Next time you're hanging out with friends, ask them this: "Who is the greatest living actor?" The question will temporarily paralyze them, as if they'd been Tasered. Everyone watches movies, so the answer should be obvious, right? But they will hem and haw, glance at the ceiling, stutter and say things like, "Man … " and "Hmmmm." Then they will suggest Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro or Al Pacino.
And they will be wrong. The answer is Meryl Streep. Only 59 years old, Streep has been in 40 movies (not including voice-overs and cameos), taken home Oscars for Sophie's Choice (best actress) and Kramer vs. Kramer (best supporting actress) and drawn 13 other nominations. She's been nominated for 23 Golden Globes and won six. She has two Emmys. Her résumé dwarfs that of every other living actress so dramatically, she's like a cross between Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice and Wayne Gretzky.
I didn't realize this until Doubt earned her a record 15th Oscar nomination last month. Obviously Streep is great, but that great? I did some digging. 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. Nicholson has earned three Oscars and 12 nominations, but he's 12 years older and has had some memorable misfires. De Niro (two Oscars, six nominations) and Pacino (one Oscar, eight nominations) resonate more with the public, but their track records don't compare with Streep's, and they've aged faster than Patrick Ewing did. (Don't believe me? Rent Righteous Kill. You will swallow your own tongue.) Dustin Hoffman, Jodie Foster, Sean Penn, Tom Hanks -- none touches Streep.
You and I would know this if movies worked like sports. Sports offer us the chance to obsess about stats and give us myriad ways to assess players. Before Bill James, before Moneyball, I knew numbers mattered. Jim Rice batted .315 with 46 HRs, 139 RBIs and 406 total bases in 1978. I have those numbers at my fingertips. As a boy, I stared at the back of his baseball card, marveling at that incredible season. It validated his greatness for me. There is a reason Ted Williams' .406 endures; Wilt's 100 and Gretzky's 215 too. 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. 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 don't need to kill myself to get you to see that Nicholson is phenomenal. You already know. At some point in his career he 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.
Sports are objective (you win or you lose), whereas movies are almost entirely subjective. I believe Pacino's performance in The Godfather: Part II is one of the 10 greatest of my lifetime. Did he win a best actor award in 1974? Of course not. The Oscars are littered with injustices like that: De Niro's not winning for Taxi Driver, Paul Newman's not winning for The Verdict, Anthony Hopkins' winning a best actor for 16 minutes of screen time as Hannibal Lecter.
If the Oscars were reliable, they would help us create a formula that enabled us to rank actors of all eras. Well, what if we tried anyway? 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. It's a highly scientific formula I just spent at least 27 seconds devising. And guess what? The Simmons Cinematic System shakes out in an overwhelmingly logical way.
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).
Top 10 actresses: Hepburn (52); Streep (45); Bette Davis (41); Ingrid Bergman (29); Jane Fonda (27); Greer Garson (25); Liz Taylor (23); Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek (22); Ellen Burstyn (20).
Other moderns of note: Daniel Day-Lewis, Foster and Kate Winslet (18); Robert Duvall (16); Russell Crowe, (13); Sly Stallone (3); Keanu Reeves (0).
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. Lemmon's number surprises me a little. Same for Fonda. 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?), Nicholson's in The Shining (he wasn't even nominated!) and Keanu's in Point Break ("I am an EFF BEE EYE AGENT!").
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 (Streep has a sterling 1.13 average), a Hollinger-like AER (actor's efficiency rating, some combination of awards and box office gross that would invariably crown Harrison Ford the greatest ever and drive me crazy) or even VODM (like baseball's value over replacement player, only it would be value over Dermot Mulroney). Just make sure you run all of your calculations through me, because I just bought the URL www.hollywoodprospectus.com. I'm in charge, baby!
But that's not the point. We've had ample time to figure this all out, and we've never bothered. 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 guys are legends. Their degree of greatness doesn't matter, just the greatness itself. Skim through Streep's IMDB page, then remember that from 1985 to 1995 she made only one movie a year because she was raising a family. (The slowdown has shades of Jordan's baseball sabbatical in how it affects her career totals.) We have never seen a better actress -- ever -- and incredibly, I didn't care until now.
So what does this have to do with sports? With everyone fretting about the steroids era and how it frayed the carefully woven fabric of baseball history, ask yourself this: Does any of it matter? Bonds remains the best leftfielder I've ever seen in person. I'll never forget watching Roger Clemens in his prime. I never turned the channel when Manny was batting for the Red Sox -- never, ever, ever, not once. A-Rod fetched the highest price in each of my fantasy auctions this decade. I probably paid four grand to Fenway scalpers from 1999 to 2001 to watch Pedro pitch even though I was broke. Some of them cheated for an edge they didn't need; others stayed clean. I will remember them all.
Maybe we overthink this stuff. The truth is, either you're great or you're not.