The first axiom of “Best of” rankings is they must be long enough to invoke the fury of fans, who know more about the subject than the idiot who wrote the list. Even if the list is only two entries long:
Second Place: Everyone Else
First Place: Jeremy Brett
This ranking includes Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch. It accounts for one-shot depictions, from Nicol Williamson in The Seven Percent Solution, to Sir Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes. Add whatever name you like. It will not change the fact that Jeremy Brett’s decade-long run of Holmes so far outpaces the pack that the order of actors behind him is irrelevant.
Keep in mind we are not concerned with who is the best actor, or whose show is the most popular, or whose last name is hardest to pronounce after a night of drinking. We have one question to answer: “Who is the best Sherlock Holmes?”
Jeremy Brett started off brilliantly (though with too much lipstick) with "A Scandal in Bohemia” and kept on going, even as his health failed him, through “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” He was overly dramatic at times, and some of his episodes were clunkers (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”). But Jeremy Brett, with his childish yips of discovery, millisecond smiles, twitchy energy (and even his severe depression) was so much Sherlock Holmes that the Brett claimed the detective was taking over his life. The New York Times noted that Brett performed Holmes with “demonic intensity” and that he was the “quintessential Holmes.” Twenty years later, there’s no reason to change that assessment.
I suspect fans of Sherlock are objecting the loudest. “Look at all the awards the show has pulled in!” “Look at how great Benedict Cumberbatch is!” I don’t disagree. The BBC could likely garner record ratings with a six-part miniseries based on Cumberbatch tying his shoes.
But calling someone “Sherlock” doesn’t make it so. The decision to drop Holmes into modern London was reasonable. The decision to play him as a snarky antihero was an egregious misread of Holmes. To give Sherlock credit, this mistake was quickly corrected, just in time for Watson’s wife to step out of a 90s Tom Clancy novel. Is it great TV? Yes! (I just said it’s great show. Put the pitchforks down.) But is it Sherlock Holmes? We could have called the two leads “Charlie” and “Don” without losing anything other than name recognition.
More Sherlock Portrayals:
Which brings us to the classic suaveness of Basil Rathbone and the gritty steampunk of Robert Downey Jr. Both renditions are entwined in the final truth of Holmes: Holmes was never great because he went into morgues and pounded the deceased with sticks (to see how long bruising occurred after death). He was great because he had a biographer who told us how great he was. Holmes without Watson is Obi Wan Kenobi without the Force: A slightly crazy man you’d cross the street to avoid.
It was a lesser Watson that all but destroyed Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock. Nigel Bruce was reduced to the thinnest of foils, spouting a hundred variations of “Rubbish Holmes! How can you be sure?” Rathbone did a fine job of answering the call, but after endless repetitions, you find yourself wishing that Watson’s famed Afghanistan wound had been closer to a bullseye.
For all it’s faults (showing every fight twice), this is where RDJ’s Holmes (Twice!) outshines other Holmes portrayals. In Jude Law, we have a Watson worthy of respect. The Irene Adler plotline is inane, but the relationship between Downey and Law rings as true as any other adaption of Holmes and Watson. They are as close as brothers. Seeing Watson finally punch his smug friend is more rewarding than watching the bad guys get caught.
As for individual performances, I doubt many people have seen them all (right down to Brent Spiner in Star Trek: The Next Generation). But they all suffer the same shortcoming. Holmes is a creature of episodic fiction. Getting him right once is respectable. Getting him right again and again separates the contenders from the rest.
Still, as Holmes has been portrayed over 260 times on screens big and small, there is some room for disagreement. I’ll happily leave the final word to Basil Rathbone. In The House of Fear (1945), Rathbone summed up the impossibility of ranking so many Sherlocks: “Instead of too few we have too many clues and too many suspects.”
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William S. Kirby has written for television, newspapers, and magazines. Kirby has traveled widely to such places as Great Britain, Fiji, New Zealand, France, Iceland, Belgium, Austria, Hawai'i, the U. S. and British Virgin Islands, Taiwan, Mexico, and the Canadian Rockies. Vienna is a direct result of his travels in Europe. Kirby lives with his wife in Denver, Colorado.