The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and the best actors who’ve played them
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about the iconic characters like Hercule Poirot, Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Wonder Woman and James Bond, in movies and TV shows and the best actors who have played the roles.
When I was young, there used to be a competition to pick the best Tarzan. At that stage, 13 actors, starting with Elmo Lincoln, had played the Ape-man and fans argued about who the best was. The general public thought former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous of the Tarzans, was the best. But fans complained that his Tarzan was more ape than man. In the books, Tarzan is a well-spoken aristocrat whereas Weissmuller’s Tarzan was all “Me Tarzan-You Jane.”
Now, of course, Tarzan has fallen out of fashion though the last Tarzan I remember, Alexander Skarsgard in the Legend of Tarzan in 2016, was very good. Sadly, the movie lost money (or barely broke even depending on who you believe) so there won’t be a sequel.
But what about other iconic characters? Here’s my list of the characters I like and the best actors to have played them.
Sherlock Holmes: I imagine that more people have played Holmes than have played Tarzan. There are many versions of Holmes. In the books he never wears the deerstalker hat that is now associated with him. That comes from an early stage production and it became a part of the character after Basil Rathbone wore it in the Sherlock Holmes movies.
Fans of the classic Holmes books prefer their Holmes in a bowler hat though frankly I couldn’t give a monkey’s what kind of hat the great detective wears. British fans of my generation used to associate Jeremy Brett with the role and indeed Brett was good in the TV series The best Holmes, however, it has to be Benedict Cumberbatch in the modern TV adaptation which sets the character in the present day.
And the worst?
Oh that’s easy. Robert Downey Jr in the Guy Ritchie movies. He plays Holmes in exactly the same smart-ass way he plays Iron Man.
(I also quite like Jonny Lee Miller in the US TV show Elementary though the show is not as good as Miller’s performance.)
Hercule Poirot: All kinds of people have played Poirot, Agatha Christie’s fictional Belgian detective. Some, like Tony Randall, were pretty bad. A lot of people liked Albert Finney in Murder On The Orient Express but I thought he was too brusque and rude to be Poirot. Andrew Sachs (Manuel from Fawlty Towers!) played Poirot in a TV version of Orient Express and most recently Kenneth Branagh was Poirot in yet another remake. Nothing wrong with Branagh’s performance but when people talk more about your moustache than your acting, something is clearly wrong. John Malkovich will now take over the role? (Yes, I know!).
The definitive Poirot, of course, is David Suchet in the British TV series. He has played Poirot in a TV version of every single story that Agatha Christie ever wrote.
Peter Ustinov was popular in a few films but was not much like the Poirot of the books. And a little noticed (but very good) Poirot was Ian Holm in a TV film called Murder by The Book.
Wonder Woman: Until a couple of years ago, Lynda Carter who played Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV show was most closely associated with the character. A previous failed attempt at a TV show with Cathy Lee Crosby was pretty mindless.
But with the release of the big budget Wonder Woman movie with Gal Gadot, I doubt if anyone will remember the other Wonder Women because Gadot is so perfect.
Batman: This one is controversial. I like the Batmen that nobody else likes. I thought Val Kilmer was a perfect comic book style Batman in an otherwise rubbish movie and I believed that Ben Affleck made a good, older and more cynical Batman.
The problem is that people judge the movies not the actors. I didn’t think Michael Keaton was anything like Batman but the Tim Burton films were so good that Keaton’s performance did not matter very much. I didn’t think George Clooney was bad but he had the misfortune to star in the worst Batman film ever made.
Christian Bale was okay but because the films were so good he will probably be remembered as the definitive Batman.
Superman: I don’t think there can be much doubt on the quality of the various Supermen.
The actor who played Superman the longest was George Reeves who acted in over 100 episodes of the TV show. I saw the show as a child and even then, I loathed his paunchy Superman who stood for ‘truth, justice and the American way’. (Ben Affleck played Reeves playing Superman in the movie Hollywoodland making Affleck the only actor in the world to have played both Superman and Batman on the screen.)
The last Superman, Henry Cavill, was terrible. Of his predecessors, Brandon Routh tried his best. But the role was too big for him. They are said to be looking for a new Superman but I don’t know if they have found him yet.
There was only one definitive Superman and that was Christopher Reeve who played him four times and was absolutely perfect. Even in the horrible Superman IV, Reeve rose above the material.
James Bond: The big one. Everyone has his or her own opinion, sometimes based on which Bond you grew up with.
The consensus is that Sean Connery is the definitive Bond and I don’t disagree.
People sometimes forget that Ian Fleming was a complex man. For instance, he had a strong sexually sadistic streak which came out in the books. But he never realised how much he gave away of himself in the novels and thought of his Bond as a smoothie. So his choice for the role was Cary Grant and he was disapproving of the selection of Connery for the role.
People also forget how much Connery shaped the character. Dr. No, the first Bond film, came out while Fleming was still alive and by the very next book (You Only Live Twice), it became clear that Fleming had ditched the Cary Grant-style smoothie character. He accepted that Connery gave James Bond an edge; a depth that the books did not always have. The early Bond books, for instance, suggest that Bond is English. But by You Only Live Twice, Fleming had given Bond some Scottish antecedents to go with Connery’s Scottish origins and slight accent.
So, Connery created the Bond we know today and of course, no other actor can ever match that.
When Connery gave up the role, the producers floundered. George Lazenby wasn’t much good and he walked out after one movie anyway. The next film Diamonds Are Forever, was even offered to Richard Burton (he passed) till Connery came back to play the role again.
After that Roger Moore (one of the original choices before Connery was cast), a smoothie of the sort that Fleming liked, became James Bond. But Moore, who lacked Connery’s physicality re-invented the character, playing the role for laughs. (When I interviewed him, he said that the scripts were so unreal that he had to play the role with some humour to indicate that even he knew how preposterous it all was.)
I liked Timothy Dalton who succeeded Moore but nobody else did and his stint as Bond was sunk by License to Kill, the worst Bond movie ever.
He was replaced by Pierce Brosnan who was okay in a forgettable sort of way. (Perhaps he was too good-looking to be Bond.)
When the producers announced the surprise casting of Daniel Craig, they said they were returning to the Connery version of the character. Actually, they were just panicking because the Jason Bourne movies had introduced a new kind of violent, action-oriented, spy thriller.
Fortunately Craig has proved to be perfect as a new kind of Bond, standing out even in such rubbish movies as Quantum of Solace. But he doesn’t have Connery’s charm or wit.
So I’ll go with Connery first and then, Craig.
Do you agree with these choices? Tweet and let me know!