Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is a respected but perfectionist actor. Nobody in New York wants to hire him anymore because he is difficult to work with. According to his long-suffering agent George Fields (Sydney Pollack), Michael's attention to detail and difficult reputation led a commercial he worked on to run significantly over-schedule, because the idea of a tomato sitting down was "illogical" to him. After many months without a job, Michael hears of an opening on the soap opera Southwest General from his friend and acting student Sandy Lester (Teri Garr), who tries out for the role of a hospital administrator Emily Kimberly but does not get it. In desperation, and as a result of his agent telling him that "no one will hire you", he dresses as a woman, auditions as "Dorothy Michaels" and wins the part. Michael takes the job as a way to raise $8,000 to produce a play, written by his roommate Jeff Slater (Bill Murray) and to star Sandy, titled Return to Love Canal. Michael plays his character as a feisty, feminist administrator, which surprises the other actors and crew who expected Emily to be (as written) another swooning female in the plot. His character quickly becomes a television sensation.
Tim Thomas (Will Smith), while carelessly sending a text message while driving, veers across the center line into oncoming traffic and causes a multi-car crash in which seven people die: six strangers and his fiancée, Sarah Jenson (Robinne Lee).
Vartan Malt (Bob Hoskins) is the editor of a tabloid called the National Mirror that specializes in unlikely stories about celebrities and frankly unbelievable tales about ordinary folkspersons. When Malt gets word that a woman is supposedly harboring an angel in a small town in Iowa, he figures that this might be up the Mirror's alley, so he sends out three people to get the story – Frank Quinlan (William Hurt), a reporter whose career has hit the skids; Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), a photographer on the verge of losing his job (even though he owns the Mirror's mascot Sparky the Wonder Dog); and Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell), a self-styled "angel expert" (actually a dog trainer hired by Malt to eventually replace Driscoll).
The film takes place mostly against a backdrop of the pre-World War I years, World War I itself, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian Civil War. A narrative framing device, set in the late 1940s to early 1950s, involves KGB Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago (Alec Guinness) searching for the daughter of his half brother, Doctor Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif), and Larissa ("Lara") Antipova (Julie Christie). Yevgraf believes a young woman, Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham), may be his niece and tells her the story of her father's life.
While picking up his son and daughter for a weekend visit, Jack (Christopher Meloni) tells his estranged wife Adrienne (Diane Lane) that he still "loves her" and wants to move back home. (It is made clear that Jack left his family for another woman.) Adrienne suggests that his remorse is due to his falling out with the other woman, but in any event says she needs time and space to think. The rift that this causes between the daughter and her mother is palpable. Typical teenage angst and rebellion follow and Adrienne is sure she is losing her daughter over the events that are unfolding in her marriage.
Hilary O'Neil (Julia Roberts) is a pretty, outgoing yet cautious young woman who has had little luck in work or love. After recently parting ways with her boyfriend when she caught him cheating, Hilary finds herself living with her eccentric mother (Ellen Burstyn).
In 1957 suburban Connecticut, Cathy Whitaker appears to be the perfect wife, mother, and homemaker. Cathy is married to Frank, a successful executive at Magnatech, a company selling television advertising. One evening Cathy receives a phone call from the local police who are holding her husband. He says it's all a mix up but they won't let him leave alone. Frank has in fact been exploring the underground world of gay bars in Hartford, Connecticut. One day, Cathy spies an unknown black man walking through her yard. He turns out to be Raymond Deagan, the son of Cathy's late gardener.
In World War II France, young and attractive Noelle Page (Marie-France Pisier) falls in love with Larry Douglas (John Beck), an American pilot of the Royal Canadian Air Force stationed in France. The couple has a torrid love affair that ends abruptly when Larry receives orders to return to the United States. Larry promises to come back for Noelle and marry her. She later finds out that she's pregnant with his child. However, he never returns.
Major Lloyd "Ace" Gruver (Marlon Brando), the son of a U.S. Army general, is stationed at Itami Air Force Base near Kobe, Japan. He falls in love with a Japanese entertainer, Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka), who is a performer for a Takarazuka-like theater company, whom he meets through his enlisted crew chief, Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons).
Laura Reynolds (Taylor) is a free-spirited, unwed single mother living with her young son Danny (Morgan Mason) in an isolated California beach house. She makes a modest living as an artist and home-schools her son out of concern that he will be compelled to follow stifling conventional social norms in a regular school. Danny has gotten into some trouble with the law through two minor incidents, which are in his mother's eyes innocent expressions of his natural curiosity and conscience rather than delinquency. Now with a third incident a judge (Torin Thatcher) orders her to send the boy to an Episcopal boarding school where Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton) is headmaster, and his wife Claire (Eva Marie Saint) teaches. Edward and Claire are happily married with two young sons, but their life has become routine and their youthful idealism has been tamed by the need to raise funds for the school and please wealthy benefactors.
Set in December, 1941, American expatriate Rick Blaine is the proprietor of an upscale nightclub and gambling den in Casablanca. "Rick's Café Américain" attracts a varied clientele: Vichy French, Italian, and German officials; refugees desperate to reach the still neutral United States; and those who prey on them. Although Rick professes to be neutral in all matters, it is later revealed he ran guns to Ethiopia during its war with Italy and fought on the Loyalist side against the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.
Under mysterious circumstances, Blanche DuBois, an aging highschool teacher, leaves her home in Auriol, Mississippi to travel to New Orleans to live with her sister, Stella Kowalski. She arrives on the train and boards a streetcar named "Desire" and reaches her sister's home in the French Quarter where she discovers that her sister and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, live in a cramped and dilapidated two-room apartment in an old New Orleans tenement. Blanche and Stella are all that remain of an old aristocratic family. Blanche discloses that the family estate, Belle Reve, has been lost to creditors, and that she wants to stay with Stella and Stanley for a while. Blanche seems lost and broke, with nowhere to go. Stella welcomes her with an open heart.
Eight-year-old Lillian Roth (Carole Ann Campbell) is constantly pushed by her domineering stage mom, Katie (Jo Van Fleet), to audition and act even though she is merely a child. One day, Katie finally secures an opportunity in Chicago, which leads to Lillian, now older (Susan Hayward), to having a successful musical career. Even though 20 years have passed, Katie is still managing Lillian as well as running her life and career choices.
In 1947, widow Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) dreams of becoming a famous Broadway actress. Losing track of her young daughter Susie at the beach (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham), she asks a stranger named Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her find the girl. Susie is found and looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother who also has a daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker), who is about Susie's age. Sarah Jane inherited her father's fair skin and can pass for white. She does this with fierce zeal and fervor, taking advantage of her European heritage and features. In return for Annie's kindness, Lora temporarily takes in Annie and her daughter. Annie persuades Lora to let her stay and look after the household, so that the widow can pursue an acting career.