We talk a lot about the film industry here, but to date I don’t think we’ve ever looked at the words themselves. “Film Industry.” Bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it? “Film” is an art form: rich and ineffable. “Industry” is a business, based on financial decisions like budgets, marketing and sales. As a result, many great movies never get made because they’re not marketable enough, and many bad movies get made because they’re perceived as moneymakers. Ironically, the awards the film industry gives itself for artistic merit, like the Academy Awards, are swiftly converted into monetary units. It’s hard to imagine any movie’s marketing campaign being hindered by the words “with the Academy Award-winning star of…” isn’t it?
Respectability, that’s what the award adds, but also a promise. This film doesn’t just have great actors, it has actors who are proven to be great, and have a shiny gold statue in on their mantle to prove it. The funny thing is, that makes it sound like a kind of scheme. It’s not. It’s actually a pretty good thing. Award-winning actors make films which might otherwise be a tough sell seem more like a sure thing to increasingly finicky audiences, who need to be careful how they spend their money at the box office. Besides, good actors are better than bad actors, tautologically speaking. Getting a whole bunch of them together is usually a good idea. It doesn’t always work – chemistry is an ineffable thing, after all – but hey, the upcoming political drama The Ides of March combines the talents of Oscar-winner George Clooney, Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Oscar-nominees Paul Giamatti and Ryan Gosling. That certainly seems like a safe bet for both the studio and the audience, doesn’t it?
You can trace the “Holy Cow, What A Cast” phenomenon at least as far back as 1932’s Grand Hotel, an ambitious drama based on William A. Drake’s novel about the various denizens of – get this – a grand hotel, whose stories overlap throughout the film’s running time. The film combined the acting talents of Wallace Beery (who had won an Academy Award the year prior for The Champ), Lionel Barrymore (a 1931 Oscar for A Free Soul), Greta Garbo (nominated twice in 1930, and won an honorary Academy Award in 1955), Joan Crawford (who went on to win Best Actress for 1945’s Mildred Pierce) and John Barrymore, who mysteriously never won an Academy Award despite universal recognition as one of the greatest actors of the 20th Century. Two other players in the film, actor Jean Hersholt and producer Irving G. Thalberg, went on to have honorary Oscars named in their honor. Grand Hotel remains a milestone in cinematic history as not only the first (and to date only) film to win Best Picture without any other nominations, but also as possibly the first film to use the daring narrative structure that follows a series of unrelated characters over a single location. Directing legend Robert Altman would later use the Grand Hotel storytelling method in many of his best films, including Nashville and Short Cuts. A year later, Beery and the two Barrymores would reteam for Dinner at Eight, along with Jean Harlow and Oscar-winner Marie Dressler, a dramatic comedy adapted from the play by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman.
Big, sweeping productions aren’t necessarily required for a film to boast an “Award-Winning Cast.” Sometimes they unite for genre entertainments, like the 2001 heist thriller The Score, which united three generations of top-flight actors in the form of Oscar-winner Marlon Brando, Oscar-winner Robert DeNiro and Oscar-nominee Ed Norton. The film itself was a fairly forgettable affair from What About Bob? director Frank Oz, but the cast was not. A few years earlier, Michael Mann had finally brought Oscar-winners Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro on screen at the same time. (They had both appeared, albeit separately, in The Godfather Part II decades earlier.) The resulting film, Heat, is now hailed as one of the director’s best films (for reasons that go beyond casting), and brought Oscar-winner Jon Voight, Golden Globe-nominee Amy Brenneman, and celebrated actors like Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman and Wes Studi along for the ride.
Sometimes Award-winning cast members find their way into the same film but in minor roles, like in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which found two time Oscar-winner Spencer Tracy competing for screen time with Emmy-winners Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, Oscar-winner Mickey Rooney and Golden Globe winner Ethel Merman, amongst others, in a mad (well, obviously) dash to find buried treasure. Years later, Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks would boast a similarly bloated Award-winning cast featuring the likes of multiple Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson, Oscar-winner Rod Steiger, Oscar-nominees Annette Bening, Paul Winfield and Glenn Close, and even Academy Award-nominated director Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune) as the French president. Many of these over-the-top comedy productions are now better remembered for their all-star casts than the actual films themselves, which is a good example of how getting the right talent works from a marketing perspective, but can sometimes be used to distract from an imperfect overall movie. Peter Chelsom’s infamous box office bomb Town & Country brought together Oscar winners Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Charlton Heston, and… well, I already said it's an infamous box office bomb, didn’t I?
These days, award-winning casts are often used to bolster epic productions, in which the famous actors are not only cast for their talent but their ability to be easily recognized. Irwin Allen used this approach in his 1970’s disaster movies, like The Poseidon Adventure, which teamed Oscar-winners Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, and Shelley Winters with a small cadre of Golden Globe winners and nominees as shorthand for character introductions. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies have similar all-star, award-winning casts and last week’s release of Contagion followed suit, featuring such award-winners as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, John Hawkes and Bryan Cranston in an effort to not only bolster the quality of the film but keep its sprawling cast straight in the audience’s head.
As long as there are awards, there will be award-winning casts. Getting great actors together in the same film will rarely be a “bad” idea, although as we’ve seen it can sometimes be used to distract from the fact that the actual movie doesn’t stand on its own. Later this year we’ll be given award-winning casts in such films as Drive, Margaret, The Ides of March, Trespass, Anonymous, My Week with Marilyn, J. Edgar, The Iron Lady, Carnage, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and We Bought a Zoo, but only time will tell if these are the next Grand Hotels or the next Town & Countries. We’ll keep you posted.