Right now, with its finale airing this Wednesday, nothing on TV is making me happier on a weekly basis than the FX on Hulu miniseries Mrs. America – a nine-hour examination of the 1970s fight for the Equal Rights Amendment that's about as engrossing, enraging, informative, funny, and exhilarating as television gets.
Cate Blanchett, as women's-liberation naysayer Phyllis Schlafly, is giving a performance equal to her jaw-dropping, Oscar-winning portrayal in Blue Jasmine. Rose Byrne, as Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, finally has a role that equally showcases her tremendous gifts for both comedy and drama. Yet while Blanchett and Byrne are formidable and fantastic, what sets Mrs. America apart from so many other works of its kind is the insane depth of field regarding those cast in the series' supporting roles.
This year's Tony Awards have been canceled – unfairly, I think, considering how many Broadway shows opened between the eligibility period that started last June and ended this mid-March when the theatres closed. (Why not just have, say, three nominees in categories that traditionally accommodate five?) God only knows what's gonna happen with next year's Oscars. But the Emmys are currently going on as scheduled, and already I'm anxious wondering who among the Mrs. America ensemble is going to be left off the Supporting Actress in a TV-Movie or Mini-Series roster. It's wildly improbable, but you could easily stack the category merely with performers from this show – I'm thinking, in order of probability, Margo Martindale, Sarah Paulson, Tracey Ullman, Uzo Aduba, Ari Graynor, and Niecy Nash. But you could also have a completely credible, alternate-universe version of that category, with the cited instead being Jeanne Tripplehorn, Elizabeth Banks, Melanie Lynskey, Cindy Drummond, Kayli Carter, and Tony winner Julie White. (For the record, among possible Supporting Actor contenders, John Slattery, Adam Brody, and the uncredited Bobby Cannavale are also deserving.)
All of which is to say that entertainments crammed with ridiculous amounts of talent, such as Mrs. America, can oftentimes wind up ridiculously satisfying. And so the following are five of my favorite ensemble movies – all released between 1975 and 1993 – with significant roles for more than a dozen name performers, with mentions of the most valuable players in ascending order of ardor. The six actors nominated for Academy Awards for these films were ineligible for MVP inclusion, as they probably found it heartening enough just to hear their names read aloud before learning that their Oscars were being awarded to others. Hmm. Was that heartening, I wonder … ?
JFK: Considering its ceaseless barrage of conspiracy theories, among them the implication that Lyndon Johnson had a hand in killing John F. Kennedy, Oliver Stone's political thriller definitely isn't for everyone. But in 1991, it certainly seemed to star everyone. Even though JFK is ethically dubious and presentationally overstuffed, I personally find Stone's hyper-charged deep-dive into paranoia electrifying; it's the writer/director's only movie I unreservedly love. And the main reason I love it is its cast – a crazy-stocked assemblage in which solid TV actors (Jay O. Sanders, Wayne Knight) assume major roles and screen legends (Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau) are relegated to one-scene cameos. Kevin Costner, as crusading New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, isn't terribly engaging, even if he comes off much better than poor Sissy Spacek, who, as Garrison's wife, is stuck in one of those horrible “Won't you think of your children?!” roles that nobody can make interesting. But sweet heaven is this thing packed with talent: Tommy Lee Jones (the only performer to score an Oscar nod), Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Ed Asner, Gary Oldman (as Lee Harvey Oswald), Vincent D'Onofrio, Sally Kirkland, Martin Sheen narrating … . Even the real Jim Garrison shows up as notorious “Warren Report” author Earl Warren. That's nuts. What's even nuttier is that he's better than Costner and Spacek. MVPs: (3) John Candy, whose admirably skeevy turn as a Big Easy attorney makes you wish the actor had tackled more dramas before his 1994 death; (2) Laurie Metcalf, whose sensible, forceful presence as a Garrison assistant almost makes you forget how uninterested the movie is in women; and (1) Donald Sutherland, whose shadowy Deep Throat figure, for 10 minutes, talks and talks and talks, and does so with such hypnotic speed and assurance that you never want him to shut up.
Nashville: M*A*S*H, A Wedding, The Player, Prêt-à-Porter, Gosford Park, A Prairie Home Companion … . No one before or since the director's 2006 passing made grandly scaled ensemble movies quite like Robert Altman. (After Boogie Nights and Magnolia, it looked like Paul Thomas Anderson might pick up the mantle, but alas … .) All the more reason to revere Altman for the brilliant character-driven works we got, none more deservedly iconic than Nashville, the 1975 masterpiece whose Wikipedia page calls it a “satirical musical ensemble comedy drama.” That just about nails it, although the description would be more apt if “tragedy political-thriller mockumentary” found its way in there, too. With this extraordinarily enjoyable and rewarding film a largely plotless piece intertwining the lives of two dozen country musicians and political figures – one whose setting is perfect given that capitol city Nashville is also “Music City” – its cast may not seem the starriest if you weren't alive when it was released. Yet it's practically a who's-who of familiar '70s faces, with more-or-less equal time devoted to the figures played by Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Michael Murphy, Keenan Wynn, and Oscar nominees Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin. Elliott Gould and Julie Christie appear in cameos. Oh, and Jeff Goldblum plays a dude on a three-wheel motorcycle, stealing scenes without saying a word. Classic Goldblum. MVPs: (3) Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie!), whose chirpy British journalist says everything we're thinking about Nashville's eccentrics and their curious milieu; (2) Henry Gibson, whose Grand Ole Opry star with questionable political aspirations shows his mettle when he needs to most; and (1) Barbara Harris, whose wannabe singer finally unleashes her talent, and breaks your heart, with an impromptu call for peace in a time of panic.
Ragtime: I watched director Miloš Forman's adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's bestseller a lot after the 1981 period drama debuted on HBO the following year, and I swear it wasn't because the PG-rated film boasted full-frontal nudity. (Or maybe it was. Sue me: I was 14.) But one of the chief pleasures of intermittently returning to favorites from your youth is recognizing famous performers who weren't remotely famous at the time. Mike watching Ragtime in 1985: “Hey, that's Jeff Daniels! That's John Ratzenberger from Cheers!” In 1995: “Hey, that's Samuel L. Jackson! That's Fran Drescher! That's Frankie Faison from Do the Right Thing and The Silence of the Lambs!” In 2005: “Hey … is that Nicholson?!” (I'd somehow previously failed to notice Jack's uncredited appearance as a silent-movie pirate.) A dizzying blend of historic and invented figures crafted 13 years before Forrest Gump, Forman's marvelous turn-of-the-20th-Century kaleidoscope boasts a pair of Oscar nominees: the late Howard E. Rollins Jr., superb as vengeful pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., and Elizabeth McGovern, delightful as aspiring chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. But plenty of partipants watched the Oscars merely from the sidelines, among them Mandy Patinkin, Brad Dourif, Pat O'Brien, Kenneth McMillan, James Olson, Richard Griffiths, Michael Jeter, Moses Gunn, Robert Joy, and controversial author Norman Mailer. We even get Singin' in the Rain's musical-comedy legend Donald O'Connor performing a cheeky little burlesque number. It ain't “Make 'Em Laugh,” but it'll definitely make you smile. MVPs: (3) Mary Steenburgen, whose quiet moral certitude as “Mother” makes clear who really wears the pants in her patriarchal household; (2) Debbie Allen, whose devastating heartbreak and joy as Coalhouse's fiancée sets Ragtime's tragic drama in motion; and (1) James Cagney, whose beautifully named police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo is … . Oh, who cares who he is. It's James freakin' Cagney!
The Right Stuff: In a fourth-season episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon was shocked to learn that her mother once dated astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Liz castigated her mom for not marrying him: “Laura Linney could've played you in the HBO original movie Moon Wives!” I'd absolutely watch that. But first I'd watch, or rather re-watch, writer/director Philip Kaufman's seminal take on the early space race adapted from Tom Wolfe's book – a 1983 entertainment explosion that's one of its decade's most expansively thrilling cinematic works. Granted, he has 192 minutes in which to do it. But somehow, Kaufman gives you everything here: excitement in all those launches and aborted launches; awe in those astounding views beyond Earth's atmosphere; marital tension in the scenes between the NASA recruits and their spouses; wisecracking comedy in the press-junket sequences; unbridled heroism in Chuck Yaeger's unreported flights; unseen slapstick as astronaut Gordo Cooper violently hums the Marine Corps anthem while producing a sperm sample. It's a staggering, infinitely re-watchable picture made even better by ensemble performers Ed Harris (as John Glenn), Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Oscar nominee Sam Shepard (as Yaeger), Barbara Hershey, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Kim Stanley, Kathy Baker, and, as squabbling NASA recruiters, Jeff Goldbum and Harry Shearer. How those two didn't land an immediate sitcom deal is beyond me. MVPs: (3) Mary Jo Deschanel (mom to Emily and Zooey!), whose Annie Glenn radiates boundless love despite a stutter that leaves her barely able to speak; (2) Fred Ward, whose endearing macho posturing as Gus Grissom leads to emotional wreckage in a tacky motel; and (1) Dennis Quaid, whose signature grin has never been put to better use than in The Right Stuff's final seconds, when Gordo witnesses the heavenly light and becomes, at long last, “the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.”
Short Cuts: Altman again, this time in 1993, and this time detailing interconnected lives among 22 Southern Californians. How famous are the 22 performers? So famous that the last name listed in the non-alphabetical credits is Huey Lewis. (The News, sadly, is nowhere in sight.) An adaptation of previously published Raymond Carver stories plus a non-Carver conceived by Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt, Short Cuts is Nashville with less music, despite some coming courtesy of Annie Ross' drunken nightclub chanteuse and Lori Singer's suicidal cellist. But you barely notice the absence due to the wizardly hum of the performers – an even-starrier collection than Altman gathered for his 1975 offering, and, incredibly, none of them Oscar-nominated for it. There's Andie MacDowell as an agitated helicopter parent! Tim Robbins and Madeleine Stowe as sexually frustrated parents! Robert Downey Jr. and Lili Taylor as weed-smoking house-sitters! Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher as divorcees! Jennifer Jason Leigh as a phone-sex operator! Chris Penn as a pool cleaner! Anne Archer as a birthday clown! Tom Waits as a chauffeur! Lyle Lovett as a baker! Jack Lemmon as a scoundrel! Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey as amateur fishermen! And yeah, there's also Matthew Modine, giving a typically phlegmatic performance as a phlegmatic doctor. But still … 21 others! MVPs: (3) Bruce Davison, whose TV commentator squirms in agony as Lemmon recounts the last recollection you'd ever want to hear from your dad; (2) Lily Tomlin, whose waitress is a disappearing act on par with Tomlin's five-year-old Edith Ann and snippy phone operator Ernestine; and (1) Julianne Moore, whose painter delivers a breathtaking reminiscence that resulted in the relatively unknown performer quickly becoming a major star. In terms of her Hollywood ascendancy, Moore doing the whole monologue naked from the waist down was, I'm sure, purely coincidental.