The High-Wire Energy of Great Ensemble Acting

The High-Wire Energy of Great Ensemble Acting

Pop quiz, hotshot: How many minutes of Dazed and Confused is Matthew McConaughey actually in? If we’re counting scenes where the actor lurks in the background of the main action, it’s around twenty-one (I used a stopwatch), but the moments when he’s actually featured total no more than half that amount of time. Wooderson is an iconic role—it gave us McConaughey’s Fat Albert–like catchphrase alright alright alright, and introduced his signature held-breath delivery—but the character gets very few lines, far fewer than you probably remember.

Wooderson’s dramatic purpose is to illustrate a possible future for Jason London’s Randall “Pink” Floyd, one of deadbeat leisure and liaisons with underage girls. But through some alchemy of casting, performance, writing, and directing, he is also a full-fledged human being. You feel at any point the movie could become entirely about him—his joys and pains and struggles. This is also the case with Parker Posey’s mean girl Darla Marks, an even smaller role that nevertheless evokes a whole life going on off-camera. Ditto Rory Cochrane’s stoner conspiracy theorist Slater.

This is the glory of ensemble films. They give you the feeling that a rich ecosystem is being brought to life. And they hold within them a special truth about human relationships: if we are all protagonists in our own dramas, we are also supporting—and even minor!—characters in other people’s lives.

Top of page: The Royal Tenenbaums; above: Dazed and Confused
The Women
Noises Off
Can’t Hardly Wait
The Barbarian Invasions

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