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:
Song Kang Ho
Michael B. Jordan
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.