Actors dominate the Oscars. They don’t dominate the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, or the Directors Guild. They only sort of dominate the SAG awards since the group merged with AFTRA. They do have the largest voting bloc in the Academy by almost double the other branches. That means the Best Picture race often revolves around films that are actor-driven, give or take a visual effects spectacle.
Actors are the reason performance capture-driven films have been kept out of the big wins and acting categories. They are the reason no animated film has won Best Picture, and maybe why no documentary ever has, either. Actors rule, and not only do they rule, but they like to work. They like an industry that still supports them.
In general, they like movies with lots of actors compared with movies that have fewer actors. 12 Years a Slave beat Gravity, Moonlight beat La La Land. One of the exceptions to the ensemble-driven winner would be Million Dollar Baby in 2004, where the film revolved around the three main characters. One could also argue that Green Book had a relatively small ensemble.
Let’s take a look back at previous winners:
2020: Nomadland — had no competition, a smaller ensemble than usual
2019: Parasite — purely ensemble-driven
2018: Green Book — small ensemble but still actor-driven
2017: The Shape of Water — ensemble-driven.
2016: Moonlight — ensemble-driven
2015: Spotlight — ensemble-driven
2014: Birdman — ensemble-driven
2013: 12 Years a Slave — ensemble-driven
2012: Argo — ensemble-driven
2011: The Artist — ensemble-driven
2010: The King’s Speech — ensemble-driven
2009: The Hurt Locker — ensemble-driven
2008: Slumdog Millionaire — ensemble-driven
2007: No Country for Old Men — ensemble-driven
2006: The Departed — ensemble-driven
2005: Crash — ensemble-driven
2004: Million Dollar Baby — a smaller ensemble, but actor-driven
2003: ROTK — ensemble-driven
2002: Chicago — ensemble-driven
2001: A Beautiful Mind — less ensemble but still performance-driven
2000: Gladiator — ensemble-driven
You can keep going backward in time and find films that are driven by actors and especially ensembles. One of the things about Oscar coverage is that most of the people (though not all) who cover it don’t really understand actors. To really get the Oscars, it’s often necessary to understand actors. I have a slight advantage in this category because I came from acting, way back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is something that people who have been actors understand. Critics, for instance, tend to like performances where the actor doesn’t do anything. They like less the bravura acting performances that the SAG and Academy voters appreciate. If someone gains 30 pounds for a role, they are less likely to hit the critics awards, whereas someone who is opaque and interesting on screen — maybe even says next to nothing — is often the kind of naturalized performance they prefer. There are always exceptions, of course.
It is sometimes hard to know how the actors are going to vote. A bad movie with great acting can often land in the Best Picture race and even in some of the acting categories. This is especially true if the ensemble is packed with highly-admired industry vets. It’s preferable if the film is good, but there have been movies like Vice or American Hustle that weren’t great (and even loathed in some cases) but because the acting was good — and more importantly, the ensemble was popular and well-liked — the film is dragged along with many of the lead nominations.
The key is that you can’t always trust the Oscar bloggers or critics to know what actors will respond to and what they won’t. It is not an easy thing to predict. There are no hard and fast rules.
But from what I’ve seen so far, these are the ensembles that have stood out to me in terms of their acting. Note: House of Gucci is embargoed at the moment — I have seen it, but I have to leave that out for the moment, although it’s obvious from the outset that it’s a star-based ensemble including Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons.
So let’s go through them, shall we?
- Belfast — It should go without saying that this film is the frontrunner not just because it is universally beloved. It keeps winning audience awards and because of that it has a very good chance of winning the whole thing. It is an easy call for a SAG ensemble nomination, even more so than almost any other performance in the film. The performances work together effortlessly, which is not surprising, given that Kenneth Branagh is himself an actor who has been working as an actor and director for what, 30 years? Actor-directors can be trusted to, at the very least, draw out their actors and get the finest performances from them. It’s the one thing actors-turned-directors can do really well, even more so than any other element of filmmaking. They usually don’t have the eye of the best directors, and they usually aren’t the best writers. But what they can do really really well is guide their actors to their best work.
Here we have an ensemble led by Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, and Ciarán Hinds, with a strong performance by Jude Hill as the young Buddy. A great movie with a great ensemble will make you feel invested in the characters, and involved every time we move through the various scenes. In Belfast, we watch young Buddy interact with his parents, his grandparents, his schoolmates, and even the neighborhood kids. There isn’t a minute of downtime. It is always engaging throughout.
- The Power of the Dog — Jane Campion is a visual director but also one who works very well with actors. This has always been true throughout her career and it’s especially true with her best film, The Power of the Dog. Driven by the extraordinary Benedict Cumberbatch, this ensemble has to know the source material. And actors don’t always. They can sometimes fake it and do a decent job, but it’s clear here that every actor she’s chosen knows exactly what kind of movie this is supposed to be. They are absolutely in it: the time period, the mood, the tension, the subtext. Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons have the somewhat challenging material well in hand. Dunst is particularly good at presenting herself at a specific time and place, rather than modern-day. The film relies on its unpredictability — every choice the actors make is surprising.
- In the Heights — Musicals are well-suited to an ensemble, needless to say. It’s true on stage and it’s true on film — they are designed around actors. Here, they’re singing and dancing and acting. A great ensemble won’t necessarily feature any performance that drains the life from the rest of the ensemble. Instead, every performance works in harmony with the other performances. You can tell it’s good since, as with Belfast, you are never bored moving through the scene and character shifts because they’re all good. Here we have Anthony Ramos and Vanessa Barrera, Olga Merediz, and Leslie Grace. They are naturally unified in telling this story of a time and a place and a people.
- The Last Duel — Truly some of the best acting I’ve seen this year is in this film, anchored by a great turn by Jodie Comer who, like the rest of the cast, must play various versions of the story. They all do this really well, particularly the three main characters: Comer, Matt Damon, and Adam Driver. Ben Affleck is mostly the same kind of character in each of the three versions of the story. The Last Duel really has it all in terms of a traditional Oscar contender — it’s epic and actor/ensemble driven. Matt Damon is particularly good as Comer’s husband because we’re able to see his version of his own behavior and then see him through her eyes — he just nails it. That he played this character the same year as he played the red stater in Stillwater is all the more remarkable in terms of his range as an actor. This is also true for Ben Affleck, who plays two completely different characters in The Tender Bar and The Last Duel, and of course, Adam Driver, who’s featured in both The Last Duel and House of Gucci. But really, the whole film rests on Comer’s shoulders and she holds it together brilliantly.
- Cyrano — And speaking of musicals, Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage lead a cast of actors who took the isolation of COVID to make a musical wherein they must all keep the delusion afloat that there are two men competing for the affections of one woman. There is not a weak link in the bunch. Joe Wright is another who can direct actors really well. Though the film revolves around Dinklage and Bennett, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is also good as the pretty boy who isn’t articulate. Acting in musicals isn’t easy because you have to sing-act, but they all do a really wonderful job with the melancholic nature of the story.
- CODA — This is an unusual ensemble in that some of the actors are actually deaf (Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin, and the absolutely amazing Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s dad), while the lead, Emilia Jones, is not deaf. Needless to say, conveying emotion as a deaf person is very different without the aid of voice. Yet these actors are so good at bringing us into their reality and showing us how it must feel to live in a hearing world, especially when your daughter can sing so beautifully (even writing this is bringing tears to my eyes — I hate myself). It’s really one of the best films of the year and much of that is due to, quite simply, the astonishing work of these actors. If SAG is paying close enough attention, they will notice this ensemble.
- Mass — You probably won’t find a stronger ensemble in the whole season than Mass. Four actors in one room simply acting out the story puts all of the power of the film on their shoulders. This is one of those movies that showcases what acting is all about. There is never a second in this movie that you see the actors and not the characters — you are 100% with them from minute one. Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd are particularly good as two mothers on opposing sides of a gun tragedy.
- The Tragedy of Macbeth — Of course, it’s Shakespeare: only the greatest of actors can tackle this material well, and that is why Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand were cast in their (in)famous roles. It is challenging work and the film is, to an extent, less about the acting and more about the directing and cinematography, but Shakespeare is Shakespeare and a dream for any actor. Though an adept ensemble, it isn’t exactly populated with big names, save for the two main stars. Still, it fits the standard definition of “ensemble.”
- Respect — Unfortunately getting lost in the early phase of the Oscar race is the story of Aretha Franklin’s rise to stardom. Led by the magnificent Jennifer Hudson, but with help from Forest Whitaker, Mark Maron, Audra McDonald, Tituss Burgess, Kimberly Scott, and Mary J. Blige, this is an ensemble to die for. The movie would not work without the central role of Hudson, who knocks it out of the park both with acting and singing, but as usual Whitaker is great, and McDonald is another standout. Here’s hoping the film is remembered when it comes time to vote. The strength of the buzz for Hudson will at least get people to watch the movie.
- The Lost Daughter — speaking of actors, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a film with a lot of actors and a well-acted ensemble that is anchored by the hilariously prickly Olivia Colman. Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris are strong supporting players, as is Jessie Buckley, who plays Colman’s younger self, not to mention Peter Sarsgaard, who plays her professor boyfriend. This is a film that is really about the internal life of its main character and what she sees, rather than a deep dive into the other characters. Gyllenhaal has clearly spent the time with each of the actors to nail down their histories and intentions. Being a great director is not as easy as some would probably like to believe, but if you are an actor, you have a head start as long as you can focus on the performances. She most definitely does that in this film.
- Honorable mention: Dune — It’s a big ensemble tasked with somewhat opaque and challenging material that isn’t so much about actors acting as it is about actors placing themselves inside this strange world. But given that there are so many big-name actors in the film from Timothée Chalamet to Rebecca Furguson, to Jason Mamoa and Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem, it seems like it’s a strong contender (potentially) for SAG ensemble. They aren’t exactly chewing up the scenery here, but their notoriety keeps this film in play.
The reason I don’t have King Richard down is that it is less of an ensemble and more of a film with two main characters. It won’t hurt its Best Picture chances not to be considered an ensemble — it will possibly still get in at SAG just based on the strength of Will Smith’s performance and obviously it’s a slam dunk for a Best Picture nomination, but it’s not a movie I would call filled with and driven by an acting ensemble. Spencer is also not quite an ensemble film, though it does have some good supporting players, like Sally Hawkins.
I expect the remaining films will also rely on strong ensembles:
West Side Story
Don’t Look Up
House of Gucci
A SAG ensemble lineup could go any which way. They are always surprising. Right now, I’d probably go with our top three to start:
The Power of the Dog
And that leaves two wild card slots that could honestly go any which way. It is really hard to tell at the moment without seeing everything and then deciding. But any of the above-mentioned films could take them, and it would not be surprising.