I Appreciate the Leads but I Came for the Ensemble

You ever watch a movie and walk away thinking about how little you cared for the lead actors and how much you loved everyone else?  Me, too.  Now, I don’t mean this as an indictment of the movies I’m going to present, just that in these particular cases I don’t much care for the main action at all.  It just so happens one of those movies is on TCM tonight which is what made me think of this in the first place.  It’s a movie that was very successful, got nominated for a bunch of Oscars and, well, I enjoy watching it for everyone but the lead.  The movie is Tootsie and you can keep the lead actor, I’ll take the ensemble.


For the record, I like Dustin Hoffman.  I like him in quite a few movies but I’m afraid Tootsie isn’t one of them.  I find him more than a bit annoying in Tootsie and, hey, that’s okay.  He got nominated for an Oscar for it so I’m pretty sure he couldn’t care less what I think about it.  That said, I still very much enjoy watching Tootsie for everyone else.  It’s simply a great ensemble cast that really keeps the movie, and the comedy, going for me.  See, I don’t find the Hoffman stuff very funny but I do find Bill Murray, Dabney Coleman, Teri Garr, and George Gaynes hilarious.  In fact, they make the whole thing work.  Take them out of the movie and solely focus on Hoffman and I wouldn’t give it the time of day.  Even the climax, where Hoffman reveals his true identity, only works because of all of the reactions of the ensemble.  It’s their reactions that keep me coming back.  But Tootsie isn’t alone.  Here are my top five “I’d rather watch the ensemble” movies, with Tootsie being number five.

Number four, Heaven Can Wait, 1978.  This is the remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan in which Warren Beatty, an actor who has always struggled to hold my interest, plays Joe Pendleton, a football player who is taken from life too early and ends up being put in the body of a wealthy man, Leo Farnsworth, until a more suitable body can be found for him.  And I have no interest in that story whatsoever.  Actually, I should be more specific: I have no interest in Warren Beatty’s character whatsoever.  Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin, on the other hand, will make me stop and watch that movie every time just to see their scenes, both with each other and anybody else, including Beatty.  You know who else will?  James Mason, Buck Henry, and Jack Warden.  Oh, and let’s not forget Vincent Gardenia who pops up at the end as a police detective who is fixated on which hats Leo Farnsworth was wearing on the day of his murder.  Vincent Gardenia was a national treasure, I tell ya.

Number three, West Side Story, 1961.  Let me just say it right now: I couldn’t be less interested in Richard Beymer’s and Natalie Wood’s characters in this movie.  When it goes to them, I go away, mentally at least.  When Russ Tamblyn’s on the screen, though, or Rita Moreno, or George Chakiris, it’s a different story.  And how about Simon Oakland and William Bramley as Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke?  They’re terrific and the rest of the Jets and the Sharks, too!  They keep me going whenever Beymer and Wood starting mooning over each other.  I stick around only because I know the rest of the crew’s coming back.  And when they’re on the screen, life is all right in America.


Number two, Moonstruck, 1987.  Would you hate me if I confessed to not caring a lick for the Cher/Nicolas Cage story?  Because I don’t.  I really don’t.  You know what story I like?  The one with Vincent Gardenia (there’s that name again) and Olympia Dukakis, where he’s cheating on her and she knows it but he won’t admit it.  That’s a great story and they’re both wonderful.  I also love Danny Aiello  as Cage’s brother much more than I like Cage’s character.  In fact, I just don’t see much of an interesting story at all with the Cher/Cage relationship.  Bores me stiff every time.  But let me tell you, when John Mahoney shows up, it’s always time to celebrate.  If this movie were a meal in a restaurant, I’d instruct the waiter to take away everything that reminded me of the Cher/Cage plot and bring me a martini.  The martini would be the rest of the cast.

Number one, The Razor’s Edge, 1946.  Well, here it is, a movie I have written multiple articles about right here at TCM.  And with good reason: I really like it.  I like it, however, not for the reasons I think they intended me to like it.  I assume they, being both the filmmakers and writer Somerset Maugham, want me to like it for the story of Larry and his coming to peace with himself and his life but, oh brother, I’m just not going along for that ride.  But Gene Tierney? Sign me up!  Anne Baxter as the doomed Sophie? Hell yeah!  I even like Herbert Marshall wandering around the set as Maugham himself, popping in at all the right times to observe and comment on the action.  And of course nothing can ever be wrong with a cast that includes Elsa Lanchester.   But despite all of this, no one, and I mean no one, can beat Clifton Webb for sheer scene stealing finesse.  His snooty character of Elliott Templeton has all the best lines and Webb delivers them with the perfect combination of condescension and bewilderment.  Some of my favorites include:

“The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that’s neither immoral nor illegal.”

“I do not like the propinquity of the hoi polloi.”

[Referring to W. Somerset Maugham] “He’s an English author. He’s quite all right. In fact he’s quite famous. So pretend you’ve heard of him even if you haven’t.”

“You know, I’ve never been able to understand why, with so much space in the world, people should deliberately choose to live in the middle west.”

So there you have it, my top five “I’d rather watch the rest of the cast” movies.  I’m sure mine are quite different from yours and, again, no disrespect meant to any of these movies’ stars, I just don’t much like their stories.  Some movies have both lead stories and ensembles I love, like Casablanca.  Others, I just want to watch the supporting players.  And sometimes, they’re good enough to keep me coming back, with or without the leads.


14 Responses I Appreciate the Leads but I Came for the Ensemble
Posted By Ben Martin : February 12, 2016 4:00 pm

Interesting points and I’ll beT with some thought we could all come up with a few of these of our own. One supporting actor you didn’t mention in Tootsie is director Sydney Pollack who took on the role of harried agent of Dustin Hoffman because, I think, he had so much experience as the harried DIRECTOR of Dustin Hoffman. I like watching the scenes between these two like I love to watch the scene between Brando and Pacino in The Godfather. Magic. (“You were a TOMATO!!”)

Posted By Steve Burrus : February 12, 2016 4:21 pm

Well abvout “Tootsie” I disagree with you. The ONLY good and redeeming feature about it is the always great acting by the star Dustin Hoffman! Yeah he “had me” in “The Graduate” and I don’t think that I have ever seen a movie of his in which his acting was bad.

Posted By kingrat : February 12, 2016 5:49 pm

Greg, I’m not sure why, but my absolute favorite moment in TOOTSIE is Teri Garr’s reaction to the revelation that Dustin Hoffman is playing Dorothy. That scream is just priceless. Perhaps I’d say that the “serious” side of TOOTSIE, the Hoffman/Jessica Lange/Charles Durning plot, is what interests me least, and the comic side with Teri Garr, George Gaynes, Sydney Pollack, etc. is what I love. Hoffman has some great comic bits in these scenes.

The scenes I like best in MOONSTRUCK are the ones with Julie Bovasso, who absolutely steals every shot she is in.

Posted By Emgee : February 12, 2016 9:06 pm

Mash the movie comes to mind; Sutherland and Gould sorely get on my nerves, but the rest of the cast is terrific.

And what about Apocalypse Now? Sheen is OK, but passive,and don’t get me started on Brando, but the supporting actors are all excellent. And that includes the showgirls.

Posted By gregferrara : February 13, 2016 3:27 am

Ben, yes, Sydney Pollack! How could I have not mentioned him?! “I begged you to get help.” He’s great!

Steve, I like Hoffman, I do, and I think he’s good in Tootsie but he just can’t beat the rest of the cast, in my opinion. But, hey, if we agreed on everything, the comment section would get kind of boring.

Teri Garr’s reaction is brilliant, as is Murray’s. And you’re right, as is Steve, Hoffman does good stuff too, I just don’t care for the main story, the serious plot as you so aptly call it.

Emgee, I like Sutherland and Gould, hell, everybody in MASH but… well, there’s another post I might put together based on an idea from that movie so I’ll say no more. But it’s a great cast no matter how you slice it.

Posted By Autist : February 13, 2016 4:14 pm

“Mash the movie comes to mind; Sutherland and Gould sorely get on my nerves….”

I don’t think that’s the actors’ faults since they’re both good in other movies. The characters are misogynistic bullies, and I never found them funny.

Posted By Emgee : February 13, 2016 7:50 pm

True; i like Sutherland and Gould in other movies, but their characters in MASH are smug and annoying.

Posted By AL : February 13, 2016 11:26 pm

Specific individual actors can become inexplicably annoying. It’s purely personal–they just “rub me the wrong way”. Jack Nicholson, Jack Lemmon, Russell Crowe & Robert DowneyJUNIOR come to mind. But the one I hate most of all is James Stewart, and I despise him even more because he happens to have starred in several of my utmost favorite films. Martin Sheen? Pauline Kael said “I don’t see how Francis Ford Coppola could have found an actor with less screen presence than Martin Sheen.”

Posted By George : February 14, 2016 12:17 am

The only actor who really irritates me is Al Pacino, in everything I’ve seen him in since about 1995. He was good that year in HEAT. Since then? Not so much. He became a self-parody.

Also irritating: Adam Sandler in everything but THE WEDDING SINGER and PUNCH DRUNK LOVE.

Posted By swac44 : February 16, 2016 4:16 pm

I was thinking this just the other day while watching Andre de Toth’s The Indian Fighter with Kirk Douglas. Douglas is a creep, physically assaulting Elsa Martinelli’s Native American lass until she falls in love with him, but with Walter Matthau, Lon Chaney Jr., Alan Hale Jr. and Elisha Cook Jr. along for the ride, I’m willing to endure Kirk’s douchebaggery.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2016 9:22 pm

I do not understand how anyone could hate Jimmy Stewart. It is mindboggling.

I think this idea of not caring about the main leads explains why Will & Grace remained on TV for so long. They were both annoying and boring. Jack and Karen stole the show.

Posted By George : February 18, 2016 8:42 pm

“But the one I hate most of all is James Stewart, and I despise him even more because he happens to have starred in several of my utmost favorite films.”

I don’t know how they could be among your “utmost favorite films” when they star an actor you “hate” and “despise.”

Posted By George : February 18, 2016 8:42 pm

But I keep forgetting — this is the Internet, where bombast and hyperbole rule.

Posted By Stephen White : February 19, 2016 6:58 am

You started your article with probably my two favorite movies from my formative years. I’m not sure what the reasons are, but it seems much less common today (if it ever happens) for even a big-budget movie to have so many recognizable, talented performers in the supporting roles. HEAVEN CAN WAIT and TOOTSIE are just ridiculously overloaded in stellar talent in even pretty small parts. I have a completely different attitude than you about the leads in both films, however. Maybe Beatty and Hoffman are both a little vanilla in their performances, but I think part of the brilliance each actor showed was their willingness to be giving with their costars, not trying to act them off the screen with their star power. Watch Elvis Mitchell’s interview with Bill Murray that sometimes airs in the middle of the night on TCM, in which Murray discusses that very subject. Also, I think both leading actors were very successful in projecting likability so that we empathized with them and wanted them to succeed.

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