By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist January 21, 2014 at 3:10PM
This past weekend saw the release of "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," the latest film to feature Tom Clancy's CIA analyst. It's probably fair to say that the film didn't live up to Paramount's expectations as a franchise re-starter, opening in fourth at the box office with a disappointing $15 million, and is heading to a rather ignominious future as a film that you watch ten minutes of on cable before realizing that you've already watched it.
But the film will at least be remembered for one thing: with Chris Pine taking over the lead role, it marks the fourth actor in five movies to play the title character, which must be something of a record—James Bond has had six actors, but over 23 movies, for instance. But it got us thinking about some of the characters who've appeared on screen most frequently, from masked heroes to royalty to religious icons.
So, in celebration (?) of Paramount's achievement, we've picked ten movie characters who've been played by multiple actors, and tried to work out which of their many incarnations was the best. To help pare things down, we've mostly excluded Shakespeare's characters (there've been over 50 versions of "Hamlet" alone), and, for the most part, historical figures, though we've made some exceptions here and there. You can take a look below, and voice your thoughts in the comments section below.
The Contenders: Many over the years, but frontrunners would include: John Barrymore, who took the part in a 1922 silent; Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in fourteen movies between 1939 and 1946; Peter Cushing in "The Hound Of The Baskervilles"; John Neville in "A Study In Terror"; Nicol Williamson in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution"; Christopher Plummer in "Murder By Decree"; Michael Caine in the parody "Without A Clue"; Jeremy Brett in a series of British TV adaptations; Nicholas Rowe in "Young Sherlock Holmes"; and, most recently and successfully, Benedict Cumberbatch in TV's "Sherlock"; Jonny Lee Miller in "Elementary"; and Robert Downey Jr. in mega-franchise "Sherlock Holmes" and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows." If you were to stretch the description of the character a little, you could also include faux-Sherlocks like Buster Keaton in "Sherlock Jr." and George C. Scott in "They Might Be Giants."
The Argument: Obviously depending on how literal you are about the character (recent takes, with their bare-knuckle boxing and mind palaces, stretch Conan Doyle's creation somewhat), but essentials probably include a certain antisocial nature, a close bond with BFF Dr. John Watson, an eccentric and bohemian personality, a near-Machiavellian and emotionless streak, and, depending on your preference, a pipe and a deerstalker hat. The likes of Rathbone, Cushing and Brett all stick fairly closely to the template, which are admittedly definitive, even if they seem a little fusty in retrospect. We're very fond of both Plummer's version, which is a rather more charming and conscientious take, and Nicol Wiliamson's coke-addled lunatic in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," while Rowe did a good job at portraying a Holmes not quite fully-formed, but certainly on his way there. And though Downey Jr. makes a fair go of it, it's undoubtedly Cumberbatch who's defined the character for a new generation in "Sherlock," though Miller's good value in "Elementary" too.
The Winner And Why: Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder's "The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes." Overlooked by audiences after it was hacked up by the studio, the film sometimes feels like only a shadow of what it might have been, but Stephens is magnificent: a more tragic and human take on Holmes without abandoning the basics of the character. His Wildean wit, and beautifully drawn relationship with Colin Blakeley's Watson, give the performance pathos and energy that, for us, remains the gold standard. We're interested to see what Ian McKellen and Bill Condon cook up together with the upcoming "A Slight Trick Of Mind," one of many takes sure to be in the works after a recent copyright ruling firmly placed Holmes in the public domain.
The One You Might Not Have Seen: There's a couple of comic takes on the character that are worth seeking out if you're not familiar with them. John Cleese plays a contemporary take on Holmes in the wildly uneven, but very enjoyable "The Strange Case Of The End Of Civilization As We Know It," and while 1978's "The Hound Of The Baskervilles," directed by Andy Warhol protege Paul Morrissey, is not a good film at all, Peter Cook is inspired casting as Holmes, and makes you wish the material was better.
The Contenders: Sean Connery from "Dr. No" in 1962 to "Diamonds Are Forever" in 1971; George Lazenby, who was Connery's replacement for "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" in 1969; Roger Moore from 1973's "Live And Let Die" to 1985's "A View To A Kill"; Timothy Dalton in 1987's "The Living Daylights" and 1989's "Licence To Kill"; Pierce Brosnan from 1995's "Goldeneye" to 2002's "Die Another Day"; and Daniel Craig from 2006's "Casino Royale" to the present. David Niven also played the role in the terrible, terrible 1967 parody version of "Casino Royale."
The Argument: Ian Fleming's hard-drinking, womanizing spy is the focus of the longest-running singular franchise in the history of the medium, and the part serves as a testament to the kind of diversity you can get when six (or seven) middle-aged white men all get to showcase their own takes on the same character. Connery as the first, is probably still the most iconic, and is, for the most part, closer to the cruel and callous 007 of Fleming's books. Lazenby might have the best movie with "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," but feels a little awkward in the role, though who knows if he would've have settled in better with more time. Moore is the most fun, always ready with a wisecrack and an eyebrow-raise, but only descending into camp in the later entries, when the scripts got worse (much, much worse) and he started feeling too old for the part. Dalton was the Bond for the P.C. era, serious and emotional, and never quite gets to the root of the character, though that's the fault of the material rather than him. Brosnan melds some of the best characteristics of his predecessors, able to pull off some wry Moore-ish humor with a little Connery chilliness and Dalton pathos in for the mix. And Craig is the blunt instrument, leavened with a certain GQ Magazine new-man sensitivity.
The Winner And Why: Sean Connery. Moore's films are too silly and inconsistent, for the most part, for him to be a serious contender, and Dalton and Lazenby can't match their colleague's impact. Craig probably has the most emotional material, best hit rate so far (two very good Bond films and one duff one), but it feels too early to elevate him into the pantheon yet. As for Pierce Brosnan, despite his fine performances, he only made one classic with "Goldeneye," with the series falling a few notches after that film (and picking up again later). So that leaves Connery, and really, who else could be: the Scottish actor defined the role in the 1960s, and every actor who'll ever done the tuxedo will be in the shadow of the hirsute, savage hound dog who launched the franchise.
The One You Might Not Have Seen: If you missed any of them, it's most likely the 1967 "Casino Royale," with David Niven. Trust us, it's for the best: it's a spectacularly uneven counter-cultural mess that went through as many as six directors.