Oscar Actors: Ensemble Acting Vs. Individual Performances

Through the Oscars, the Academy, just like American culture, emphasizes and celebrates individual achievements, even though film is essentially a collaborative art.

Arguably, some of the best acting this year was in ensemble driven films, such as “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “A History of Violence,” and the musical “Rent.” Yet, the studios behind th4se film decide which individual performers to promote in their Oscar campaigns. Hence, in the ads for “Crash,” half of the ensemble is singled out for supporting Oscars: Thandie Newton and Sandra Bullock among the women, and Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, and Terrence Howard among the men.

The movie musical “Rent” presents another problem. Of the eight-actor ensemble, only one actress, Rosario Dawson, is designated as a lead performer; the others are all relegated to the supporting league.

Year after year, the thespians of large-ensemble pictures are entirely ignored because the Academy doesn’t know what to do with ensembles. The only organization that formally acknowledges the importance of collective acting to a film’s overall impact is the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which has a separate category for Best Ensemble

In 1970, Altman’s irreverent comedy M*A*S*H, about the antics of an American medical unit in Korea, set critics abuzz. But when the Oscar nominations were announced, only one performer out of the huge and talented cast, Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips, was recognized in the supporting league (the sentimental favorite was Helen Hayes in another all-star picture, albeit a lousy one, Airport).

Appearing in an ensemble film, as one Hollywood executive noted, “can be the kiss of death, as far as actors are concerned.” “It’s simple mathematics,” observed producer Adam Fields (Brokedown Palace): “Your screen time in an ensemble film is reduced. A beautiful girl in a room full of models won’t stand out as much as a beautiful girl alone. If your only goal is to get an Academy Award, star in a one-man show.” Entertainment Tonight critic Leonard Maltin agrees: “When there’s a true ensemble with a lot of good performances, it’s hard to single out one without insulting the others.”

When Kevin Spacey won Supporting Oscar for the noir thriller, The Usual Suspects, a film whose success depended on ensemble acting, he told reporters: “It’s a little embarrassing to be picked out of an ensemble, because it was never considered as anything other than that.” One can only guess how Spacey’s peers, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, and Pete Postlethwaite (among others), felt.

The “ensemble dilemma” assumed special urgency in the 2001 Oscar season, due to the unusually large number of strong ensemble movies. Among the heavy contenders were: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, whose cast includes Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, and Viggo Mortensen, among others; Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, with Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson.

Altman’s Gosford Park features Britain’s best-regarded actors (Kristin Scott Thomas, Alan bates, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Emily watson, Jeremy Northam). However, of Gosford Park’s enormous cast (48 speaking parts), only two actresses received recognition: Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith. Talking to the London Film Critics Circle, Supporting winner Helen Mirren said she felt embarrassed to accept an award for an ensemble film like Gosford Park. “Just look in the corners,” she urged the critics, “In every corner of the screen there is an extraordinary performance going on.”

History tends to repeat itself. Over the years, Altman, the quintessential ensemble director, has seen all or most of his actors overlooked in such acclaimed films as The Player or Short Cuts. Altman’s first reaction to the nominations of Mirren and Smith in Gosford Park was deja vu, having experienced the same problem when Nashville garnered Oscar nominations to only two of its large troupe: Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley.

Every once in a while, there are exceptions. Both Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights brought nominations to their multiple cast members. The Academy singled out Pulp Fiction’s stars, John Travolta (lead), Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman (supporting). Of the dozen members in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, only two were nominated: Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds (for the first time in his career). Then again, rather unfairly, Tom Cruise was the only thespian to receive a supporting nomination for Anderson’s next film, Magnolia.

Then again how do you handle a war film like Black Hawk Down, in which Josh Hartnett is nominally the star, but actually the first among many talented men, all playing soldiers, including Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard.

Best Pictures with large ensembles but only one (or no) acting nomination:

Grand Hotel (1932) None
Dinner at Eight (1933) None
Forty-Second Street (1933) None
David Copperfield (1935) None
Stage Door (1937) One: Andrea Leeds (supp) Stagecoach (1939)One: Thomas Mitchell (supp)
Great Expectations (1947) None
Battleground (1939) One: James Whitemore (supp)
Letter to three Wives (1939) None
An American in Paris (1951) None
Twelve Angry Men (1957) None
Gigi (1958) None
Deliverance (1972) None
American Graffiti (1973) One: Candy Clark (supp)
Nashville (1975)Two: Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin
The Big Chill (1983) One: Glenn Close (supp)
JFK (2001) One: Tommy Lee Jones (supp)
Apollo 13(1995) One: Ed Harris (supp)
Saving Private Ryan (1998) One: Tom Hanks (lead)
The Thin Red Line (1998) None
Traffic (2000) One: Benicio Del Toro (supp)
The Lord of the Rings (2001) One: Ian McKellen (supp)

Hidden Figures (2016) One: Octavia Spencer (supp)