It’s More Than a Pipe, Deerstalker, and a Hypodermic Needle
Welcome to the second part of Sherlock Holmes: Rating 10 Actors. In part one, I gave my assessment of Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer, Nicole Williamson, Ian McKellen, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Today, I’m going to do the remaining five.
I’m sure many of you are wondering how I’m making this assessment. Well, partly, I’m going by an ideal version of Holmes as based on the canonical writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then I’m adapting the rating by story or circumstances the character is in. For example, in part one, I spoke of Ian McKellen’s performance. I thought it was excellent for what it was. He played Holmes at age ninety and without the romantic eye of Doctor Watson. He played Holmes as a man who had dedicated his life to the science of deduction and was now fighting against dementia. He played Holmes as a man, not as a myth. In that assessment, I really had to use my imagination and think whether or not he was still the character – and he was. In actuality, he was more Holmes than any other person who had played the part, because the story extracted the man from trivialities.
If you ever get a chance to see Mr. Holmes, McKellen’s performance is astounding and truly remarkable.
Is it the best?
Read on, find out.
If you were around from 1985 to 1987, it was hard to avoid Matt Frewer’s face.
Frewer came to stardom as the heavily made up Max Headroom virtual personality and mascot for New Coke. Max Headroom was the electronically generated talk show host of the science fiction show of the same name.
Years after ABC pulled the plug on Max Headroom, Matt Frewer was signed on to play Sherlock Holmes for Hallmark. He portrayed Holmes in four television movies including the Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four.
Now, I like Matt Frewer. I thought his portrayal of Trashcan Man in The Stand was fantastic and his comedic chops in the short-lived Doctor, Doctor were respectably good. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
It’s… well… it’s just terrible. It’s over the top on Shatneresque levels. There’s enough ham in his performance to make three barbecue luaus. I recently reviewed much of the footage to see whether or not it was as bad as I remembered and it was worse.
So, let me be specific. Frewer in Hallmark’s Hound of the Baskervilles required some amount of subtlety. This is one Holmes story that has been overdone to death. It’s not a good Holmes story, either. It’s a good Watson story. This is because the story was written after Conan Doyle was trying to get people to stop giving him death threats for killing off the character in The Final Problem. Holmes is only really in the beginning and the last quarter of the story.
But I digress.
The showcase for Holmes in this story comes from when he’s correcting Watson’s erroneous deductions of a walking stick. The reason for the scene is to demonstrate how awesome Holmes is at deduction and how Watson really struggles with it. Frewer’s Holmes is almost abusively berating Watson for his idiocy. What the role calls for is for Holmes to be an instructor – teaching Watson a lesson. Frewer uses this scene to chew up the dialogue with elaborate gestures and over the top theatrics with the walking stick. While there is a time for over-the-top theatrics, Frewer’s performance, accent, cartoonish delivery, and prop use belong more within Plan 9 from Outer Space under Ed Wood’s direction than with this classic mystery. He chews the scene like a beaver with bubblegum.
It’s almost unwatchable.
And it’s a shame. Frewer certainly has the right build and under the right direction, he could have been a decent Holmes. In the four television movies Frewer made, not one of them was even close to a serious portrayal of Holmes.
Rating: One pipe and a ham sandwich.
One of the best portrayals of Holmes ever, came during the eighties. Many people, including myself, feel that Jeremy Brett truly embodied everything that Sherlock Holmes was, as written by Conan Doyle.
Early in Brett’s career, his claim to fame was an appearance in the 1956 movie War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn. Then in 1964, he played opposite Hepburn again in My Fair Lady as Freddie Eynsford-Hill. The Shakespearian trained actor was part of National Theatre Company from 1967 to 1970.
Brett is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. From 1984 to 1994, he played him in forty-one Granada television productions. Brett took great pains to be the best actor to ever play the part. He even kept a seventy-seven-page “Bakers Street File” on everything about Holmes, with all minutia from his personal mannerisms to his eating and drinking habits. He absorbed Holmes’ personality like a sponge to the point where he began to dream of Holmes and felt unable to leave that personality behind. The outbursts of passionate energy to the horrible lethargy crept into Brett’s real life much like it had within the fictional great detective himself.
It became such a problem, that for a while, he could not mention the character’s name at all and only referred to Holmes as “you know who”.
This obsession and dedication to the role made Brett the best… period.
If you are, by any stretch of the imagination, a Sherlock Holmes fan, you need to watch his early Holmes works where he covers much of the canon. Ironically, one of the few episodes he had not done was A Study in Scarlet – where the character was introduced. However, it made little difference; Brett’s Holmes combined the passion, energy, and intensity he’d been known for. No one has ever done it like Brett – and made it believable.
Brett’s excellence in this role cannot be understated and until Benedict Cumberbatch took the role, no one had even come close to how he played the part.
Rating: Six pipes out of five with a needle, a cigarette, and a full disguise kit.
There are several of the old-timey actors that made a good reputation during the fifties and sixties. Counted amongst the ranks of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee is Peter Cushing. In his heyday, Cushing was known for his monster movies where he played Victor Frankenstein or Doctor Van Helsing, Dracula slayer.
However, the role that modern audiences know him for is Governor Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.
Cushing back in 1968 did sixteen episodes of a Sherlock Holmes TV series. Unlike the Matt Frewer ones for Hallmark Theatre, they were actually pretty decent. Cushing gives Holmes an easy familiar air of a man who is a professional at his business. His familiarity with Doctor Watson is believable as a man who shares rooms with another man.
He is a good physical fit for the part as well. The drawn face, the aquiline nose, and the receding hairline could have come directly from Strand illustrator Sydney Paget himself.
Regarding the intensity of his performance, it wasn’t half bad. Cushing combines both cook detachment with the proper amount of energy from the chase. Unlike Frewer, this did not come off as over the top, rather it came off as “business as usual”. When clues are discovered, he certainly shows a realistic reaction and a convincing show of deductive reasoning.
Rating: Three pipes out of five with a blue carbuncle.
Johnny Lee Miller
I’ll be kind and just say the show is unorthodox. Watson and Moriarty are both women. It all takes place in New York. Holmes is in both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and has to suffer being under his father’s thumb.
Asking audiences to believe this character is Sherlock Holmes, is like asking a modern day judge to believe a six-year-old girl in a Halloween witch costume, is actually practicing dark magic. Sure, she’s got the hat and the nose, but she doesn’t weigh the same as a duck.
Elementary stars Trainspotting’s Johnny Lee Miller and with the unconventional choice of Lucy Liu as Doctor Joan Watson. Miller does his best British former junkie work in Elementary since that classic movie. Is he a bad actor?
No, not at all. He’s doing exactly what the script calls for.
This Holmes is quirky and obsessed with solving crimes. At the same time, he is socially abnormal. While he has trouble working with many in the police force, he will work with Inspector Gregson (another New Yorker as opposed to his Conan Doyle counterpart introduced in A Study in Scarlet) and also participates in solicited sex from prostitutes.
Did I mention the tattoos yet?
While it could be argued this version of Holmes is unconventional and not to type, that is more an issue with the show’s writers attempting to please American audiences for prime time. These elements are certainly made for American audiences that could not possibly condone a protagonist with a cocaine addiction. Elementary must play for a G-rating and yet allows for a protagonist who solicits prostitutes. Within those parameters, Miller’s performance is interesting – but not accurate. What we are able to glean from the character is his dedication to deductive reasoning and his vulnerability to demons that come from substance abuse.
Of the positive things that can be seen within Miller’s Holmes, one is that he does do the unusual for gathering evidence. Tasting clues, jumping up and down at crime scenes and shows an intensity that is Holmes-ish. Some would call him a good Sherlock, but to me, he’s just some whacky English guy who is solving crimes while providing some amount of comic relief.
I’m not saying he isn’t amusing because he certainly is. He just isn’t Holmes.
I’m not fond of his take on Holmes, but I also recognize that it isn’t his fault at all. His performance comes from an unconventional direction and an effort to be progressive where there is no need to be.
Rating: Two pipes out of five and an AA meeting.
Robert Downey, Jr.
Guy Richie of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels decided it was time for Sherlock Holmes to come back to the big screen for a good old fashioned Victorian bloodbath.
In Victorian England at a time when there seemed to be grime on everything, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are getting ready to go their separate ways. Watson is engaged and Holmes is not happy about it.
This is where the difference is between unconventional and reimagining.
Let me tell you what I love about this movie. It is the first time ever that I saw the dynamic between the two characters portrayed realistically. Anyone who’s ever had a roommate knows what this is about. Having a roommate either works or it doesn’t. There is no real middle ground. The best living situations happen when roommates are good friends and adjust to the other’s eccentricities. We see this dynamic in Sherlock and in Richie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. Richie’s version is the best for this. Almost every other version of the dynamic comes off as Watson having some kind of hero worship for Holmes and with no complaints. Jude Law’s Watson, complains about everything we could imagine him complaining about. Downey, Jr.’s Holmes is the worst tenant in London.
The two live as professionals who share rooms and are friends – only Watson realizes that this friendship is slightly toxic to his life and relationships. We all have friends like this Sherlock Holmes. He’s a genius, but his personal habits can drive a man crazy.
The thing most writers don’t understand about Holmes is he never gets high during a case. The case is the drug. Everything in his life is a means of distraction from boredom. Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss understood this when they wrote BBC’s, Sherlock. We see this again in the Guy Richie films. When the case is over, Holmes is high on everything from alcohol to whatever Watson had on hand, such as embalming fluid.
As a reasoner, Downey demonstrates a well-focused chain of reasoning monolog with Watson’s fiancé. You can see how he reflects inwardly to everything he observes and how he makes his logical deductions. With him, everything is a game of logic or strategy. Even his fighting style is based on probability and outcome. He is also one of the few Holmes actors that actually demonstrates his fighting prowess with the oriental art of Baritsu.
The only real obstacle in Downey’s Holmes is he’s just not the tall thin character type. What he is, is a man with amazing observational powers, he just can’t turn off – hence, the drinking, the drugs, and the insanity.
Downey’s Holmes is pretty good and very believable. While he strays away from much of the classic trifles of other Holmes actors, what he does do is reinvent the character. Throw away the pipe and the deerstalker hat that came from William Gillette (a Sherlock Holmes actor from the early 20th Century that gave the character many of his hackneyed trappings for the stage and screen) and Downey will show an audience a Holmes that should’ve existed in the grimy streets of London.
We have to remember that despite his stardom and celebrity status, Downey is a fantastic actor. There’s a reason why he commands the salary he does – he’s that good. He’s certainly one of the top three actors I love in this role.
Rating: Five pipes out of five with a few stolen clothes for a disguise.
What the Role Requires for Future Actors
Sherlock Holmes is a complex character.
Not a lot is known about his past from Conan Doyle’s canon. We know he has a smarter brother (Mycroft, not Sigerson) and that Sherlock apparently has all the energy in the family. We know he’s descended from country squires (The Priory School) and that an ancestor of his is the artist, Vernet (The Greek Interpreter). He blames his flair for the dramatic on that last fact.
Other than that, that’s really all we know about Holmes’s past from the canon. Other authors have expanded on his backstory where he had a troubled childhood and that his mother had an affair with Sherlock’s mathematics professor (The Seven Percent Solution).
The foundation of his personality is laid out within the first few pages of A Study in Scarlet. Watson documents it within the second chapter.
SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits
- Knowledge of Literature — Nil.
- Philosophy — Nil.
- Astronomy — Nil.
- Politics — Feeble.
- Botany — Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
- Anatomy — Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers and told me by their colour and consistency in what part of London he had received them.
- Chemistry — Profound.
- Anatomy — Accurate, but unsystematic.
- Sensational Literature.— Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
- Plays the violin well.
- Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
- Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Holmes’s knowledge of astronomy is so bad that he’s unaware the Earth rotates around the sun. Once he heard that, he told Watson he’d do his best to forget it. The reason? Holmes believed that the brain’s capacity for knowledge was limited. He chose to pick and choose each one of the facts that would be part of his knowledge base. The Earth’s rotation around the sun is not part of his criminal investigation skill-set.
While Holmes has an aversion for women, it is largely agreed upon that he is not homosexual. The aversion is more on mistrust. He was quite taken with the adventuress, Irene Adler (A Scandal in Bohemia) and refers to her as “the woman” – as if she was the entirety of what the sex should aspire to. When it comes to women, he leaves such matters to Watson saying that “the fairer sex is his department.”
As I mentioned, Holmes has a drug issue. We discover this early on in The Sign of Four. His preferred drug is cocaine, but he’s not beyond opium, specifically if a case requires it. Other than that, it is important to know that regardless of his need for drug addiction, he never uses during a case.
Conan Doyle would drop bits of information regarding Holmes throughout the short stories like bricks or pieces of a much larger puzzle. Largely, the Holmes character comes from how he reacts in each case rather than what we learn about his past.
There is a bit of physical cast typing for the role. As Watson described him, he is tall, just over six feet, and thin. He has gray, piercing eyes surrounding a sharp aquiline nose. It’s hawk-like. Holmes has a prominent square chin which gives him an air of determination.
And he smokes… a lot. Those viewers who think of Sherlock Holmes as a pipe-smoking recluse only have part of the picture. He smokes cigarettes, too. He keeps his strong shag tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper near the fireplace.
Actors should read the canon prior to attempting the role. It is not necessary to read all of it. Almost all of the stories are filtered through the romantic eyes of Doctor Watson. Of the canon, there are two stories narrated or written by Holmes himself. The first is The Gloria Scott and the second is The Lion’s Mane. They must read A Study in Scarlet and as well as The Sign of Four. Outside of that, there are only a few critical short stories that should be read. I recommend the Red-Headed League, The Greek Interpreter, A Scandal in Bohemia, and The Final Problem for starters. After that, the actor can read selected works from the short stories to get a better flavor.
Obviously, the more an actor reads, the better his performance will be. The caveat is such intense study was the plight of Jeremy Brett. The character of Holmes through Doyle’s writing only gave him more dimension with each book. The danger is he is so fascinating, the essence of his personality could swallow an actor whole.