Movie Mom

Movie Mom


Do All-Star Casts Live Up to Their Billing?

posted by Nell Minow

Loyal reader jestrfyl left a provocative comment about my post on the 1939 and 2008 versions of “The Women.” He’s a skeptic about all-star casts. He writes:

There is no Constellation that is made of all first magnitude stars, and I wonder if that lesson from nature should apply to films. However, if they can gel as a company and not only work with each other, but encourage and embolden each other, it could be an amazing experience. Are there any other films that are good examples of many combined super-celebrities?

It is sometimes called “stunt casting” when the point of selecting a particular actor relates not to talent or fitness for the part but to what the audience knows outside of the movie that they bring with them when they watch. As that suggests, it can be a distraction. And stars used to, well, star treatment can have a clash of egos that can lead to scene-stealing. But there’s a reason stars are stars and those who are truly talented and committed love to work with people who can challenge them to do their best.

Some good, bad, and ugly examples of all-star casts:

1. Oscar-winners Shirley Maclaine, Sally Field, and Olympia Dukakis are joined by force-of-nature Dolly Parton and all of them are eclipsed by then-newcomer Julia Roberts in one of the great weepies, “Steel Magnolias”

2. One of the first high-profile all-star casts was in 1956 Best Picture Oscar-winner “Around the World in 80 Days.” Mike Todd (who was married to Elizabeth Taylor until his tragic death in an airplane crash) produced and used his considerable charm to get extra publicity by coaxing just about everyone in Hollywood to appear in the film. For example, when a honky-tonk piano player turns around for a moment we see that it’s Frank Sinatra. Todd made it seem like a tiny part was not disrespectful. On the contrary, it was something special and highly coveted. He even coined the word for a brief appearance by a big star, using the name of a small, valuable piece of jewelry: a cameo. (And Shirley Maclaine is in that one, too!)

3. One of the most popular recent all-star casts was “Oceans 11″ and its sequels. Just like the original, which had “the Rat Pack” (Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., etc. — and Frank Sinatra), this one was filled with big-time Hollywood names. It was like a People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” reunion with winners George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt. (And Julia Roberts is in that one, too, with joke billing “introducing” her.)

4. One of the most prestigious all-star casts was in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” with Oscar-winners Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, and Al Pacino, and equally brilliant work by Alec Baldwin, and Ed Harris.

5. One of the smallest all-star casts was a film, recently remade with one of the original stars. The original is the only movie with the entire cast nominated for Oscars. Any guesses?

6. “How the West Was Won” and other episodic or compilation films like “O. Henry’s Full House” or “Zeigfield Follies” have all-star casts. Disaster films like “Airport” and “The Towering Inferno” also frequently have all-star casts.

7. “Murder on the Orient Express” had a train car full of suspects, every one of them played by a star.

8. “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World” had a big big big big big big cast of almost every comedian in Hollywood, including Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle…and Spencer Tracy.

9. “Bobby,” about the night Robert Kennedy was killed, stars Sharon Stone, Anthony Hopkins, Lindsay Lohan, Laurence Fishburne, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, and Elijah Wood.

9. And then there’s the ugly. Some all-star casts have no-star scripts. Stay away from the original “Casino Royale,” with David Niven, William Holden, Ursula Andress, Deborah Kerr, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen.



  • jestrfyl

    Thanks for the acknowledgment!
    I wonder which of these films in the list were financial successes. I think some were so burdened by stars that they collapsed in the commercial market – Glengarry Glen Ross being one. A good ensemble film makes the audience member wish they had been part of the cast – like the Big Chill (even though many of them were lesser known at the time). A bad ensemble movie makes the audience all too aware of the Clash of Egos – a movie even Harry Harryhausen would not dare make.

  • jestrfyl

    I just realized you left one out – Who Killed Roger Rabbit? It featured animated characters that had never been on screen before. I don’t recall hearing about any star tantrums about whose trailer (or ink jar) was bigger than whose.
    Speaking of animation – we lost another great this week. Bill Melendez, most well known for animating “Peanuts” died at 91. His voice for Snoopy is as particular and yet vague as the Beep Beep of Roadrunner. Thanks, Bill – you gave motion and voice to some well-loved characters.

  • Mark Magee

    answer to #5:
    would that be ‘Sleuth’ starring Olivier and Michael Caine? the original is a classic…the remake, not so much (although Caine wasn’t bad)…

  • Nell Minow

    You got it, Mark! While the acting was good and the Pinter gloss on the script was intriguing, I think in the remake the house stole the show!

  • Mark Magee

    I agree about the house! I felt the story too close a similar, small cast mystery film, ‘Deathtrap’ — starring Caine, Dyan Cannon and Christopher Reeve is a role very far from Superman:)

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