Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: In honor of “Widows,” what is the greatest ensemble cast ever assembled in a movie?
On March 24, 1984, five high school students entered Saturday morning detention and taught us to never judge a book by its cover. Over the course of one day, the young ensemble cast of “The Breakfast Club” tear down the walls between their disparate characters by dismantling the stereotypes of the American teenager. Collaborating with writer-director John Hughes, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, and Judd Nelson contributed to the authenticity of characters that are still relevant and resonating more than three decades later. Hughes may have conceived his own idea of the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal on the page, but entrusting his brilliant young cast to bring their own knowledge and experience to the roles is why the film remains a timeless representation of the teenage experience.
The one true answer is so obvious, in the vein of “who’s the greatest English playwright,” that it’s both necessary to respond with the work of the cinema’s greatest Shakespearean—”Citizen Kane,” of course—and to give some different answer to avoid the sin of obviousness. Since Orson Welles’s first feature is the dividing line and the unifying embrace of the classic and the modern cinemas, it requires two corresponding selections to match its scope. In the realm of the classic, there’s “The Rules of the Game,” in which Jean Renoir creates a panorama of types that preserve their grand and deft actors’ mighty idiosyncrasies and styles of performance, including his own. From the modern domain, there’s “Daughters of the Dust,” in which Julie Dash, without relying on typology at all, fuses a vast array of strong and distinctive actors with her meticulously and forcefully conceived characters to render them as exemplary as they remain adamantly individual.
Among the many great ensemble casts of years past and present, I’m picking French director Laurent Cantet’s 2008 “The Class” (“Entre les murs,” in the original French), in which school teacher François Bégaudeau plays a loosely dramatized version of himself, supported by a fantastic group of younger actors, who are actual students, themselves. In a film that tackles issues of race, class and othering, as well as the very nature and mission of public education, Bégaudeau and his fellow performers deliver a rousing paean to the power of ideas and their free expression. Challenged by his pupils at every turn, Bégaudeau chooses to engage, rather than confront, and the result is moving and brilliant, both.
For the 2003 film “Dogville,” Lars von Trier assembled a cast of icons from various eras, with both female and male performers driving the narrative. With its stage setting, the revenge drama looks and feels different than most Hollywood ensemble movies, and the fact that Lauren Bacall and Harriet Andersson have supporting roles, in a 21st century art house production, forever connects “Dogville” to Hollywood’s seemingly distant past. There are 70s-era tough guys like Ben Gazzara and James Caan, and there are modern female stars like Chloë Sevigny and Nicole Kidman, the latter of whom carries the film with her enigmatic performance.
The list goes on and on: Paul Bettany, Udo Kier, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgård… all of these people make each of the nine chapters purely enthralling, certainly when things go wrong in Dogville. This ensemble cast exudes quiet star power, the kind that one can reflect on after the fact rather than being distracted in the moment. “Dogville” doesn’t have a “sexy” ensemble cast, but it’s indeed one of the most accomplished group of performers ever put together for a $10 million film.
There is an argument to be made for the “Avengers,” but I will not be making it because the greatest ensemble cast of all time is the cast of “Drop Dead Gorgeous”. Any cast that features both Ellen Barkin AND Allison Janney wins by default. “Drop Dead Gorgeous” is a 1999 mockumentary about a small-town teen beauty pageant and almost twenty years later it remains one of the funniest movies ever made.
What makes its ensemble notable are three things: 1) The aforementioned Barkin-Janney connection, 2) it is a roster of 21st century talent, and 3) it’s a predominately female ensemble (which is where the Avengers get points deducted). “Drop Dead Gorgeous” has a strong roster of lady talent, starting with Barkin and Janney but also including Kirstie Alley, Mindy Sterling, Mo Gaffney, and Nora Dunn, but the teen cast is loaded with the stars of tomorrow. Kirsten Dunst was already a name thanks to “Interview with a Vampire” and general childhood stardom, and Denise Richards was coming off “Wild Things”. But there is also post-“Clueless” Brittany Murphy and “Drop Dead Gorgeous” is the first screen credit of Amy Adams. Yes, THE Amy Adams! “Drop Dead Gorgeous” plays like a highlight reel of some of the biggest stars of the 2000s, and they’re all women. Sure, Will Sasso and Thomas Lennon pop up in small parts, and That Guy character actor Sam McMurray comes through with a great Drunk Dad performance. But “Drop Dead Gorgeous” is a showcase for talented women years before it was cool to make movies featuring ensembles of talented women. “Drop Dead Gorgeous” was ahead of its time, which is probably why it’s as funny today as it was in 1999.
Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” easily lends itself to a large ensemble, as Bob Dylan was the last great mythology prior to the information age. He’s enigma and mystery if they walked the earth. If you counted his lies, half-truths, and full-truths, you’d find he’d lived several different lives. Haynes saw that potential and cast six actors to play the visionary troubadour, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Cate Blanchett.
Each assume a unique portion of the mythology. They’re Jude, Arthur, Jack Rollins, Billy the Kid, Woody Guthrie, and Robbie. We flip from decade-to-decade, jump ages, and even races. More is revealed of Dylan, even as less is revealed. We never know who the “real” Dylan is, though ironically, the embarrassed and self-conscious boy spinning yarns is probably the closest. In any case, so complete were the actors’ performances that Cat Blanchett would be nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing Dylan.
And while the top-line cast alone makes the film, this Fellini-inspired, at times, surrealistic biopic also features Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez clone, Bruce Greenwood pulling double duty as a journalist and Pat Garrett, Kim Gordon, Jim James, David Cross as Alan Ginsburg, Michelle Williams, Charlotte Gainsbourg, with Kris Kristofferson as a narrator (because, it’s a Bob Dylan biopic and why not).
“I’m Not There” is an amazing convergence of talent because great ensembles happen when you find the right mix of current stars and soon-to-be stars, but everyone, except for Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin, were already stars before “I’m Not There.” The film, featuring, four future Academy Award winners (though it should be five, if not for the robbery of Michelle Williams, but that’s a separate post), is an ensemble befitting of Dylan’s varied lives… lies… and characters.
My personal favorite ensemble cast is the one Tarantino assembled for “Inglourious Basterds.” Not only did it round up a few big-namers with Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger, but it introduced me to a slew of fantastic foreign actors I’d never heard of at the time: Micahel Fassbender, Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, August Diehl, and of course Christoph Waltz, who immediately entered the pantheon of all-time great villains with his turn as Nazi dirtbag Col. Hans Landa. The film was also able to bring some totally random American actors out of the woodwork — BJ Novak, Eli Roth, Samm Levine, Mike Myers — leading to a bizarre, but truly fascinating group of people who work perfectly off of one another.
Like most movie buffs my age knocking on the door of turning 40, I was (and remain) an undefeated “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” player. My key is going backwards from Bacon instead of forward from the randomly named actor. One of my top go-to starting points contains my answer for this week’s survey. Kevin Bacon is one of 212 speaking parts in Oliver Stone’s lauded expose “JFK.” Bigger and flashier names certainly fill the rosters of other movies, but I will take that intricate and skilled ensemble over all others. Legends Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, and Donald Sutherland tussle with then-contemporaries Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, John Candy, Bacon, and Gary Oldman and it’s glorious to watch.
As wonderful as those star performers are, what impresses me the most about the “JFK” cast is the next layer of depth comprised of some of the best and steadiest character actors to grace the business, folks like Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight, Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bob Gunton, Ron Rifkin, Brian Doyle-Murray, Sally Kirkland, Tony Plana, John Larroquette, and Vincent D’Onofrio. Every performer, large or small, exudes complete commitment to the central cause of challenging history and rattling cages. They make what was provocative and phenomenal tick even more attuned.
“It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” While a number of high-profile stars have a starring or co-starring role, there are an even larger number of stars appearing in the film if only for a mere cameo. It’s one of my favorite comedies of all time and a film of this nature can’t easily be replicated.
Enchanting from the first second of its antique exordium to the last second of its Aimee-Mann-overlaid fourth wall obliteration, “Magnolia” is a modern, comi-tragic fable of Homeric proportion (complete with significant animal roles). Other directors might have left the same story at “shit happens,” but Anderson braves the dark of the human soul in all of its pain and longing. He weaves like Woodcock through sparsely intertwined stories of childhood disappointment, incessant embitterment, and shattering loss, slowly unveiling the philosophical reality that unifies everyone. There are no big bang realizations, no kitschy screenwriting maneuvers, nothing of the sort. It’s like a puzzle with un-primped edges all around looking for companion pieces—incomplete, but somehow perfect because the puzzle maker designed it that way.
In all of this, Anderson’s brilliant direction is heightened by the methodical array of emotion offered by the films sovereign ensemble. Tom Cruise, Melora Walters, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Orlando Jones, Melinda Dillon, Patton Oswalt, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Luis Guzman, Alfred Molina, Thomas Jane, Clark Gregg, Neil Flynn, William Mapother, and Henry Gibson (plus, voice roles by Mary Lynn Rajskub and Paul F. Tompkins) form a perfect balance of stardom and celebrated support. It also comes with one of my favorite film history stories to imagine: Anderson meeting Kubrick and Cruise in England on the set of “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) to implore Cruise to take the role mere months before Kubrick died. I like to think of it as a passing of the torch from the once greatest living director to the current greatest living director. And Magnolia was the first thing to come of it. It is, quite frankly, one of the greatest films ever made, and without a doubt, the ensemble of all ensembles.
To be perfectly honest, this question is overwhelming. There are so many amazing films with outstanding ensemble casts that I couldn’t even begin to pick just one. Therefore, I’m going to put my own spin on the question. My answer is “Movie 43.” Look at this cast — Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, Seth MacFarlane, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, Emma Stone, Chloe Grace Moretz, Richard Gere, Jason Sudeikis, Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, Gerard Butler, Halle Berry, Terrence Howard, and Elizabeth Banks. What a cast!
Of course, to paraphrase Bart Simpson, “Movie 43” both sucks and blows. It’s nothing short of a cinematic atrocity that should only be shown during “enhanced interrogation” sessions in which waterboarding is too subtle to get the job done. Still, even though it wastes every single one of those fine actors, you have to admit that it has an unparalleled cast.
I do this thing where I yell at people to watch Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.” The 2017 film is a new American classic, and it deserved more acclaim than it received from the Academy (which was five nominations, zero wins), and in my dream world the film will end up as part of the Criterion Collection one day and yours truly would write an essay for the release. This is all to say that “Mudbound” has one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen, populated from top to bottom with characters who are fully realized and immensely nuanced and who are conveyed deeply and poignantly through the performances of Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, and Garrett Hedlund. Each person here should have snagged an Oscar nomination: the unlikely friendship between Mitchell’s and Hedlund’s characters feels simultaneously spry and weighty; Mulligan perfects her “weary wife” thing, and shows a steely spark that shakes her unyielding husband, played by Clarke; and there is a moment late in the film when Blige describes her son’s heartbeat, and her delivery is like a eulogy and a prayer. Have I told you to watch “Mudbound” yet? It’s on Netflix. You have no excuse not to.
I wracked my brain for an answer less obvious than this, but to me, the ensemble cast of 2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven” stands high above the rest. The reason that movie has cemented itself as this crackerjack classic is no doubt due to the relaxed chemistry of its cast. A mix of well-established players like Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner along with some relative newcomers like Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (who, despite my misgivings about his behavior towards women, I still find entirely magnetic in the first entry in this trilogy) led, of course, by George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who make banter seem like an Olympic sport. The ensemble rounds itself out with the likes of Andy Garcia––somehow both insanely charming and devoid of charm completely in this role––and Julia Roberts, and what follows is one of the most entertaining moviegoing experiences of this century.
Robert Altman’s “Nashville” uses its two-dozen-strong ensemble to weave a patchwork that’s disparate in its intimate establishment but staggering in its eventual scope. With a mix of established performers and then-newcomers, everyone develops their character with rich detail and wide emotional range, allowing them to thrive under Altman’s improvisational style as well as his more specific satirical foundations. It’s striking to observe just how well the film’s world works together, despite its avoidance of tightly plotted or overly obvious narrative structures. Individual threads and more abstract, overarching connections combine and create a true ensemble masterpiece; an overwhelming accomplishment that endures as a defining feat of the format.
Quentin Tarantino has become a problematic filmmaker for me, but his masterpiece “Pulp Fiction” still has one of the best casts ever. There’s the central duo John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, and the movie also has Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman, Steve Buscemi, Rosanna Arquette, Tim Roth, and Christopher Walken, each giving it their all in a series of related stories about violence, corruption, and in a few, a bit of redemption. And “Pulp Fiction” succeeds largely because of the cast, who each have a part to play in the movie’s greater narrative, stripped of much of the glamour and brand festishization of other crime movies. The criminals and the people around them are small-time, but such is the strength of the story and dialogue that their world remains one of the most compelling portraits of criminal life.
The movie that always pops into my head when I think of great ensembles: “Red Dragon,” Brett Ratner’s 2002 foray into the Hannibal Lecter series. It’s a bad movie, in large part because the ensemble is so strong. This movie stars Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, and Harvey Kietel. Not only are those all wonderful performers, but collectively they turn the cast of “Red Dragon” into a supergroup of actors who have appeared in multiple films from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, and the Coen Brothers — some of the best ensemble-wranglers of our time — and in some cases, before the great filmmakers in question actually brought them into the fold. Even more amazingly, in “Red Dragon” none of these people do a goddamn bit of anything that’s interesting. I think Hoffman’s character burns to death and Fiennes writhes around with some tattoos on his back. That’s all I remember because the movie is crazy forgettable. But I’m cursed to remember its wasted ensemble forever!
The bench for Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” is just absurdly deep. If you grouped every actor in that ensemble into one big group and then tossed a pebble into it, you’d hit a world-class character actor, and then it would bounce off that one and hit a few others. (Please toss carefully, they are precious, those actors.) It’s the anti-“Love, Actually”—instead of trying to give everyone a complete arc with lots of emotional signposts, Lee (and screenwriter Emma Thompson) simply trust that both the actors and the story are excellent, and that someone like Hugh Laurie is capable of nailing all the jokes and then fully delivering on one totally grounded, somber moment without a lot of hand-holding. Thompson and Kate Winslet are both exceptional, but everyone has at least one incredible moment. Gemma Jones! Elizabeth Spriggs! Harriet Wise, Imelda Staunton, Imogen Stubbs, and Greg Wise! Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman, the latter of whom turns in one of his very best, and sadly under-celebrated, performances! Are you not entertained?
It’s not as starry as some of the other great ensemble casts, but there’s not a single weak link in the mix, and I return to it with great frequency. Spriggs and Thompson chatting casually and sadly about Alan Rickman’s grave countenance? Inject it directly into my veins.
Ramesh Sippy’s “Sholay” ran sold out in India for six straight years back in the ’70s, and it holds up today like nobody’s business. A definitive mainstay of Hindi cinema, the Western-inspired musical has permeated the broader South Asian culture like no film I can think of anywhere in the world, and that’s thanks in part to the embarrassment of riches that is its cast.
In the lead roles of Jai and Veeru, felons tasked with protecting a small town, are Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra as the straight-man and his comedic foil, best friends who stick by each other’s side (and sing about it too!) They’re enlisted by Sanjeev Kumar’s fiery Thakur, a man carrying physical and emotional scars inflicted by the notorious dacoit Gabbar Singh, who Amjad Khan turns in to one of Indian cinema’s greatest villains by reveling in his atrocities. Jai and Veeru are joined by love interests Radha (Jaya Bahaduri), Thakur’s daughter-in-law, the only other surviving member of their family and a woman who shoulders her grief with poise, as well as Hema Malini as Basanti, a feisty carriage driver who challenges Veeru at every turn, firing off memorable lines at a mile-a-minute.
What’s more, almost every one of the film’s minor roles has become iconic in its own way. From A. K. Hangal’s Rahim Chacha, the kindly village Imam, to Asrani’s ridiculous Chaplin-inspired colonial jailor, to Jagdeep as Jai and Veeru’s sly informant Soorma Bhopali, to Helen as the alluring dancer in “Mehbooba Mehbooba” to Mac Mohan and Viju Khote as Gabbar’s groveling sidekicks, Saambha and Kaalia.
Every line and every close-up is instantly recognizable to Indian audiences. I do feel bad for Western viewers, for whom the subtitles for the poetic dialogue (written by lyricist duo Salim-Javed) are far too literal, but something that translates across all borders of language and culture is the way the actors breathe life in to their characters, making each scene feel like a world you could walk into.
Robert Altman’s filmography has no shortage of stacked ensemble movies, but “Short Cuts” is the quintessential Altman ensemble film. Not only is it absolutely loaded with ringers–Julianne Moore! Jack Lemmon! Tim Robbins! Frances McDormand! About a dozen other big names!–but everyone gets something to do in Altman’s sprawling, Carver-inspired Los Angeles epic. No director used a star-studded cast to greater effect than Altman, who had a way of weaving together ten different narrative threads into a single picture that never feels overstuffed despite the sheer amount of stuffing inevitably involved. Altman has arguably had more stacked casts–“Gosford Park” and “A Prairie Home Companion” come to mind–but here, he marries an A-list ensemble with a tapestry of plots more than worthy of their immense talent. Since it came out in 1993, dozens of ensemble movies have come and gone, but I’ve yet to see one that’s anywhere near as staggering or ambitious as this film and this cast.
“Sin City.” There are a lot of films that have a large cast, but you still end up focusing on two or three of the characters. But in “Sin City,” you genuinely care about every single character — even the abhorrent ones. That’s because none on them fall within the strict confines of protagonist and antagonist. They’re complex, duplicitous, and even terrifying. Each member of the large ensemble cast – from Jessica Alba and Benicio Del Toro to Brittany Murphy and Clive Owen — brilliantly embodies the various shades of morality that make this movie so irresistible.
I have two that are tied for my favorite ensemble film. One is “12 Angry Men.” Even though it’s probably generally thought of as a Henry Fonda tour-de-force, he didn’t act alone. The other character actors help Fonda shine and give their own award-worthy performances as well. Lee J. Cobb in particular gives a stellar performance as Juror 3, an unrepentant racist who has to get verbally and morally beaten down by the others until he caves in and shows what a sad little man he actually is.
The other is “Stalag 17,” starring William Holden. Again, it’s another film where the biggest name is thought of as the one holding the entire film up, but the rest of the actors, including actor-director Otto Preminger as Nazi Colonel von Scherbach and (50-plus year spoiler alert) Peter Graves as Nazi spy Price create a tense thriller that stands up to anything contemporary films can create with hardly any special effects. It’s just great acting, and great acting stands the test of time. Also, Robert Shawley’s character, Sgt. “Blondie” Peterson, has such a cute baby face. You really hope he can be freed from the stalag and sent home to his parents soon.
Would you be interested in seeing a film starring Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, Chris Pratt, Kristen Bell, Kate Winslet, Greg Kinnear, Naomi Watts, Richard Gere, Uma Thurman, Common, Jason Sudeikis, Chloë Grace Moretz, Terrence Howard, Halle Berry, Tony Shalhoub, Elizabeth Banks, Dennis Quaid, Kate Bosworth, and Jack McBrayer? I’m talking about the atrocity “Movie 43,” a prime example of a fantastic ensemble cast brought together in a terrible film. So, I want to distinguish between Greatest Ensemble Cast and Greatest Ensemble Film. You can bring a lot of great artists together–it takes true synergy and a bit of cinematic magic to create great *art* together.
Thus, my true pick is “The Thin Red Line,” Terrence Malick’s metaphysical meditation (and the best WWII film of 1998) set in the lush green world of the South Pacific during the conflict of Guadalcanal. Its cast is impressive: Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, John Travolta, Thomas Jane, Jared Leto, Nick Nolte, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Stahl, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Miranda Otto, and the barely-present-but-still-survived-the-Malick-edit George Clooney. It’s a non-war war film, more interested in the internal conflicts of human souls than the external conflicts of bullets and bombs (although there are plenty of the latter). In a movie full of movie stars, it draws our attention to the ordinary beauty in the natural world–sunlight through leaves, waves crashing on a beach, wind moving over grassy hills, human faces. All things shining, indeed.
There are so many great, modern examples of brilliant ensemble casts, from “Pulp Fiction” to “Anchornman.” When it comes to comedy, though, nothing comes close to the star power of “Wet Hot American Summer.” Even as various performers became bigger stars than others (where did you go, Marguerite Moreau?), the calibre is so high here, and across the board from leads to bit parts. “Wet Hot” is one of those movies that, even though I’ve seen it a million times, each new re-watch brings the same excited feeling of “oh my god, it’s so-and-so.”
Each scene brings somebody beloved to the screen, from Paul Rudd to Amy Poehler to Elizabeth Banks to Ken Marino. And, with “A Star Is Born” storming its way to an Oscar, it’s even more wonderful (and hilarious) seeing a then much less famous Bradley Cooper engaging in a loving on-screen relationship with a man.
Comprised of six distinct segments thematically connected by rage and its consequences, Damián Szifron’s Oscar-nominated “Wild Tales” (Relatos Salvajes) is in itself an exemplary catalogue of some of the best Argentine actors working today.
Each chapter essentially functions as an individual short film, but collectively they create a cohesively hilarious examination of the human condition at its most vengeful and combative. Szifron entrusted himself and his team with the titanic task of casting multiple stories, each with its own demands and specifications, thus creating an ensemble in which performers wouldn’t share screen time directly with one another —beyond their section— but had to work on the same tonal playfield. Cleverly, the director also wrote underlying commentary about relevant social issues into each tale: economic inequality, corruption, irrational bureaucracy, or impunity.
The opener sees Darío Grandinetti (“Talk to Her”) discovering he is on an airplane with people that share something rather unnerving in common. Then, Julieta Zylberberg (“The Holy Girl”) follows as a young woman confronted with a prime opportunity to eliminate a villain from her past. For the third episode, Leonardo Sbaraglia (“Burnt Money”) and Walter Donado play two men who take road rage to baffling extremes in a battle fueled by toxic masculinity.
In the fourth one, Argentina’s brightest star, Ricardo Darín (“The Secret in Their Eyes”), becomes “Bombita,” a man radicalized by the absurdity unraveled after getting a parking ticket. The second to last piece centers on a wealthy man, Venice-winner Oscar Martínez (“The Distinguished Citizen”), making a deal to get his irresponsible teenage son out of trouble at the expense of someone else’s life. The crowing jewel is the final installment where Erica Rivas and Diego Gentile portray a couple on their wedding day. Happiness quickly turns into madness when a revelation sparks chaos.
This group of actors—raging from the most seasoned to those jump-starting their careers—constructs a single vision by working separately, and that’s as remarkable feat on their part and the filmmaker who brought them together.
“The Women” (1939). The film is based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play of the same name and stars some of the biggest names of the era: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine. With a supporting cast comprised of Lucile Watson, Mary Boland, Florence Nash, Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler, Butterfly McQueen, Hedda Hopper, as well as Marjorie Main and Phyllis Povah who reprised their stage roles for the film. Despite the film’s slogan “It’s all about men!” the entire cast of 130, including extras, were all women (even the dogs featured were female). The central theme of the film is the women’s relationship with the men in their lives, with most of them going to Reno to get a divorce. The film follows these Manhattan socialites, focusing primarily on Mary Haines (Shearer) who, thanks to the gossipy Sylvia (Russell), finds out her husband is having an affair with the perfume counter girl Crystal Allen (Crawford). The claws come out and leads to one of the best scenes of the film, a standoff between Mary and Crystal who dish out some harsh quips. The drama between Mary and Crystal allowed for the interconnectedness of the rest of the cast, as their lives change over the film’s two year period. With witty dialogue and elegant costuming, sparks-fly in this comedic classic of extravagant bitchery.
Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” is not just one of the best comedies ever made, it also sports the greatest ensemble cast to ever be assembled. What this ensemble may lack in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.
Gene Wilder plays Frederick ‘Fronkonsteen’ as the perpetual straight-man trapped within increasingly ridiculous circumstances. He manages to convey incredible amounts of heart and charm in the first act, and then kind of magnificently steps into the character’s arc, committing fully to the insanity and the third act as he becomes a true Frankenstein. Meanwhile, Marty Feldman’s Igor manages to score some of the biggest laughs of the entire film with what is undoubtedly his goofiest and most endearing performance.
But the real scene-stealers of Young Frankenstein are the women. Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman all frequently steal the spotlight straight away from their male co-stars. Garr’s Inga is very much the beating heart of the film throughout the first two acts, as Frederick and Igor commence with their experiments and she brings a measured dry-wit humor to the chemistry between the three. Kahn’s Elizabeth earns early guffaws during the train station sequence with her cries of “not the hair, darling!” but she really comes into her own in the third act when she gets to share scenes with the monster himself. And Leachman? Her Frau Blücher is phenomenal, leading to a handful of the film’s best running gags, including the ever-hysterical, “Stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous.”
There are numerous other highlights such as Mel Brooks’ voice cameos or Gene Hackman’s wonderful role as the Blindman, but I would be remiss to not honor the one and only Peter Boyle. Like Karloff before him, Boyle infuses the monster with an innocence and energy all his own. Most brilliantly of all, Boyle knows when to drop the innocence and give the audience a knowingly cynical look, such as in the flower pedal scene or the dance sequence.