Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 12, 2016
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.
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