Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Their degree of greatness doesn't matter, just the greatness itself."

Maybe a pregnant Candace Parker being on the cover of the new ESPN The Magazine started me off on the wrong foot, but I couldn't help but FJM Bill Simmons' column.

I'm hoping The Sports Guy didn't write the headline...

You don't need stats to know greatness. Meryl taught me that.

...because his entire column seeks to undermine it.

Only 59 years old, Streep has been in 40 movies (stat) (not including voice-overs and cameos), taken home Oscars for Sophie's Choice (best actress) and Kramer vs. Kramer (best supporting actress) (stat) and drawn 13 other nominations (stat). She's been nominated for 23 Golden Globes (stat) and won six (stat). She has two Emmys (stat).

If we called age "Years Lived (YL)", that would be a stat too. Just like the people rail against "advanced" statistics in baseball, Simmons rips off a bunch of numbers that when strung together give you an idea of how good of an actress Meryl Streep is, but individually are fairly arbitrary and incomplete. If only someone could devise a better analytical technique...

Only Katharine Hepburn had a more decorated career -- four Oscars and 12 nominations in all -- but Streep has a lot of years left to pass her.

Hang on to that, because we are going to need it later.

Statistics allow us to compare players with one another, follow their peaks and valleys, determine which are most responsible for their team's success. Hollywood doesn't work like that.

Well, yeah it kind of does. This entire column is about actors' peaks and valleys. It's just that the "teams" come together temporarily and are disbanded when production of a movie is finished. You can't determine that the producer, director, and starring actors are mostly responsible for the success of a movie?

It's an industry of extremes -- this movie had the biggest opening weekend, this guy made the most money, this woman used to be terrific until she went crazy -- that hinges on what everyone believes, not on what can be proved.

I'm pretty sure which "movie had the biggest weekend" and which "guy made the most money" can be proved.

At some point in his career [Jack Nicholson] broke into the greatest actors club, the membership of which we have all subconsciously agreed upon. We know who the best actors are. We just do. It's why Hollywood has never built a Hall of Fame. We don't need it.

You know there is a Hollywood Walk of Fame, right?

Sports are objective (you win or you lose), whereas movies are almost entirely subjective.

All of the numbers you've cited for movies are "win or lose" (Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes). And movies are so subjective that we can all "subconsciously agree upon" the membership of the "greatest actors club"?

If the Oscars were reliable, they would help us create a formula that enabled us to rank actors of all eras.

Well, Nate Silver created a formula to predict this year's Oscars using past results and they were fairly reliable. I wouldn't expect you to know anything about that though, because you don't read blogs.

Well, what if we tried anyway?

Then it would completely contradict the title of this column?

Let's make best actor/actress nods worth seven points and nominations worth three. Then let's make best supporting actor/actress nods worth three and nominations worth one(...)

Top 13 actors: Nicholson (38); Spencer Tracy (35); Laurence Olivier (32); Marlon Brando (30); Hoffman, Newman (29); Jack Lemmon (28); Peter O'Toole (24); Gary Cooper, Hanks, Penn (23); De Niro and Pacino (22).


Are you happy with those rankings? Me too! I'm a genius! Yeah, Pacino and De Niro should be higher, but they were robbed in '74 and '76, so their stats make sense.

That, and like you said about Meryl Streep, their careers aren't over. But why would this part of the column agree with another? That would totally shatter the precedent you've established.

Other than that, I have no major qualms besides a failure to account for iconic performances like De Niro's in Raging Bull (should it be worth 10?)...

No major qualms with the system you just arbitrarily created? I mean, I'd like to think that you read this once or twice after you wrote it. You probably could have gone back and worked it in.

Now, if you feel like getting your supernerd on, you could figure out Simmons Points on a per-film basis by dividing SPs by movies made... a Hollinger-like AER (actor's efficiency rating) ... or even VODM (like baseball's value over replacement player, only it would be value over Dermot Mulroney).

Why does it have to be me getting my "supernerd on", Bill? You are the one who just named the fucking statistic you just created after yourself. Why do you have to deflect the "statistics are nerdy" stigma, dude? Because fantasy sports are so much cooler?

But that's not the point. We've had ample time to figure this all out, and we've never bothered.

Maybe the reason that we've never bothered is because acting is not quantifiable unless you want to start tallying things like "lines spoken" or "scenes appeared in".

The numbers that you've cited throughout this column (award nominations and victories) are just like measuring an athlete by the number of championships won. Award shows each happen once a year. Being nominated is sort of like making the playoffs. There are an incredible number of variables that go into making a movie aside from that person's performance, most of which are well beyond their control.

We never felt the need to validate Brando's brilliance by raving that he's the most consecutively nominated leading actor (four, from 1951 to '54), nor do we pimp Nicholson by pointing out that he's the only living actor with three Oscars.

Those are some really interesting stats you just used to indicate greatness. That's not what Meryl taught you.

Those guys are legends. Their degree of greatness doesn't matter, just the greatness itself.

Yes, once you surpass the Greatness Threshold (GT) it doesn't matter. Which of course is why you began this column proclaiming Meryl Streep as the "greatest living actor" and state your case with absolute certainty.

Maybe we overthink this stuff. The truth is, either you're great or you're not.

And I think that we can all subconsciously agree that Bill Simmons' is great.


Here's what I don't understand: He makes up a pretty interesting system, finds some holes in it, and even goes as far as to create more insightful ways of looking at it. And right after he does that, he just shoots it down all in the name of "stats are for nerds". Then he wraps up by stating a fucking stupid truism: "either you're great or you're not"? Thanks for that, Bill.

Why couldn't he write the column and actually try to create some sort of a rubric for measuring actors against each other? It would have been interesting. The crux of it is already in there, just trapped inside a two inch coating of condescending bullshit.


  1. Ooh this is a good one. Bill Simmons just got FJMed!

  2. Right on Jay. Simmons does this all the time esp. with last year's column on how Kobe will lead the Lakers to beat his Celtics then completely went 180 a few days later to write how his Celtics are the destined ones. I have a love/hate with him.

  3. Thanks folks... I knew I was kind of sticking my neck out on this one, but it seems like Simmons is a whole lot closer to the old school newspaper folks than he is to bloggers.

    Myth - I feel the same way. I don't have any reason to write about why I like him, so only the annoying shit comes out on the blog. I think we can all agree he's 12 to 15 times better than Rick Reilly.