The Best Movie Ever: All-Star Casts
This weekend’s new release The Expendables 3 is the third in a franchise that exists for no other reason than to bring multiple action icons together on-screen in the same film. Such a feat seemed impossible back in the heyday of action cinema, when superstars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were direct competitors who might occasionally riff on each other’s accomplishments but never actually shared the screen together. It’s an all-star cast movie, an ambitious undertaking no matter how good the movies actually turned out to be, and only the latest in a long line of ensemble casting gimmickry flicks that span throughout Hollywood history.
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But what’s The Best All-Star Cast Movie Ever? That’s what we’re here to decide on this week’s Best Movie Ever, where CraveOnline’s film critics William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo present their personal picks and allow you, the reader, to vote for your own favorites at the bottom of the page. So take a look at the top nominees and let us know if the critics are right, or if they’ve somehow forgotten the best movie ever made with an all-star cast.
Apart from the easy and simple pleasure of bare female breasts, and the joyous grindhouse-for-kids mentality of William Castle’s bonkers cinema stunts, the best gimmick a film can provide an eager audience is stunt casting. Notable cameos, daring non-actors or musicians in notable roles, people playing deliberately against type, race, or gender. These things are always fun. Best yet, if you can assemble an ensemble of recognizable faces, audiences may be lost in the simple pleasure of watching great/recognizable actors interact. It’s the only real notable thing about The Expendables movies, as I’m sure none of the series’ fans care about plot, character, or theme. What they want is every actor from an entire generation of badass cinema to converge, period. What they do is practically incidental.
The best film to ever pull the cast-every-recognizable-star-we-can-get stunt came in 1963 with Stanley Kramer’s epically madcap, nerve-wracking, featherweight, corny-as-Kansas-in-August race comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Nearly every famous living comedian who was recognizable in 1963 appears in this film, and they each lend their own schticky borsht-belt sensibilities to a film that, if you’re in the right frantic state of mind, can delve into the very roots of America’s comedy history. Jimmy Durante, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, Jim Backus, Spencer Tracy, Terry-Thomas, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton… and the list goes on and on. The list of casting omissions (Zero Mostel may not have been a big enough star yet; Mae West was certainly an oversight) is shorter than the list of people included. It’s Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World begins with a visual pun, and, over three-and-a-half hours later, ends with a nagging mother-in-law joke, not letting up for a single second. No other comedies resemble this film, and no one could ever hope to repeat what it achieves. Mad, Mad World is the largest, shiniest, most breath-shortening curio of the 1960s.
All star movies didn’t used to be such a rarity. There was a time when enterprising producers would try to assemble as many stars as they could every time, like Irwin Allen’s disaster movies. Now it’s a coup when The Expendables can get all the stars of a single genre together through some force of dealmaking and good will. It’s been highly publicized how much I like Expendables 3, but I’ve got a more classic pick for Best All-Star Cast Movie of all time.
Spencer Tracy. Milton Berle. Sid Caesar. Buddy Hackett. Ethel Merman. Mickey Rooney. Jonathan Winters. Peter Falk. Norman Fell. Buster Keaton. Don Knotts. Carl Reiner. Jimmy Durante. For sheer quantity alone, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World wins, but it’s not just a cameo factory. Mad, Mad World is an epic road race full of practical set pieces that could only be topped if they someday make It’s a Fast, Fast, Fast, Fast, Furious World.
The all star road race genre would be revived with the Cannoball Run series in the ‘80s and Jerry Zucker’s Rat Race in 2001, so if you’re more familiar with those, let me recommend their predecessor. It is the Best All-Star Movie Ever. Even 13 Oceans and three combined Expendables can’t compete with that lineup, and let’s be honest, the Stanley Kramer classic is far superior to some of those lesser all-star sequels.
If we’re being honest, an all-star cast in a movie is typically just a gimmick. It turns what may otherwise have been an ordinary movie – although typically one that required a lot of characters – into an event that audiences supposedly HAVE to see. Sometimes this does little more than gild a stinky lily (the awful musical Nine comes to mind, as do the notorious duds Southland Tales and North), and sometimes the all-star team-ups lend the film a greater significance (Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally appearing on screen together in Heat, for example, or the long awaited release of Marvel’s The Avengers), and sometimes the mix actually feels natural and even a little breathless, pitting great actors against each other in one unforgettable scene after another (Gosford Park and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet being two of the finest examples).
Yes, there’s a lot of ways to craft a film around an all-star cast, but I can think of no film that pulled it off so cleverly and with so very much necessity as Sidney Lumet’s witty adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which cast the great Albert Finney as the eccentric detective Hercule Poirot and a whole slew of Hollywood royalty, young and old, as passengers on the titular train who are all viable suspects in a seemingly impossible murder. Every part is cast with a great actor and every actor gets their moment to defend themselves, hide and eventually reveal their secrets, and basically act their delectable heads off.
The genius of Murder on the Orient Express are certainly in Lumet’s deft direction, the luxurious production design and (of course) Christie’s wholly unexpected storyline, but the casting is an undeniable part of the film’s success. Every single actor is a recognizable face, too famous to be ignored as a suspect by thoughtful audiences, and therefore each seemingly likely to have “dunnit,” which keeps the mystery alive in every scene. Which of them pulled it off? It could be Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York or even the late, great Lauren Bacall. The solution is one of the great delights of mystery literature, and should never be ruined.
If you pass a bus bench that’s brandishing an ad for Expendables 3 the names above the title extend the length of the bench. And while the cast is the biggest they’ve had yet, having the name above the title doesn’t exactly mean the person is a star (Ronda Rousey? Glen Powell? Kellan Lutz? These aren’t bonafide movie stars, these are names to make the list look really long before dropping the real star payoff of “with Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger”). And while movies like the Ocean’s Eleven and Airport series have big stars in a big cast, most of the actors just coast on their movie stardom: is Danny Ocean just George Clooney or is he really a character?
So for my Best All-Star Cast Movie Ever, I’m going smaller. I’d still wager this is a bonafide all-star cast, just not the length of a bus bench. But you know what’s really, insanely special about Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys? It’s that all the stars in the movie — Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Jr., Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand and Katie Holmes — all give their absolute career best performances. The star list stretches just deep enough — and includes turns from character actors who are not stars themselves, but always recognizable and always great, Rip Torn, Richard Thomas, Jane Adams and Alan Tudyk — that it actually operates similar to how those bus-star films are supposed to. Hell, you can even put Bob Dylan in the mix as he opens and closes the film with a song that won him an Oscar because he’s such a star.
After L.A. Confidential, Hanson took a deep cast of stars and character actors and he lets them all create great characters. Douglas isn’t playing Michael Douglas, he’s Grady Tripp, a writer who can’t come to a conclusion on his new book and keeps writing and writing while wearing his ex-wife’s bathrobe. Downey, Jr. isn’t the tabloid arrest star of the time (2000), but is the pansexual, poly-amorous, slightly ashamed — but loyal — Tripp book editor. Maguire wasn’t yet Spider-Man, but he’s amazingly awkward and alien as an odd undergrad who makes-up stories aloud, instead of writing them down. McDormand is an age appropriate love interest for Tripp and their flirtation is lived-in, as opposed to the knowingly distant flirtation from Holmes, who does temporarily live-in with Tripp. Literary all-star casts are great because there’s generally great dialogue. And Steve Kloves’ (himself a future all-star, who adapted the future Harry Potter films) adaptation of Michael Chabon’s book, gives all the characters full lives, back stories, interactions and magnificent iconographic items to identify with: Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, transsexual strangers, horse jockeys and celebrity suicides.