Thursday, June 12, 2008

Movies That Potentially Have a Better Cast than Batman Begins

This is something I've been pondering for some time, after watching Batman Begins on FX some time last year and wondering: has any movie ever had a better cast than this? The answer, as near as I can tell, is no. As you all know, Christian Bale is as beloved by me as any other actor. I have at times proclaimed Michael Caine the greatest actor who ever lived. I salivate at the sight of Liam Neeson, who is perfectly suited to his mysterious, regal role. Cillian Murphy is deliciously sinister, Gary Oldman is reliably chameleonic, Tom Wilkinson exudes old-school gangster menace, Morgan Freeman combines with Caine to give this movie more class than any Merchant-Ivory pic, Rutger Hauer's corporate steward is as glib and smarmy as any cinematic corporate snake ever, and Ken Watanabe is given almost nothing to do as classic Batvillain Ras al Ghul, but does that nothing with menace and relish. As will be the case with some of the potential challengers, the only weak spot is the one woman of any note: Katie Holmes has never been able to act and makes that quite clear in all of her scenes. But outside of that blemish, Batman Begins has everything you could ask for. It succeeds in a number of areas:

1.Great Acting: Obviously. All the acting is great. But this is only the first prerequisite to having a great cast.
2.Great Actors: With the exception of Holmes, who isn't good ever, every single one of these actors is known for excellence. This isn't mediocre actors stepping above their usual playing ground; this is people delivering what we expect for them. Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell are great in Tombstone, but they don't have a chance at getting best cast ever, because they usually suck.
3.Star Wattage: A corollary to #2 - every single one of the faces on display in Batman Begins are recognizable to any cinephile - save for maybe Gary Oldman's, as he is always completely unrecognizable (my wife still might not believe that the same actor plays Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black). Nearly everybody does a great job in the Matrix, but besides Keanu Reeves (see Tombstone example), everyone else in the cast is either obscure or inconsistent.

For now, those'll be my three main factors: Acting, Actors, and Star Wattage. Recognizable, regularly great actors doing great work. And now, in chronological order, the films that I can think of which potentially might have better casts than Batman. Please, weigh in with your own thoughts. Do any of these stand up to Batman Begins? What other films deserve consideration? I'm open to ideas.

Movies that Potentially Have a Better Cast than Batman Begins (Chronologically):

1932 - Grand Hotel
Disclaimer: I haven't seen Grand Hotel, so I can't rate the actual acting on display. But by all accounts the acting is great, and there's no denying the quality or star power of the cast in question: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and John Barrymore. Damn. Probably the finest assemblage of talent in the early sound era of Hollywood.

1940 - The Philadelphia Story
The cast of the Philadelphia Story is not deep like Batman Begins. Frankly, I'm pretty much unfamiliar with everyone billed fourth or further down in this picture. But that big three...Jimmie Stewart (#3 on AFI's list of greatest male stars of all time) won an Oscar as a failed poet-turned-journalist. Cary Grant (#2) is his romantic ally/enemy in the love triangle, providing a suave, refined contrast to Stewart's plain-spoken man of the people. But the star of the show: declared box office poison in the late 30s, Katherine Hepburn (#1 on the ladies' list) had her favorite playwright write The Philadelphia Story so she could lick her wounds on Broadway, then stormed the box office with this film adaptation. She was never better.

1951 - The African Queen
Katherine Hepburn - again. And this time she's with the AFI's male #1 star, Humphrey Bogart. Actually, I prefer Stewart and Grant to Bogart, and Queen only goes two deep in terms of stars - but it only goes two deep period. Unlike The Philadelphia Story, the African Queen has virtually two roles. Which means it's all Hepburn, all Bogey, all the time. Hope you can take it.

1962 - Lawrence of Arabia
It's hard to choose between the three David Lean epics from this period. The Bridge on the River Kwai is the only one of those three to have William Holden, but otherwise loses out cast-wise. Choosing Lawrence over Doctor Zhivago basically amounts to choosing Peter O'Toole over Julie Christie. I'll probably regret it tomorrow...
In addition to O'Toole's best role as the monomaniacal cavalryman T.E. Lawrence, this movie features great work by Alec Guinness (another candidate for my favorite actor ever), Omar Sharif, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Quinn. That's hard to beat. Even excluding O'Toole's record 8 Oscar noms and lifetime achievement Oscar win, this group boasts nine more Oscar nominations, three wins, and another lifetime achievement award for Guinness.

1972/1974 The Godfather/The Godfather Pt 2
For once, the weak link in a massive, male dominated cast isn't a lady. Sure, Talia Shire is annoying, but she does a great job at being annoying. Diane Keaton also weighs in with one of her better performances. No, the weak link here is James Caan, who's a crummy actor and at best only ok in The Godfather. Pacino in his prime is simply mesmerizing; his underplaying makes every scene compelling. John Cazale is the perfect weakling contrast to Pacino's understated menace, and Robert Duvall brings a quiet gravitas to his role - the only player who matches Pacino for subtlety. The only question is which film to choose. Personally, I prefer fat Brando to Brando in his prime, but DeNiro in his prime is every bit as compelling as Pacino, and trumps even Godfather-era Brando. Throw in the fact that the second film is mercifully light on James Caan, and it's definitely my choice for better cast. You're welcome to disagree.

1994 - Pulp Fiction
I'm a big fan of the cast of Reservoir Dogs, but Pulp Fiction has pretty much that cast, plus added awesomeness. Take the Dogs' crew of Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Steve Buscemi, then add to it Bruce Willis, the underrated John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Amanda Plummer, and Christopher Walken, and you've got something cooking there. Seriously, when Travolta's on, there's nobody like him. He's just not exactly always on...

1996 - Hamlet
Hamlet represents the opposite extreme from The African Queen; it is the deepest film on this list. And for the most part, it offers up great actors giving great performances: Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie (welcome back to the list!), Kenneth Branagh, Brian Blessed, Richard Attenborough, Judy Dench, Timothy Spall, Rufus Sewell, John Gielguld, Rosemary Harris, and Gerard Depardieu. Plus, there are great performances by inconsistent actors such as Charlton Heston and Billy Crystal. This seems to make Hamlet a lock. But Kate Winslet's Ophelia is bad, Jack Lemmon's brief role as a guard is real bad, and Robin Williams' Osric makes me want to claw my eyes out. On the other hand, no other film ever made has such good performances from so many renowned performers.

2001 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the King
Another giant ensemble that delivers, even if, once again, a high profile female actor sucks every second she's onscreen: oh Liv Tyler. Of course, maybe it's an elf thing, because her film dad, Hugo Weaving, doesn't deliver the goods, and the wood-elf Legolas is played by perpetually wooden crapbringer Orlando Bloom. But this film is anchored by three fantastic performances from Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, and a Elijah Wood. Amazing character work from Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Sean "Rudy" Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, and a pair of newcomers named Billy Boyd and Dominic "Lost" Monaghan make this cast nigh invulnerable.

2003 - X2
Halle Berry has won an Academy Award. I haven't personally seen the movie in question, but I don't buy it. She sucks. So, once again, the highest profile woman proves to be a serious cast problem. But once you get past that...
The Royal Shakespeare Company lends three of its most talented alumni to this film: Patrick Stewart, OBE, Brian Cox, CBE, and Sir Ian McKellan, CBE. Three of the finest living Shakespearean actors (maybe the three finest, depending on how much you like Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh), with Stewart and McKellan playing the finest roles of their film careers, and Cox kicking ass like he always does. But the younger generation is also fantastic. Hugh Jackman and James Marsden were newcomers when they were handed big X-roles, but they made them count, and went on to prove their worth in films like The Prestige and Superman Returns. Alan Cumming adds even more Shakespeare cred, and Anna Paquin and Famke Janssen give solid performances.

Alrighty. That's what I got. Any thoughts?


hilizzle said...

I think your only oversight in this post is overlooking the tradition of the ensemble cast. As much as I hate Cukor's "The Women," and as terrible as this year's upcoming remake promises to be, it was a movie designed to showcase at least 8 of the best (or most popular?) actresses of the time, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Joan Fontaine. That's got to count for something in a blog post about top casts.

And, I can't resist highlighting a more recent ensemble cast - Ocean's 11 (the remake). Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Matt Damon (who's really only good in Bourne), Casey Affleck (who's just adorable), Elliott Gould and even Bernie Mac? That's got to count for something! They may not be as serious as Crowe or Bale, but they're hilarious - and that's what that movie is designed for.

hilizzle said...

Oh, I also meant to mention Harry Potter, which brings together many of England's best actors.

D said...

Hmm...why is it that the men in many of these films are great to spectacular, but the women are merely passable? With the exceptions of Christie, Hepburn, and Thurman, the women on your list tend to be rated average or poor in the movies you chose, even ones who give strong performances in other movies (e.g. Winslet). Is the problem poor material, poor directing, or poor talent?