Tuesday, October 29, 2013

If my mind had anything to say about it - an essay

Which actor best portrays Sherlock Holmes? Stating the obvious, that depends on who you ask. And until science makes it possible for us to clone parts from all our favorites, it will probably always remain so. And even then, we would probably all pick different parts. (And we could let the BSB's have first pick of some of the left overs, if you know what I mean.)

On a recent post, James made a comment about Brett that I found rather interesting.
He said,"The problem with Brett is great performance calls attention to itself." and he added, and I am not sure if this was about his Brett comment, or all Sherlockian actors, "It is rare that I feel like I am watching Holmes. Most of the time I feel like I am watching an actor make interesting choices in how to interpret Doyle's character."
And as with many of James comments, it got me thinking. ( I know, . . but I'll be alright).

Our minds are such that when we read a book, any book, we form images of what is written. Whether it is dialog or scene description, some parts of what we have seen some where else starts filling in those descriptive words. Many sort of images form those pictures. Illustrations we have seen. Photos. Things we have experienced in the real world. Even if the book is a mundane mathematical book, well at least mundane to me (and usually way over my head), we form some picture in our mind as to how it would appear if it were presented to us, not in written form, but as if it were in front of us. Whether that math problem be displayed  on a caulk board, computer screen or tablet, or piece of paper, our mind picks some way to display it to form an image unlike how anyone else would display it and one we are comfortable and perhaps familiar with.

Surely, again maybe stating the obvious, the same should be said for Sherlock Holmes. 
For many of the early readers who first experienced Holmes from early illustrations by likes D.H.Friston or Sidney Paget, those drawing played a big part in how they saw Holmes.
For Americans we could also add F.D. Steele to that list of image makers.
And than along came actors portraying Holmes on stage and screen and for the next hundred plus years we have had many images to chose from. And depending on who you saw first, or who had the greatest impact or presence we all end up with 'our' image of Holmes.
And for the most part, no matter who we accept, none of them are quite perfect. Everyone one of them have something that is just not quite Holmes. Except, maybe, Brett. Just my opinion.
Let me explain, please.

My first Holmes was Rathbone, and still is one of my favorites. The only thing that spoils Rathbone for me, is the material he had to work with and the Watson they gave him. As with Brett, there probably is a big crowd of people out there that wishes, somewhere in time, that both Brett and Rathbone are being allowed to do a complete series of all the canonical stories, just the way they were written.

I have not seen all the Rathbone Holmes movies. Like James, I like my Holmes in Victorian England. So I have never been comfortable watching him chase Nazi's. I don't want Holmes, until very late in his life, to be driven around in a car.
But with that said, Rathbone had a strong enough presence for me to fill, for many years, my minds image of Holmes when I read the stories. And still competes with Brett, sometimes winning, for that roll still.

But Brett for me was the first actor that made me take a look at the kindness and humor that could be Sherlock Holmes. And his portrayal  even made me notice it more in the books, or at least chose to interpret it that way.

What I found interesting about James' comments, "The problem with Brett is great performance calls attention to itself.", is that I had never looked at it that way, and I can now see why he feels like that.
To say the least, Brett could at any time be reserved as Holmes or flamboyant, all within the same scene.
He could be mocking and uninterested. But behind it all, I always sensed a little twinkle in his eye, suggesting, as Holmes, he knew the effect he (Holmes) was having on people around him.
Addressing James' comment, I think Bretts performance of Holmes was one of the first times we saw a really animated Holmes. A Holmes personality that was acted out, and not just a personality described on a page.
I think in other actors we saw a possibility of that, but never a complete creation.

There have been other actors who I have enjoyed in Holmes shows or movies, but none of the others have taken over, for me, the image that plays when I read the books. And I think that is how a performance, portrayal or image should be judged. When you read the stories, who comes to mind? Is it a Paget or Steele drawing, or is it some actor? Or have you created someone completely yours?

RDJ, although a great actor, I don't think will form many peoples mental image of Holmes. (Although Law will probably be debated about as Watson, for good reason.)

Same goes for Jonny Lee Miller. As much as I am having fun with 'Elementary' and Playing the Game, Miller will never be Holmes.

We could also argue about how good Peter Cushing was for many years as Holmes..

I love Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, but wonder, and fear, if the writing, the time period, the slapstick, and the irreverence will only leave him represented as 'Sherlock' and not Sherlock Holmes. And since we will never see him in a period Holmes piece, we may never know. (And I love all his other work also, so as not to be seen as picking on 'Sherlock')

Time has probably eroded many great former Holmes actors from filling the modern viewers (readers) image of Holmes, and that is to bad.

But, for now, Brett forms most of my image.

James, who forms, for you, the image of Holmes? Is he any one actor or image you have seen, or is he wholly of your own creation? Which ever it is, I am sure it is great.

And thanks for making me think about it.


  1. I want to thank your kind words. Before I had read "Hound of the Baskervilles" in the sixth grade the only representations of Holmes I had seen was Daffy Duck or Bullwinkle J. Moose in a deerstalker or Mr. Magoo as Watson or some cartoon figure in an ad with a pipe, magnifying glass, deerstalker and Inverness. That is, Sherlock Holmes was a cartoon icon that represented a detective, usually, though not always, smart. "Hound" was the revelation--Sherlock Holmes was more than an ideogram. Doyle had created a three-dimensional character and I was seeing Holmes for the first time. Truth be told, "Hound" was a bit over my head in the sixth grade. In junior high (7-8-9th grade when I went), I read "Adventures" and "Memoirs" and I became hooked. At the same time I became very rigid in my opinions about how Holmes should be presented. Holmes lived in the Victorian era, so I wouldn't watch the Rathbone pictures. I had enjoyed the book "The Seven Per-Cent Solution", but I wouldn't go to the movie because Nicol Williamson looked nothing like Paget's Holmes and Robert Duvall was an American. Holmes and Watson didn't meet until they were adults, so no "Young Sherlock Holmes" for me. When I first saw Granada on PBS in the late '80's, it was "The Greek Interpreter" and for a show trying to be faithful to the stories, making Sophie Katides part of the criminal plot and not an innocent victim was, I felt, a betrayal of the character and an abomination to the Canon. I refused to watch.

    So now that I've mellowed with age, I can see why Brett has so many fans, even if I see the artifice behind the art. I appreciate Rathbone's portrayal and wish Bruce wasn't comedy relief. The Cumberbatch phenomenon has less to do with Sherlock Holmes and more with a talented and attractive actor capturing the gay zeitgeist that has been building in popular culture for the last twenty years. It's like the Beatles--very talented but they represented something of the '60's that was larger than their not inconsiderable talents. There has and will always be those cultural lightning rods who define the undefinable by their very presence. Cumberbatch's "Sherlock" is a meme, but not a Sherlock Holmes meme. I think the passage of time will show BBC's "Sherlock" having less to do with the Canon but with an actor, a role and the times.

    I have yet to see an actor who captures the Sherlock Holmes my mind's eye see when I read the Canon, but happily there are many performances I haven't seen. I think that ultimately, it may well be that in the end they'll all fall short of my ideal, but I'm at a point where I can appreciate the attempts.

  2. Love your second paragraph. Thanks.

  3. Brett is my mental Holmes. End of, as far as I'm concerned. :-)

    1. By this of course I mean the Holmes of my mind rather than my personal insane Holmes.

    2. I am lucky, I can usually put my insane Holmes down in cartoon form and add him to our local scion newsletter.
      Thanks for stopping by.