Why the Oscars should have an award for Best Acting Ensemble

Studio 360
Girls Trip

The Academy Awards don’t have a category for Best Ensemble Performance in a film, but they would if Slate critic Aisha Harris had her way.

“In 2017, some of the best movies were not driven by singular performances — over-the-top characters who eclipsed everyone else on screen,” Harris explains. “Instead, I think they were driven by really great groups of people working together [with] a director who knew how to direct them.”

Harris believes the Academy Awards should follow in the footsteps of the Screen Actors Guild Award and other awards that honor ensemble performances like the one in "Girls Trip."

In "Girls Trip," starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish, a group of old friends have reunited for a New Orleans vacation during which they exchange barbs, laughs and hugs. Audiences and critics alike were won over by the chemistry of this comedic ensemble, yet the film has been snubbed by the Oscars.

“When I'm talking about an ensemble performance, I'm referring to basically any film that includes at least three, and maybe even up to five or six different actors who are really working together, so it’s not just one standout performance in the film that captures you,” Harris says. “It's all of them working together to put together a great and fascinating film. Within an ensemble, you have all these pieces that need to work together in order for the movie to work. You have to have that back and forth, that banter, the looks, the energy in the room — the kind of energy you can't necessarily get from just one performer.”

The ensemble of actors in the film "Get Out" could also be recognized by the Academy, Harris says.

“The premise is about tension,” Harris explains. “Tension between black characters and white characters, between older characters and younger characters, between women and men. There's one scene in particular that really stood out to me: the early dinner table scene.”

Often, great ensemble performances involve family scenes and family relationships, Harris notes. The film "Lady Bird" is a fine example of this.

“Lady Bird is the protagonist, but you also have her mother, her father, her brother and her brother's live-in girlfriend,” Harris says. “You can see from their family meal scene that they have a very well-worn banter that is full of antagonism, biting remarks — and just familiarity.”

While there's no doubt that Saoirse Ronan, who plays the title character, is the central focus of the film, the story revolves around her relationships with her family, her school friends and two boys with whom she develops a romance.

“That, to me, is what makes an ensemble,” Harris says. “They don't even have to necessarily be in the same scene all together. But, we see the world through Lady Bird’s eyes and we [experience that world] through her relationships with all of these different people. They each bring out a different side to her. Each of those characters helps form Lady Bird as a complete whole. Without those interactions and without those relationships, Lady Bird wouldn't be nearly as interesting.”

"The Florida Project" has a surprising twist on the concept of an ensemble. Several key characters are played by amateur actors that director Sean Baker found to act alongside professional actor Willem Dafoe.

Had these actors, aside from Willem Dafoe, not been amateur actors, Harris believes they would have gotten more recognition for their work.

“Having an ensemble award would give them the shine collectively that they wouldn't get separately,” she says. “Filmmaking is a collaborative art in many different ways. So, I think when we ignore the best ensembles, we are ignoring one of the main reasons why films work so well and one of the best aspects of filmmaking.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

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