Category: measurement

The Least-Heralded Greatest Actor of His Generation

Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com

Did the Media Hype Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Life at his Death, or Did It Miss The Story?

By Mike Kuczkowski

 

There he is, as vital as ever, impossibly alive in character: Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a John LeCarré spymaster in “A Most Wanted Man.” Another great Hoffman performance, punctuating our loss of his presence in cinema.

In February, when I heard Hoffman had died, I experienced that odd range of emotions reserved for those who have touched us but with whom we have no personal relationship. Surprise. Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss. A sense that something pained and vulnerable must have been behind those pained and vulnerable characters he played with such consistent excellence on the big screen.

I recalled his turns as the bratty snitch in “Scent of A Woman.” And as Ben Stiller’s gross sidekick in “Along Came Polly.” And Scotty J., Lester Bangs, Father Flynn, Capote, The Master… a long line of characters, all of whom were made more remarkable by the craft Hoffman brought to the roles.

Then came the claim “the greatest actor of his generation.”  Was he? Maybe so. He was a fine actor, no question about it. But the greatest of his generation? I really didn’t know.

As someone who sees a fair number of movies each year and consumes even more movie reviews and film industry media coverage, I felt like I should have known the answer to that question. Had I missed the memo from the critics, or was this something that was just unsaid before his too-early passing. And, if it was the latter, how does that square with our relentless, 24/7, gossip-tinged media coverage of Hollywood, in which the least significant celebrity sighting can get top billing from TMZ.com?

Rating a Generation

Let’s break it down. The first step is to define what constitutes Hoffman’s ”generation” of actors. This is trickier than it might appear. He’s clearly not part of the Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino cohort, all of whom are 70+. Is he in the same generation as George Clooney? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? If so, how does he compare?

I looked at the 66 actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance as an Actor in a Leading Role from 1997. Of those, 21 actors are between the ages of 39 and 50. Let’s say that’s Hoffman’s “generation.” (Clooney, at 53, misses the cut.)

Using data from IMDB.com, I looked at how many awards these actors have been nominated for and won. I created a metric, which I’ll call “Awardscore.” The Awardscore gives each star 10 points for an Oscar win – whether in a supporting or leading role – and five for an acting Oscar nomination. Wins and nominations for less prestigious awards were given two and one points, respectively.

The results (see chart below) make a strong case that Philip Seymour Hoffman was indeed the greatest, or at least the most decorated, actor of his generation.

Best Actors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Generation

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Brad Pitt 50 84 54 3 0 207
Johnny Depp 51 80 54 3 0 203
Heath Ledger 35 36 71 2 1 198
Will Smith 46 87 48 2 0 193
Christian Bale 40 56 58 2 1 192
Jamie Foxx 46 58 49 2 1 176
Russell Crowe 50 52 43 3 1 163
Matt Damon 43 80 33 2 0 156
Chiwetel Ejiofor 37 52 47 1 0 151
Joaquin Phoenix 40 70 32 3 0 149
Robert Downey Jr. 49 69 33 2 0 145
Nicolas Cage 50 45 39 2 1 143
Don Cheadle 50 77 30 1 0 142
Matthew McConaughey 45 38 40 1 1 133

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis of data from imdb.com, search conducted Aug. 4, 2014, updated Aug. 23.

I also looked at Metascore, from the review aggregator site “Metacritic.” On this metric, which measures the quality of the films in which he appeared, Hoffman again outperformed his peers with a lifetime Metascore of 67, five points ahead of Bardem, Damon and Renner, who lead the rest of the pack. Given the volume and range of films in which he appeared, from “Almost Famous” to the forgettable “Patch Adams,” I was surprised that his lead was so pronounced. He’s a full 11 points above the average, 20% better than the mean. This suggests Hoffman took the films he was in and made them better.

Assessing the Critics

So, there is a strong case that Hoffman was his generation’s greatest actor. Which leads to my last question: Was this something unsaid, or something I had missed?

The Factiva media database shows were 338 articles published between January 1, 2000 and January 31, 2014 using the phrase “greatest actor of his generation”. Of those, most referred to Sir Laurence Olivier (20+), Marlon Brando (20+ times, mostly focused on his death in 2004), Robert DeNiro (15), Sean Penn (12) and Daniel Day-Lewis (8). (Note: Day-Lewis, at 57, has a very strong claim to being today’s greatest actor with five Oscar nominations and a record three wins and an Awardscore of 332 in just 29 credited roles).

Of Hoffman’s contemporaries, DiCaprio was mentioned eight times. Robert Downey Jr. also had eight articles mention him with that phrase, often immediately contrasted with his drug problems. Russell Crowe received five mentions, including two lengthy examinations of his career in his native Australian press. Ryan Gosling was associated with the phrase four times. Ed Norton and Kevin Spacey, three each.

Hoffman was mentioned in four articles, always in passing. Once by Sean Penn, in an interview with Piers Morgan (Morgan replied, “Really?”). Once James Corden, in his 2012 Tony Award acceptance speech (Hoffman had been nominated for his performance in “Death of a Salesman.”) New York Times critic A.O. Scott mentions Hoffman as the second-greatest working actor, behind Day-Lewis, in a 2013 Oscar preview with Charlie Rose. No in-depth appreciation, no feature piece on his body of work in a major publication. It’s as though he was appreciated by his peers as a great actor, but the media just wasn’t interested.

A similar search for the phrase “best actor of his generation” yielded 278 articles. Many more mentions for Norton, Crowe, Spacey, DiCaprio. New mentions of Johnny Depp and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman? Not a single one.

Perhaps the most prescient, if not ironic, piece of coverage is a 2012 New York Times blog that asked the question, “Is Mark Wahlberg the Greatest Actor of His Generation?” The piece explores how many Oscar-worthy roles Wahlberg had, compared with the likes of Matt Damon, DiCaprio, Paul Giamatti and (describing him as the “big gun”) Hoffman. Tongue firmly in cheek, author Adam Sternbergh says “raise your hand if you thought the Greatest Actor of His Generation title bout would come down to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg.” Huh.

So there it is, like a needle in a haystack. The clearest declaration that Hoffman was the best of his time came at 4:12 pm on February 2, 2014, when The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson declared, “Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Greatest Actor of His Generation.” Just less than 6 hours after the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Hoffman had died in his Manhattan apartment. After that, 17 additional unique pieces echoed the sentiment. Suddenly, a critical consensus had formed.

Parting Thoughts

So, yes, Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of his generation. And, no, we didn’t say so while he might have heard us. One wonders if it would have made a difference. To Hoffman, and equally to us. I suppose it’s an unfortunate human tendency, to save the kindest words and most meaningful critical appraisals for obituaries.

It’s also easy, but accurate, to say that media coverage of an actor’s untimely death represents us at our worst. The media said so little when it might have mattered, and then pried so much when tragedy struck. It’s a phenomenon best described by the singer-songwriter Marc Mulcahy in “Where’s the Indifference Now?” — a song inspired by media coverage surrounding the death of Heath Ledger:

Get a picture of his girlfriend crying

Flowers strewn around the entrance

His parents are asking for some time to grieve

Even better can’t just everybody leave

Still, it does make me feel as though we could do better when it comes to appreciating the cumulative contributions being made by our great artists. Some stars, like Crowe or Downey Jr., seem to attract media star treatment, perhaps because they are bold enough to declare their ambitions aloud. Others gain coverage for their striking handsomeness, if not their public trials and travails. Perhaps Hoffman was overlooked because he was not as attractive, generally, as others on this list. One way or the other, we missed a big story.

One thing I would urge the media to do: assign a major piece on Javier Bardem. He wasn’t mentioned a single time with the phrase “greatest actor of his generation.” And with Hoffman gone, there’s a compelling case that he is.

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Return Of The King: How LeBron James Nailed ‘Decision 2.0’

Photo credit: Keith Allison, via Creative Commons

By Mike Kuczkowski

Since entering the NBA 11 years ago, LeBron James has been described as the heir to Michael Jordan – big shoes to fill, given that Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player of all time. And James has fulfilled much of the promise. Like Jordan, James possesses tremendous physical gifts, is incredibly competitive and has dominated his era. Each has been described as a basketball genius.

When it comes to managing his personal brand, though, James has been a middling playmaker. While he showed leadership during the Donald Sterling scandal this year, he was also criticized for lacking heart when he exited Game 1 of the NBA Finals due to cramps (fairly or not). Despite his impressive record of achievements, James the basketball star is not beloved.

Much of this dynamic can be traced back to “The Decision,” the televised interview with journalist Jim Gray on July 8, 2010 in which James announced he was leaving his hometown team Cleveland Cavaliers and would “take his talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.

The outcry was immediate and vitriolic. Cleveland fans burned his jersey. Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert wrote a public letter calling it a “cowardly betrayal” – in comic sans font, no less.

Watching that live broadcast on ESPN – along with 13 million people – was painful. Gray, generally a fine journalist, did a horrible job, asking a series of questions about James’ thought process while delaying the news about his actual choice. When Gray finally asked him the key question, James stared impassively ahead and talked about how joining The Heat would allow him to win. He appeared self-centered and heartless.

In short, The Decision was a disaster.

One way to understand the impact this had on James’ brand is by looking at James’ “N-score”, a measure of marketability created by Nielsen in partnership with E-Poll. The metric looks at a combination of awareness, likeability and influence to assess how successful an athlete would be as a brand pitchman (or woman).

The chart below shows the 2011 rankings of the top 10 most influential athletes in all sports.

2011 Most Influential Athletes

Athlete Influence Awareness Like Dislike N Score
Shaquille O’Neal 21 71 45 4 334
Peyton Manning 20 49 54 5 262
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 22 40 45 3 217
Michael Phelps 21 49 47 4 214
Troy Polamalu 21 23 64 3 165
Jeff Gordon 20 39 35 7 144
Tom Brady 23 35 40 11 131
LeBron James 20 42 33 15 131
Jimmie Johnson 25 20 47 6 72
Tim Tebow 20 19 44 13 41

SOURCE: Forbes.com, last accessed July 21, 2014

To be certain, James was still an elite brand. But in 2010, pre-“Decision”, James’ N-score was 261. Of note, James’s had the highest “dislikes/dislikes a lot” score in the top 10 – suggesting he was a polarizing figure. His 33:15 ratio of likes to dislikes stands in sharp contrast to someone like Troy Polamalu, whose 64:3 ratio represents a squeaky-clean likeability.

Fast forward to July 2014. James again stunned the world by leaving his team – this returning to Cleveland. From a communications perspective, this announcement was nothing but net.

I can see seven factors about Decision 2.0 that bode well for James’ brand and reputation:

1/ The Opt-Out: James didn’t wait; he opted out of his Miami Heat contract on July 1. He was businesslike about it. He said nothing bitter about the team, despite its stunning 5-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. No acrimony, no ultimatums – just business. Most observers said they thought this was a non-event, and James would return to Miami, tamping down the hype cycle.

2/ The Process: James empowered his agent to meet with teams, took their measure and didn’t tip his hand. No circus act. No wild road show. The process was professional.

3/ The Silence: The King’s camp didn’t leak, which is remarkable in this rumor-mill-driven media age. There were very few rumors – speculation about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s jet being seen in Miami, moving trucks, that sort of thing – but generally, James and his people were disciplined.

4/ The Reconciliation: On July 6, the Cavaliers removed Dan Gilbert’s comic sans letter from the team’s Web site. We now know this was because that same day, James and Gilbert met and exchanged apologies. The act paved the way for James’ return.

5/ The Announcement: James surprised everyone by announcing his intention to return to Cleveland via an open letter on Sports Illustrated’s web site. No press conference, no party. By using a print medium, he controlled the narrative out of the gate, again with admirable discipline. And, he went directly to the fans first before any leaks could trump his message, showing he understands they are his most important stakeholders.

6/ The Message: James’ decision creates a potential redemption narrative for him. By using a first-person narrative approach to announce the news, James humanized himself and his choice. This was brilliant. We will judge him by his love of Northeastern Ohio and his desire to bring a title back to his birthplace. (Note: while he again used the word “I” plenty, the spirit of his remarks was team-oriented.) His statement acknowledged past mistakes and forgave past slights. It was authentic, classy and clear.

7/ The Messenger: Lee Jenkins did not play circus showman to the James sideshow, as Gray did in 2010. While playing the “as told to” card was uncharacteristic, it worked. Jenkins also penned an in-depth cover story analyzing the move and explaining how the first-person breaking news happened. Props for transparency.

[Note to digiratis: The mainstream media still have plenty of clout and cred, especially to drive a news cycle; Note to old-school media types: The news broke via SI’s Twitter feed.]

King James’ homecoming will salve a lot of wounds from 2010. If he can deliver Cleveland its first pro sports championship in 50 years, all will be forgotten. Still, we don’t even know how long he’ll stay.

One thing we do know: James has learned how to make a decision with authenticity, clarity and conviction. If he and his advisors continue to manage his personal brand deftly, I expect his reputation will continue to improve in the months and years ahead.

A final note re: the aforementioned comparisons to Michael Jordan: However close to His Airness James may come on the basketball court, he has a huge gap to close in terms of his personal brand. In 2011, when James’ N-score was 133, Jordan’s was a whopping 553.

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