Superlatives are part and parcel of the entertainment industry, particularly with regard to cinema.
Words such as "extraordinary," "superb," "amazing," and "best" are tossed around so often that they lose their meaning when applied to film. And it is a given that award ceremonies -- Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, etc. -- are hopelessly arbitrary, and mostly a promotional tool. Even award ceremonies based on "peer" review (e.g., Screen Actors Guild awards) are largely promotional "mutual admiration society" events.
However, there are some aspects of filmdom for which there is "hard" evidence. One of these is the term "highest-grossing." Even if revenue numbers are not exact to the penny, they are usually close enough to determine which film is "highest-grossing" in a particular year.
But is that same standard applicable to actors, directors and other film personnel? What does it mean that someone is the "highest-grossing actor" in a particular year, or lifetime? Even setting aside the need to adjust the grosses for some films based on inflation since the time they were made, what definition is used for “highest-grossing” when applied to people?
This question arises in the wake of a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine cover article about Samuel L. Jackson, whom the Guinness Book of World Records has recently included as "the highest-grossing actor of all time." ("How Samuel L. Jackson Became His Own Genre," Apr. 26.) I would suggest that Guinness has not only made a mathematical error (more in a moment), but also an error in the application of the term "highest-grossing."
Guinness arrived at their figure for Mr. Jackson -- $7.4 billion -- by simply adding up the grosses of every single film in which he has been involved. As an aside, the article does not indicate what source(s) Guinness used for that total. [N.B. The grosses I provide below were based on averaging two figures: Wikipedia, and boxofficemojo.com.] In fact, if we add the totals provided solely by Wikipedia, Mr. Jackson's actual lifetime gross touches $9 billion. But setting aside this mathematical error on Guinness' part, is this method – simply adding up grosses -- really the correct way to determine who the "highest-grossing" actor is?
For example, should Mr. Jackson be credited with the $152 million gross of Kill Bill Vol. 2 simply because he appeared for two minutes in a cameo role? And isn’t it more specious still to credit him with the $320 million gross of Inglorious Basterds when he did not even appear in the film, but only did some voiceover work? In fact, even though he had an important supporting role in Jurassic Park, should he be credited with the $914 million gross of that film? This would be the equivalent of crediting Billy Zane (who?) with the $1 billion earned by Titanic, or crediting Stephen Lang (who?) with the $2.8 billion earned by Avatar. Indeed, suppose it was found that some minor actor just happened to have four lines in both Avatar and Titanic. Should that actor be credited with $3.8 billion? Yet Kill Bill Vol. 2, Inglorious Basterds and Jurassic Park alone account for almost $1.4 billion of Mr. Jackson's total.
Doesn't something about this ring false? Is the “highest-grossing actor” simply the actor who, by working a lot and making some good choices along the way (and sometimes simply “happening into” a high-grossing film), ends up in films that have a cumulative gross of X dollars?
It would seem that the appellation "highest-grossing actor" implies at least a minimal causal connection between the actor himself (or herself) and the earned gross of the film. Yet Mr. Jackson has not always been the star of his films -- and, as with Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglorious Basterds (among others), sometimes did little or nothing, much less "carry" them the way stars such as Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, or Harrison Ford do.
Which leads us to Mr. Hanks, whose $7.9 billion lifetime gross (using my two-source metric) is not only higher than Guinness' figure for Mr. Jackson, but reflects a direct connection between Mr. Hanks and the grosses earned by his films. Similarly for Mr. Cruise ($7.8 billion), Mr. Depp ($7.5 billion) and Mr. Ford (~$7 billion on two-thirds of his output). [N.B. Daniel Radcliffe, who unquestionably helped "carry" the Harry Potter films, is tied with Mr. Cruise for third place.] Note should be made that Mr. Depp and Mr. Ford have, between them, carried three of the seven most successful film franchises of all time: Mr. Depp, the Pirates of the Caribbean series ($3.7 billion), and Mr. Ford, both the original Star Wars trilogy ($2 billion) and the Indiana Jones films ($2 billion).
Of the remainder of the list of the top ten highest-grossing actors (using my metric) -- Eddie Murphy ($6.7 billion, including the Shrek franchise), Cameron Diaz ($6.4 billion), Will Smith ($5.7 billion), Morgan Freeman ($5.5 billion), and Julia Roberts ($5.5 billion) -- Ms. Diaz and Mr. Freeman generally fall into the same category as Mr. Jackson (sometimes "carrying," sometimes not), while Mr. Murphy, Mr. Smith, and Ms. Roberts are all "carriers."
As an aside, it is interesting that Sigourney Weaver falls into the next five, but only because fully one-half of the gross associated with her ($5 billion) comes from a single film: Avatar. The other four of the next five – Liam Neeson, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams and Angelina Jolie -- are all (mostly) “carriers.” [N.B. Of Neeson's $5 billion total, $1.5 billion is from the Narnia series, $715 million from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and $250 million from Batman Begins, all of which he legitimately co-carried.]
Guinness' claim re Mr. Jackson runs into yet another issue: adjusted box office grosses for actors both living and dead. Of the latter, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, and others come to mind. Indeed, given that Gone With the Wind is the highest-grossing movie of all time when adjusted for inflation (~$3 billion), and given that he appeared in over 30 feature films, it is probable that Clark Gable is the highest-grossing actor of all time. Of living actors whose earlier films have not been adjusted for inflation in any of the metrics being used (either Guinness’ or my own), the adjusted grosses of Sean Connery and Gene Hackman (among others) might be very surprising.
Ultimately, Guinness' anointing Mr. Jackson as "the highest-grossing actor of all time" fails on five levels: (i) if using a single metric, their own figure is low, (ii) if using a more accurate figure based on multiple metrics, other actors have higher total grosses, (iii) the crediting to Mr. Jackson of some grosses is highly suspect, (iv) no attempt to adjust for inflation has been made (for actors either living or dead), and, perhaps most importantly, (v) no attempt has been made to show a causal connection between Mr. Jackson's appearance in a film and the total gross of that film --i.e., the degree to which Mr. Jackson himself was at least a minimal reason why the film earned the amount it did -- and, if it were, Mr. Jackson would "fail" that test more often than not.
"Highest-grossing" actor/director/etc. is at best an imperfect appellation. However, if one is going to attempt to make that appellation stick, then there needs to be much more support than just raw numbers. In this regard, Guinness' entry for Mr. Jackson is flawed at best, and arbitrary at worst.