble. The chances of all three of those getting in are slim – but they are all seem primed and ready for a SAG nod:
These are the strongest bets at the moment
The Irishman – Martin Scorsese’s film about Jimmy Hoffa features some of the most legendary actors – those who really define the craft itself, namely Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. What makes this ensemble so good isn’t just star power, or their legend status. They easily could have phoned it in and it would still be a pretty good movie but each of these high status actors is bringing his A Game to this, which is one of the reasons The Irishman works. They do employ computer technology to shift their aging cycles but it makes no difference in their performances.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – while it’s definitely centered on Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, the entire Tarantino genre includes ensemble acting. His films are full of great performances large and small and this is no exception. From Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qually, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Lena Dunham, and the dearly departed Luke Perry and even Al Pacino. This is a hometown Tarantino movie and ode to the city that made him. It is, as most of his films are, a brilliantly directed ensemble with every actor let in on the joke.
Dolemite is My Name is driven by Eddie Murphy’s performance, without a doubt, but it wouldn’t be the same film if each of the supporting players weren’t as good. This is an ensemble that is so tight, the camera can land on any one person during any one take and they’d be in character and know exactly why they’re supposed to be there. They each know how to walk the perfect line between high comedy and how to play the more meaningful, deeper moments. From Wesley Snipes, to Da’Vine Joy Randolph, there isn’t a weak link in the bunch.
Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach has always been an actors director and never gives any of the main characters the short shrift. While it’s mostly a showcase for Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, there is much to be said for the many smaller parts that stand out, like Alan and Ray Liotta, but also Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Wever. They’re name stars given enough room to express each of their individual characters and play it broadly enough to be seen as individual supporting performances. It’s funny and sad at the same time and this has mostly to do with the actors.
Jojo Rabbit – Playing satire isn’t easy, and playing THIS kind of satire is nearly impossible. Only a few very skilled actors in the world can pull it off. One is Peter Sellers, another is Gene Wilder, and now there is Taika Waititi as Der Fuhrer himself. Indeed, some feel uncomfortable laughing about it, as I’m sure some felt uncomfortable about laughing about dropping a nuke “accidentally” on Russia in Dr. Strangelove too. Waititi’s Hitler is meant to be funny, meant to puncture ridiculousness into a monster we feel powerless against. It is such a strong message about how to deal with people who try to make you hate whole groups of people for no reason, and such a strong message about standing up for what’s right. This is adeptly acted top to bottom by the wonderful Roman Griffith Davis as Jojo, Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson, whose best scenes are together. If that weren’t enough, there is the hilarious Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson as Nazis and the movie stealing Archie Yates.
Ford v Ferarri – is another film that features one great performance after the next, from the top liners Matt Damon and Christian Bale, on down from there, with Tracy Letts giving one of his best turns as Ford Jr., Caitriona Balfe as Bale’s wife, Josh Lucas and Noah Jupe – all playing on the same team to bring to life this captivating story. James Mangold is another actors director but doesn’t see any one performance as being the showcase, rather, they’re here to service the story – which makes it quite easily one of the standout ensembles of the year. While it’s true that there’s nothing more thrilling than watching Bale alone in that car as it corners like it’s on rails, it’s the ensemble acting makes its long running time so enjoyable.
Parasite – while writer/director Bong Joon-Ho is rightly getting praised for this, one of the best films of the year, the acting ensemble is also strong with actors again playing satire. Each of the family members who move in must play both who they really are in the film and whom they’re pretending to be. Perhaps the strongest performance is Kang-ho Song who plays the father posing as the driver, but Yeo-jeong Jo as the rich mother is also brilliant in her panic, neurosis and blithe indifference. So-dam Park as the plucky rebellious daughter posing as the tutor, Woo-sik Choi as her brother posing as the other tutor. And of course, the housekeeper Hye-jin Jang who also must play dual roles — which you will find out upon seeing the film, and her husband played the brilliant Myeong-hoon Park. There is no doubt that in the Oscar race we rarely focus on the ensemble cast with a foreign language film but this could be the exception to that rule.
Little Women – Greta Gerwig is another of the actor directors, as an actor herself she makes the film very much centered on each of them while also trying to tell the story the way she wants to tell it. Starting with Saoirse Ronan, who is fast becoming Gerwig’s muse, and Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, and Tracy Letts again, Eliza Scanlen, and even Bob Odenkirk makes this one of the strongest ensemble picks for SAG. It isn’t just the big names, it’s that the film has a theater-like feel to it and is very actor-centric as it tells the traditional story of Little Women in a very untraditional way.
Bombshell – probably the single most enjoyable watch of the year in terms of the acting. It’s one of those movies with juicy parts for women that you can curl up on the couch with a tumbler full of brandy and sink into the deliciousness of watching divas burn down the house. We’re absolutely talking about the three leads – Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, but we’re also talking about a supporting cast being known characters to life, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney, and Connie Britton. It’s a cast “to die for.”
Waves – here you have the very definition of ensemble acting. So much so that there isn’t really any lead performance, but rather four supporting performances all working together to tell this story about crime, punishment and forgiveness. While this film’s star is the director and his camera, without a doubt, the ensemble is notable in that each of them holds the center of the film for the time they’re in the frame. Sterling K. Brown, Elise Renee Goldsberry, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Taylor Russell and Lucas Hedges seem like strong bets for an ensemble nomination, whether from SAG or the critics groups.
Us – Jordan Peele’s Us is another where the characters must play alternate versions of themselves and be believable. While it is a showcase for the brilliant Lupita Nyong’o, it is also one of the strongest ensembles, even though it’s a horror film, which isn’t a traditional Oscar genre. Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, and Tim Heidecker are the four main leads in the mind bending hall of mirrors of a film that is probably one of the harder things for an actor to pull off.
Motherless Brooklyn – This is a film that could show up at SAG as a surprise and that’s mainly due to the cast of top line players. While it’s Edward Norton’s show, as he plays a detective with Tourette’s, his cast of supporting actors is strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, Bruce Willis, and Fisher Stevens. This is the kind of film that the ensemble category was made for – and would be an easy prediction if it wasn’t such a competitive year.
Dark Waters – speaking of actors directions, Todd Haynes is another one of those and here he showcases Mark Ruffalo, but also Tim Robbins, Anne Hathaway, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham and Bill Camp – it’s another strong ensemble of well known actors turning in career best performances. That’s certainly true of Ruffalo. It’s another one that would be an easy call in a less crowded year. This film, like Parasite, is about something bigger than the actors but the actors still help deliver the film’s most powerful message about corporate greed.
Most of the films this year have a strong ensemble, even if their casts aren’t this big – like The Farewell, like Hustlers, like Booksmart, Just Mercy, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Joker and Queen & Slim. It is such a crowded year across the board it will be a difficult task indeed for SAG figuring out how to round this down to just five.