Oscar: Best Picture–Ensemble Driven Films, 1929-Present

Through the Oscar awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), just like the surrounding American culture at large, has emphasized and celebrated individual achievements, even though the medium of film is essentially collaborative.


Except for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which has an official category for Best Ensemble, most film organizations do not have a separate distinction.

Arguably, some of the best acting this year was in ensemble driven films, such as “Doubt,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,”  “Revolutionary Road,” “”The Dark Knight.”  Yet, the studios behind these films decide which individual performers to promote in their Oscar campaigns.   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 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 director of ensemble-driven stories, 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 Helen Mirren and Maggie 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, and Sam Shepard.


Best Pictures: Ensemble-Drive–Acting Nominations:

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); won

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

Long day’s Journey Into Night (1962), None; ensemble won the Cannes Film Fest Acting Award

Deliverance (1972), None

American Graffiti (1973), One: Candy Clark (supp)

Nashville (1975), Two: Ronnee Blakley, Lily Tomlin (supp)

The Big Chill (1983), One: Glenn Close (Supp)

Longtime Companion (1990), One: Bruce Davidson (Supp)

JFK (1991), One: Tommy Lee Jones (Supp)

Apollo 13 (1995), One: Ed Harris (Supp)

Usual Suspects, The (1995) One: Kevin Spacey (Supp); won

The Full Monty (1997), None

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)
Munich (2005), None

The Departed (2006), One: Mark Wahlberg

Slumdog Millionaire (2008), None

Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), None