List Ethics Case Study: “The 25 Greatest Actors Of The 21st Century (So Far)”

Lists are fun (that’s why “The Book of Lists” was a runaway best seller); they also drive me crazy. Unless the lists are based on incontrovertible statistics and identifiable features (American League batting champions since 1900; states that begin with the letter “N”) they are essentially a stranger’s arbitrary opinions misrepresenting themselves as facts. I’ve posted about this a couple of times, first in 2011. That one concluded (in part), “I know these lists are all intended in good fun. When one is dealing with history, however, fun doesn’t excuse advancing misinformation at the cost of enlightenment.”

The list in question today involves subjective aesthetic judgments, not history, but it still has ethical problems. It was compiled by the New Your Times film critics—you know: experts!”—and purports to show us the “25 greatest actors of the 21st Century (so far).” That’s a lie. I guarantee that the authors themselves do not believe these are the 25 greatest actors by any standards.

Let’s look at the list:

Denzel Washington

Isabelle Huppert

Daniel Day-Lewis

Keanu Reeeves

Nicole Kidman

Song Kang Ho

Toni Servillo

Zhao Tao

Viola Davis

Saoirse Ronan

Julianne Moore

Joaquin Phoenix

Tilda Swinton

Oscar Isaac

Michael B. Jordan

Ki Min-Hee

Alfre Woodard

Willem DaFoe

Wes Studi

Rob Morgan

Catherine Deneuve

Melissa McCarthy

Mahershala Ali

Sonia Braga, and

Gael Garcia Bernal

The tells of a manipulated and dishonest list are unusually strong with this one. To begin with, I couldn’t pick ten of these “top 25” out of a line-up or name a single role they played. They may be fine actors all, but I watch a lot of movies, more than the average American, I’m guessing, and I also have a professional background in judging acting talent. I can conceive of missing one or two of the 25 “greatest” actors of the last 20 years, but almost half? I doubt it.

It is obvious that objectives that had nothing to do with identifying “the greatest” were paramount in this selection, prime among them “diversity.” There are, for example, three American non-Hispanic white males on the whole list: Willem Dafoe, Keanu Reeves and Joaquin Phoenix. Add Great Britain’s undeniably great Daniel Day Lewis, and that makes four white men. There are four African-American men, one Latino-American man, a Native American man, and a Korean man. The list of 25 includes 14 women, over half. Does anyone believe that such a list wasn’t assembled with a keen eye for box-checking?

The list also suffers from the routine ethical malady of most lists: it deliberately courts controversy by omitting what most readers would consider obvious choices. If such a list only includes the obvious choicesnobody will talk about it. However, if a list omits a name that even non-“experts” know belongs on it, the list-makers forfeit all credibility. One omission suffices to prove this list guilty: Meryl Streep. I’m not even a Meryl Streep fan, but a quick look at her roles since 2000 show a range and level of achievement that few actresses can match. I doubt that even Nicole Kidman, who is on the list for some reason, would argue that she is in Streep’s class.

There are other actors whose omissions I consider ridiculous in the context of those who made the list, like Anthony Hopkins, Annette Bening, Tom Hanks, Dakota Fanning, Tom Wilkerson, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Helen Mirren—heck, even Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise—but then I’d be playing the “my list is better than your list” game. What I object to about the Times list is the obvious biases. For example, who really thinks that Wes Studi, a Cherokee-American actor of limited range, is a “greater” actor than Leonardo DiCaprio, who has had one of the greatest runs of excellent performances in important films of any actor in American movie history? Again, I doubt even Wes Studi would claim that, because it’s an indefensible position, unless, of course, white American male actors are deliberately being discriminated against….which on this list, they are.

16 thoughts on “List Ethics Case Study: “The 25 Greatest Actors Of The 21st Century (So Far)”

  1. As I went through the list, my mind mused, “My, what a…diverse…list”.

    Lists of the greatest in show business are always subjective, nearly always including the flash in the pan newcomer, those with recent hits, a handful of favorites to fool people and and one or two recently deceased persons that everyone suddenly remembered was their favorite of all time the minute their deaths were announced. I deplore these lists for those reasons.

    This one is ridiculous.

    • People like to say that, but I prefer Orson Scott Card’s perspective:

      “What the best American actors do is ‘play themselves’ — which really means ‘create a film persona that persists in role after role so that people think that’s who the actor really is.’…Keanu Reeves started out as the inarticulate-teen character of Ted in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and even though he was memorably brilliant as Tod in Parenthood, delivering one of the best lines in any movie about family life, he was still typecast as a barely articulate teen…In Speed he created a completely different character: the competent man. Not a hero, just a guy who gets the job done without a lot of talk before or after. And he made it so believable and effective that people now go to Keanu Reeves movies and rarely even think of the goofy high school kid in the Bill and Ted movies.”

      It does seem to be the case the Keanu doesn’t do sophisticated characters very well (or maybe he doesn’t want to do them at all), but he does the uncomplicated persona thing very well.

    • Whoa, didn’t Keanu win a best actor award in Bill and Ted’s Big Adventure?

      I am sure his John Wick character made the critics job so much easier.

      • I remember watching Bill and Ted, and thinking “Well, we’ve probably just seen the last of these two!” What a pleasant surprise to see his range and versatility in later years. Same with Hanks and, in my opinion, Billy-Bob Thornton. I only had to see D.D. Lewis in “Gangs of NY” and “There Will Be Blood” to know he would leave an indelible mark.

  2. Still beats A&E’s Biography of the Millennium list of the 100 most important figures of the last millennium, which included Princess Di and Stephen Spielberg but not Otto von Bismarck, Cecil Rhodes or Saladin.

    And Keanu is Canadian, BTW.

  3. This list is hilariously transparent. You can literally go through line by line and check off which “diversity” boxes each person is supposed to tick. I mean, Melissa McCarthy is pretty funny, but one of the 25 best actors of the last 20 years? She’s obviously here as a token fat woman.

    They still didn’t get it right, though. Where are the disabled actors? What about albinos? I don’t see any animal actors here. Why can’t a horse be as good an actor as Olivier, you anthrocentric, speciesist assholes?

    (Holy hell, my spell checker didn’t flag “speciesist”, which I was sure I was making up as I typed it. Goddamn it, it’s in the dictionary.)

  4. The other problem here is that there have arguably been over 20,000 actors since movies began. Easily of that group, 2,000 alone could be considered exceptional actors. Whittle that down to like 200 great actors (or more).

    You cannot cull a list to 25 given the fact that, unlike “who can run the fastest”, acting isn’t broken down to a single task. If Actor X has talent A and B, but scores 8 on A and 6 on B, but Actor Y, with the same talents, scores 6 on A and 8 on B… who is the greatest? One would then have to argue if A or B is harder than the other or more useful to the craft. Now, given that acting easily has a dozen or so “tasks” requiring mastery, and each of our top 200+ “great actors” have a varied distribution of mastery of those “tasks”…who can say who the “top 25” are?

    Now, what of the life long actors, who started in their 20s as really crummy hams but were masters by their 40s or 50? Or those who really just were born knowing the craft and hit the stars in their 20s only fail to keep up and were washed out has-beens in their 50s? Plus, who is a better actor, someone for whom the talent seems to be natural or someone who has worked into the craft? (I leave this last question in though I initially deleted it, because, as in all industries, there are people for whom the talent comes naturally, but those people still have to work at it anyway because lesser lights who put in the sweat equity often surpass the naturals who grow cocky and lazy as we learn in the Tortoise and the Hare)

    Seems to me a “top 25” list fails for being too small given the size of the field and too microscopic given the duration of the art.

    No, I think we need a “Moneyball” approach to this. If anyone here knows how to code an app that crawls the internet to pull data from IMDB, I’d love to have a conversation with them on how to write a formula evaluating individual actors that takes into account quantity of films, who they acted with, genre of film and of character they played (both for diversity or specificity), the film’s box office success (relative to film values of their day), the film’s *viewer* rating (which would have to be surmised for older films), who directed, etc.

    Then *maybe* we could start gaining some clarity on a “Greatest of All Time” list, which would still be compelled to be broken down into “cinematic eras” or other type of time frame, given how much technology has changed combined with actors trapped in certain stylistic and thematic milieus.

  5. A list of the century’s greatest actors (so far) compiled in 1920 would contain almost entirely “Who?” names, with the exception of Chaplin and Fairbanks. I suspect film goers looking at the above list in 2120 will probably just shake their heads.

  6. Wait; no Meryl Streep, Anthony Hopkins, Annette Bening, Tom Hanks, Dakota Fanning, Tom Wilkerson, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Helen Mirren, and DiCaprio? Was Billy-Bob on there, or James Woods (well, we know why He’ll never make another list again, but still,..). I’d love to see their list of movies (heavy sarcasm).

  7. During this pandemic’s huge supply of free time, I have watched more movies since March than any other time I can remember. I have even started two movie clubs with friends in distant places where we meet on zoom once a week to discuss a movie we all watch during the long week. If I like an actor I watch everything available on streaming that they have done.
    The great thing about this list for me is that I watched movies I had never heard of by the selected actors. For example, Tilda Swinton’s “A Bigger Splash” and “Michael Clayton” and Oscar Isacc’s “Ex Machina” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” were totally delightful movies with actors I had never seen.
    I agree the list is laughable in some respects for its exclusions and inclusions, but it served a purpose for me in introducing many movies and actors I had never seem. That is remarkable because I am 70 years old and have been an avid movie lover, preferring small theaters showing independent films.

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