8 classic female ensemble films to watch before Ocean's 8
Ocean’s 8 is about to hit theaters and deliver a female ensemble film with a cast that is truly the stuff that dreams are made of – Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sarah Paulson all in one movie! But it’s not the first time Hollywood’s mashed up some major star power with well-respected acting talent and up-and-comers to create movie magic.
The female ensemble film has long been a force for stellar storytelling in the Hollywood canon, whether it’s dealing with backstage drama, infidelity, or good old-fashioned revenge. When it’s done right, it’s a tale of sisterhood and teamwork triumphing over bitchery and female stereotypes – even as far back as the 1930s.
Before you go all-in on the Ocean’s 8 jewel heist, here’s eight classic female ensemble films that are worth watching.
Thirteen Women (1932)
Despite its title, Thirteen Women features only 11 women (two actresses’ scenes did not make the final cut). It’s one of the darker titles here as a psychological thriller based on the hard-boiled crime novel of the same name. Myrna Loy stars as Ursula Georgi, a mixed-race woman who is seeking revenge against her former sorority sisters who bullied her until she left school. Using her sway over a clairvoyant, Ursula sends the women messages portending their doom before arranging their deaths until Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) gets wise to the plot and attempts to escape. The titular women in question are those who largely meet their doom, but the film is notable for its ties to Hollywood lore – it’s the only film appearance of Peg Entwistle, the failed actress who famously (and rather poetically) committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign (reportedly due to despondence over her career). Though the women here don’t interact a great deal, Thirteen Women is considered an early female ensemble film because of its large cast.
Available to rent or buy on iTunes
Stage Door (1937)
Though several of its stars weren’t yet household names when it was made, Stage Door boasts a cavalcade of female talent that includes Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Ann Miller, Gail Patrick, Lucille Ball, and Eve Arden. The lesser-known Andrea Leeds also gives a stunning Oscar-nominated performance as a despondent actress trying to claw her way back to relevancy. The predominantly female cast star as aspiring actresses residing in a theatrical boarding house in New York City while they eke out a living trying to realize their dreams. Based on the play of the same name, the film was a rare look at the very real struggles women face in the performing arts from the unwanted advances of the casting couch to depression and self-doubt. It deals frankly and movingly with suicide while also allowing time for plenty of humorous banter between Rogers and Hepburn, as well as signature wisecracks from Ball and Arden. The story chronicles everything from the women’s efforts to make it as a dancing double act to their romantic travails to the jealousy that ensues when one of them wins a coveted role. But most of all, it catalogs the interior lives of women – how much our friendships, our rivalries, our hopes and dreams, and our failures can color and effect every inch of our lives. It’s remarkably both of its moment and ahead of its time – a female ensemble film that devotes meaty plot lines to a fair number of its characters.
Available on Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu
The Women (1939)
There is probably no greater female ensemble film ever made (and more referenced) than this 1939 gem that offered a showcase for everyone from Norma Shearer to Rosalind Russell to Joan Crawford and more (we refuse to acknowledge the existence of the ghastly 2008 remake). Other classic greats including Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Marjorie Main, and Ruth Hussey also feature. The film brilliantly examines the interconnected lives of a group of women without ever showing a man onscreen (despite them being the frequent subject of conversation). Shearer stars as Mary Haines, a socialite who doesn’t realize her husband is having an affair with shopgirl Crystal Allen (a deliciously bitchy Joan Crawford) until her girlfriends arrange for her to overhear the gossip. Mary meets a bevy of other women when she goes to Reno for a divorce, and they ultimately help her get the revenge and happy ending she deserves. There are more than 130 roles in the film, all of which are played by women. The film is famous for its dizzy mid-film Technicolor fashion show, as well as its crisp, biting dialogue, which includes plenty of one-liners for Crawford and an iconic tribute to “Jungle Red” nail polish. There have been many female ensemble films in the years since The Women, but it still reigns supreme as one of the best of its kind.
Available to stream on FilmStruck
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Three friends portrayed by Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern embark on a school field trip, but not before they receive a letter from neighborhood pal Addie Ross who reveals she’s run away with one of their husbands – without specifying which one. Celeste Holm provides the voice-over for Addie Ross, a fact that was kept secret as a promotional tactic upon the film’s release. Beloved character actress Thelma Ritter appears in one of her earliest roles as a smart-mouth housekeeper, laying the foundation for the types of roles that made her a star. All three of the women fret and run over their past in their minds throughout the course of the day before anxiously arriving home to find out which one of their spouses has run off with another woman. Kirk Douglas also features as the husband of Ann Sothern’s Rita, but the film really hinges on the women and each of their insecurities and love for their husbands. The women also continually support each other and help each other navigate difficult moments in their marriages, making their joint concern and anxiety all the more moving as they struggle to get through the day. The film offers a nice blend of compelling, disparate storylines for each of the titular three wives, while also featuring sweet moments of interaction between them. It earned Joseph L. Mankiewicz an Oscar for best director and best screenplay, a feat he repeated the following year with All About Eve – an accomplishment that has never been replicated since.
Available to rent on Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
For mid-century filmmaking, it’s hard to imagine a bigger trio of female stars than Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. The movie stars feature as three New York models and roommates who concoct a scheme to land rich husbands and end up falling in love (with comedic hijinks) in the process. The project marked 20th Century Fox’s first Cinemascope film used to great effect to showcase its three stars in wide split screen at key moments throughout the film. The Hollywood gossip mills were expecting to dine out for months on stories of on-set backstabbing and catty behavior between the three big-name stars, but the actresses got along swimmingly with Grable and Bacall becoming fast friends and nurturing Monroe’s nervous nature with thoughtful gestures and understanding. By all accounts, the set and project were a happy one – and the result is a sheer comedic delight.
Available to rent on Vudu and iTunes
The Opposite Sex (1956)
This romantic musical comedy was a remake of 1939’s The Women (also based on a play of the same name by Clare Booth Luce) with significant alterations including musical numbers and the presence of male cast members. June Allyson stars as Kay Hilliard, the socialite who discovers her husband is having an affair originally played by Norma Shearer. In a twist of delicious casting, Joan Collins steps into the role of other woman Crystal Allen originated by Joan Crawford. Ann Sheridan, Ann Miller, Joan Blondell, Alice Pearce, Dolores Grey, and Agnes Moorehead round out the heavily stacked female ensemble, while Leslie Nielsen makes an early career appearance as Steven Hilliard, philandering husband to June Allyson. Reportedly, Allyson and Collins had a spat on set when a miscommunication caused Allyson to actually slap Collins so hard her earrings fly off while filming a scene. Though many consider this remake inferior to The Women, it does present another rich female ensemble packed with some of the biggest studio actresses of the 1950s.
Available only on DVD
9 to 5 (1980)
9 to 5 remains a perennial favorite for its portrayal of three over-worked women who seek revenge on their misogynist boss (and all of the bigoted men in their lives). The idea for the story of ambitious working women coming into their own came from star Jane Fonda. She also produced the film under the banner of her production company IPC, which she had committed to turning out socially relevant films. The film’s blatant tackling of harassment and gender bias in the workplace still feels incredibly relevant over 30 years later. 9 to 5 marked the film debut of Dolly Parton, who also earned an Oscar nom for the title song, which she said she devised the beat for by clacking her acrylic nails against a table. It also marked the start of a friendship between Lily Tomlin and Fonda, which continues to this day on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. The film proved so popular it spawned a TV series and a Broadway musical with additional songs penned by Parton.
Available on HBOGo and HBONow
Steel Magnolias (1989)
Based on a 1987 play of the same name, Steel Magnolias takes a look at a community of Southern women who rely on their bond to get through life. The absolutely stacked ensemble cast includes Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts. Roberts was still very early in her career and earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Shelby, a spirited young woman whose diabetes threatens her life when she decides she wants a child. Much of the action takes place in Parton’s Truvy’s beauty salon where the women gossip and confront the harsh realities of their lives all while sticking by each other’s sides. Playwright Robert Harling wrote the play as a tribute to his sister Susan who died from complications from diabetes, and the original stage production (much like The Women) did not feature any male characters. The film is notable for its blend of comedy and pathos, which expertly conveys both the steely resolve and fragile delicacy of the metaphorical title.
Available to rent on Amazon or iTunes