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Greatest of the Great

Scripps-Howard News Service 12.31.02
Balint Vazsonyi

As each year comes to an end, many engage in the great American pastime of picking the best, the greatest, the top ten. The game is as indigenous as apple pie.

There would be little justification to write about this, were it not for an almost off-handed remark made by James Lipton ("Inside the Actor's Studio") on Larry King Live. Guest and host were discussing Marlon Brando at great length when Mr. Lipton, apropos of nothing in particular, referred to Brando as "the greatest actor of the century."

For the sake of our discussion, I shall assume that Mr. Lipton meant the twentieth century. Even the wildest practitioner of exaggerations might recoil at the idea of picking the greatest of a century in only its second year.

That Brando is not the greatest actor of the century has nothing to do with one's opinion of his acting - which many hold in the highest esteem, while others may have mixed feelings. Lipton's statement is untrue for the simple reason that there is no such thing as "the greatest." (Cassius Clay may have been the only exception.)

James Lipton has built himself a career of unmatched access to the acting profession. One assumes an extent of knowledge that is commensurate with such access. Is it there? The twentieth century, especially its first two thirds, produced a flowering of actors and actresses that truly boggles the mind. Moreover, for the first time in history, we are not at the mercy of the recollections of contemporaries: audio recordings, film, video tape permit us to experience performances as no generations before could even dream about.

I have to hold back myself from starting to cite names because even the creme de la creme would consume the rest of the space in this column. But consider this: who was greater? Lawrence Olivier in "Henry V," or Jean-Louis Barrault in "Les Enfants du Paradis"? A comparison is clearly impossible - it is also nonsensical.

The question brings another in its wake. How much does a man like Lipton know about the profession outside the English-speaking world? The multitude of English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and American actors and actresses is surely unmatched. Yet for centuries there has been a deep theatrical culture in France, Germany, Italy and Austria that translated splendidly into the world of cinema - especially in France and Italy.

And now to the paramount anomaly of our time. We insist on naming the greatest in everything, from laundry detergent to actors, yet our teaching institutions have banished the concept of greatness altogether.

What a pity.

The rich harvest of the twentieth century was not confined to the acting profession. In the realm of music, for example, it is almost impossible to believe what magnitude of violinists, pianists, conductors, singers were appearing all over the world at the same time. We have one Pavarotti today, and one Placido Domingo. If you look over the lineup of tenors who interpreted the great operas between 1900 and 1966, you get dizzy.

And here is an important point. The greatness of performing artists must be measured through their reading of great works of art. In other words, speaking of Marlon Brando, one cannot compare a performance, however good, in 'The Teahouse of the August Moon," or "The Godfather" with "Hamlet," or even "The Importance of being Earnest" because in the latter the actor's accomplishment is measured against the truly great (here is that troublesome word again).

Interestingly, in the long run, historic continuity, ultimately, does place everyone in the appropriate slot. In other words, despite the currently immense political power of the multiculturalists who had done away with our hierarchy of values, the mostly worthless garbage they are feeding our young will remain just that, and what is great will survive. But it is a rotten shame that at a time when the explosion in communications would make literally everything available to everyone everywhere - generally gratis at that - we are denying our children the guidance without which they are lost among the myriads of pages, notes, images surrounding them wherever they look.

We have ventured a bit far from Larry King and James Lipton. But both men have a bully pulpit and, as we enter another year, it would behoove them to use their stellar opportunity to step back, take a broader look and, always establishing context, talk to us about those things that are really, truly, permanently great.