With American Hustle finally being released in “fly-over” country; aka the boonies, aka the middle of the country, aka anywhere that is not New York or LA, one can at last enjoy the all-star cast which dominates the film. In watching Hustle it’s hard not to think about the power of actors, especially the power of the ensemble cast, both in regards to the artistic worth of a film and especially the film’s box office potential.
It is easy to understand why the marketers behind Hustle have been putting its cast front and center; they want to exploit this crew’s inherent draw. I mean, just look at each cast member’s marketability! You’ve got Bale, one of the biggest stars in the world, still relatively fresh off his turn as the glowering Caped Crusader. You’ve got Cooper, who everyone knows as that asshole from the Hangover franchise and from his stellar turn in Silver Linings Playbook. Then you’ve got Amy Adams, who has been in ten million movies (with most of them being pretty good), and Jeremy Renner, who has exploded in popularity since not exploding in The Hurt Locker.
Finally but perhaps most importantly you’ve got Jennifer Lawrence, who has carved a place out as one of the most popular stars in Hollywood. Her meteoric rise can be attributed to a multitude of sources. First, she’s just a damn fine actress. Second, she is the star of easily the biggest fantasy series since Harry Potter. Finally, she also gives hilarious, weird-as-all-fuck interviews. She’s a goldmine of marketability, as is the rest of this A-list cast!
Hustle will undoubtedly do fine this Holiday season, as old farts everywhere zero in on the films garnering accolades from insipid, irrelevant critic associations (The Nevada Film Critics Society = Are you fucking kidding me?). However what about the films which feature a great ensemble but don’t go anywhere? Well, one has to look no further than two films from 1994. These two films are diametrically opposed to each other in terms of content, with one being a bio-pic centering on allegedly the worst director who ever lived: Ed Wood, and the other being a family film about angels playing fucking baseball. One of the only things that unites these two films thematically is the good-natured, positive spirit imbued in both. They are also both defined by a large ensemble cast that didn’t transition into major bucks. Angels in the Outfield was a mild success yet Ed Wood was a box office bomb. There is no other way to describe it aside from being an unmitigated disaster.
This is a shame because the film is stellar. As Burton’s greatest achievement there are a number of things which leap out at an audience. First it represents a time when Burton and Depp still had souls. Second though is that the ensemble cast is flat-out awesome. Depp carries the entire film and his eponymous filmmaker is a great cinematic creation. He is funny and whimsical in classic 1990’s Depp style, but he also contains a great deal more depth than the characters that now dominate Depp’s cinematic excretions. His Ed is highly diluted, but compelling and extremely likable. Depp’s performance suggests something highly important about the artistic process; it makes the claim that boundless optimism and taking joy in your craft are of paramount importance. These attributes are necessitated because often the world is apathetic, and indeed your own abilities may be lacking.
Still, for as good as Depp’s performance is on its own it is the way he meshes with the film’s supporting cast that makes Ed Wood really special. Central to this is his character’s relationship with Martin Landau’s Bella Lugosi. This may be an example of one of the few times in a Burton film where a human relationship actually feels authentic. The development of their dynamic feels fluid, realistic to how human relationships deepen in complexity slowly. The bond initially is one of an inequitable power dynamic; Ed is purely a fan who Bella seems to simply tolerate with respectful indifference. However, very quickly that stance falls away as Bella becomes increasingly dependent on Ed for work and support. Ed also seems to obtain a lot of emotional catharsis from his relationship with Bela, with the old acting veteran being one of the few people in the young filmmaker’s life who doesn’t immediately pass harsh judgement on Ed’s dubious writing and directing chops.
The interplay between Landau and Depp is not the only great character interaction in the film. All of the various actors are given chances to shine. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray in particular, especially when they are playing off of Depp, help elevate the film. Both turn in one of their best performances. Sarah Jessica Parker is so effective that her Dolores Fuller actually stands apart from the hot mess that is Carrie Bradshaw (a role that has basically become synonymous with Parker). Murray also creates a character unique from the rest of his pantheon. Long before he entered into the phase of “Melancholy Murray” performances, where his emoting was reduced to the minimalistic indie trope of staring into space in a darkening room (I’m looking at you Broken Flowers), Murray seemed to have a lot of fun in his work. His character of Bunny Beckinridge is a scream, one of the most quietly funny performances I have personally ever seen.
Two moments in the film encapsulate how effective these performers are in Ed Wood. Consider the scene with Bunny at the wrap party for Bride of the Monster (which starts at roughly 1:13:45 in the full movie posted below), where he is prompted by the wrestler Tor Johnson to discuss his attempt at a sex change. As this question is posed to him Murray’s face contorts in what appears as a hilarious mixture of pain, incredulity, and resignation. He then proceeds to deliver a horrific tale about his failed attempt which, because of his deadpan delivery, is priceless. Almost equaling this scene’s impact is the one where Parker’s Delores finally discovers Ed’s long kept secret: He is a transvestite who loves stealing her clothing (seen at roughly 0:27:00 below). Parker has maybe never been more expressive than she is here. The rage and shock she imbues her delivery with is striking, especially how she spits out, “How can you act so casual when you’re DRESSED like that?” What truly makes this scene however are her facial expressions, particularly at the end of her tirade where Ed rubs her shoulder. This moment has such a strong comedic quality and suggests how profoundly uncomfortable Ed has made her through the revelation about his cross-dressing.
The other performers comprising the core cast of Ed Wood are all handled in a way that capitalizes on their specific talents. Patricia Arquette’s intrinsic, almost ethereal warmth communicates what is perhaps the film’s most touching scene: where Ed finally experiences acceptance regarding his cross-dressing habits. Also, Burton’s former gal pal, and the owner of two first names, Lisa Marie, is cast perfectly as the too shapely to be real Vampira. Lisa Marie’s limited acting prowess is not inhibiting at all when employed in role of the laconic, dead-eyed Vampira. She helps flesh out the diverse cast (which also included Juliet Landau, Jeffrey Jones, George “The Animal” Steele, and even Vincent D’Onofrio in a bit part as Orson Welles) in a way that curiously mirrored Wood’s own mixture of thespians and non-actors.
The structure of Ed Wood, which features effective leads pairing with fantastic supporting performances is what is also evident in Disney’s remake of the 1950’s film Angels in the Outfield. Officially starring Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd, and Tony Danza, the film is more notable because of the various players occupying the film’s bit parts. The cast list is literally bursting at the seams with actors who would go on to be teen heart-throbs, blockbuster headliners, and indie darlings years later. Not only is the central character of Roger played by a rosy-cheeked Joesph Gordon Levitt (who had yet to lose his baby fat or grow out his tresses for 3rd Rock From the Sun) but the Angels baseball team is composed of people like Matthew McConaughey, Neal McDonough and Adrien Brody – who all only say perhaps two or three lines in the film.
There is not really a speaking part in Angels in the Outfield that is not handled by an acting pro or notable face, a fact that is remarkable seeing how the film itself, once the nostalgia factor is removed, is nothing overly extraordinary. It’s good, solid family entertainment; nothing more, nothing less. Yet everyone from the frumpy foster care provider (Brenda Fricker) to Roger’s dead-beat, biker Dad (Dermont Mulroney), to the Angels’ announcer Ranch Wilder (an extraordinary Jay O’ Sullivan) is played by a well-respected thespian. It’s difficult to ascertain just what was so alluring about the property to have amassed such an army of actors. Certainly it couldn’t have been the money. According to the illustrious website imdb.com (which is of course never wrong) Angels in the Outfield only had a budget of 24 million bucks. Nobody got crazy rich off of this job. Perhaps it was the overpowering allure of the director which drew them to the project? Certainly there are many cases in film history where actors worked for a paltry sum in exchange for the chance to collaborate with an iconic filmmaking maestro; my boy Terry Malick and The Woodster spring to mind as two examples of this. Yet, when looking at the output of director William Dear this seems like an erroneous conclusion. I mean Harry and the Hendersons is no Crime and Misdemeanors and Wild America, while amazing, can hardly hold a candle to The Tree of Life or Days of Heaven. Maybe one can just label the cast to be a product of happenstance?
This seems to be the most accurate conclusion one can draw, corroborated by how the Ed Wood ensemble can be compared to the cast of Angels in the Outfield. Ed Wood’s cast is defined far more by its specificity, its scrupulous attention to detail. One can immediately recognize when watching Ed Wood that Burton’s choices are governed by a reverence towards Ed Wood’s own casting proclivities, in addition to having the clout necessary to attract quite a few Hollywood stars. Each actor is perfectly cast in his film and each brings something unique from their acting repertoire to their individual characters. Burton’s film is special not simply because of his direction or the excellent, highly sympathetic (and not at all objective) script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, but because one can understand how each actor captures the spirit of Ed Wood’s world. It’s hard to imagine, in retrospect at least, anyone aside from Murray playing a character like Bunny Breckinridge or anyone aside from veteran character actor Mike Starr playing the spit-spraying producer Georgie Weiss.
Compare this with Angels in the Outfield and how all of the recognizable stars are used in that movie. All of the future stars that appear hardly turn in what could be called inimitable performances. Matthew McConaughey’s only major scene (which starts at 0:29:55) consists of him reviewing a tape of a spectacular catch that his character makes early on in the film (which marks the first appearance of an Angel). As he speaks to Danny Glover (playing the Angels general manager George Knox) the discernible wonder and incredulity in his voice when he says, “How’d I do that?” is hardly overwhelming. You could certainly see other actors embodying this part. Ironically, his performance as Angels outfielder “Ben Williams” is probably one of the few McConaughey roles where the star’s exterior bongo playin’, just keep livin’ persona is virtually non-existent, which is probably because he hardly opens his mouth.
Similarly Adrien Brody’s role as the feckless Danny Hemmerling is not what one would point to as a high career achievement. Sure he has a couple of chuckle inducing moments (0:19:00), such as the brief scene where he wrongfully suggests that the stoic (and at times wrathful) George Knox has teared up during the National Anthem. His earnestness here is really funny, especially when it is followed by Knox shutting him down and letting him know that he is simply trying to get sunscreen out of his eyes. This is an example of how many of the recognizable faces in Angels in the Outfield are hardly there for artistic reasons. They are there simply because they are capable. This scene, while providing a brief giggle, hardly outlines anything of monumental performance about the film itself. It simply lets us know that Hemmerling is a bit of a doofus and again reinforces how much of a crusty, bitter man George Knox is. In a way this encapsulates everything one needs to know about how Angels in the Outfield. It’s a movie bolstered by being produced during a specific time and place. This is the sole reason why it has such an impressive cast list. It somehow appeared when there were a lot of hungry young actors looking for work, even if getting that work meant sharing the screen with angel baseball players.
So, in the end what can be gleaned from these two examples of ensembles? Well, ensembles can be the product of something as wanton as good timing and luck or as calculated as a Malick, Allen or even Burton movie. When operating at its apogee the ensemble can provide a seamless acting showcase, where all members of the cast come together, blending their talents into an enormously rich tapestry. The other side of this is what is expressed through Angels in the Outfield, where the effect is not necessarily one of greater artistic resonance but of the film being transformed into something of a novelty. When one watches Angels today you do not find yourself engrossed in the performances as much as you are inclined to remove yourself from the story, point your finger at the screen and exclaim: “That chiseled, clueless looking hunk in the back of the locker room is Matthew McConaughey!”
You are not drawn in but actually carried out of the story. The context surrounding the movie becomes blatantly visible. It can still be charming of course but in a different sort of way than something like Ed Wood. With that film you can watch it and marvel at the chemistry between Depp’s Ed and Landau’s Bella before finally remarking to your friend sitting next to you that: “Man, those guys work well together!” The same sentiment can’t be expressed when watching Angels in the Outfield. Instead, when watching it, and when you spot a recognizable face occupying a bit part, you might turn to a friend (if you have company) or perhaps even bellow into the void: “I guess everyone’s gotta’ eat!”