The Mount Rushmore of Sherlock Holmes . . . who would be on it?
To my mind, the big four are obvious: Gillette, Rathbone, Brett, and Cumberbatch.
But, like all points of view, it matters very much where you stand, geographically, or in time. Were I born in Russia, I might have a slightly different view. Were I born this year instead of decades ago, my perspective would be vastly different. But, as it is, those are my four. Here's why:
William Gillette, I'm taking on faith and documentation. I doubt his acting would be palatable to modern viewers -- as the first actor to do a famous Sherlock having been a stage actor without the full benefits of film or videotape, we'll never know exactly how he did it -- but he definitely left his mark, on audiences and the legend.
Basil Rathbone was almost the opposite of Gillette -- the first film Sherlock whose work became "sticky" and got showing after showing after showing after showing. Sure, there were film and TV Sherlocks before him and after him. Sure, many a Sherlockian has their odd favorite unknown to the general public. But for all their flaws, Rathbones films were rewatchable, rerunnable, and just kept on coming before we made it to the digital era. Rathbone probably has more written about him than any other Sherlock before the internet.
Jeremy Brett. Among my choices, I feel like Brett is the most time-fragile. His fans are devoted, he had the benefit of the most Canon-loyal adaptations ever, and Jeremy Brett was the climax of pre-internet Sherlocks in a way. But Brett's Sherlock never became the big hit outside of Sherlock Holmes fandom that he was within it. Will the passing years hold his current status? Or will he become a Norwood, a Cushing, or Howard? I look at Gillette, Rathbone, and the next guy, and I have to wonder.
Benedict Cumberbatch is new, yes, and pooh-poohed by many an elder Sherlockian. But this week alone we saw one more Cumberbatch Sherlock parody on The Pete Holmes Show and a massive Russian dance tribute to BBC Sherlock. He inspired a brand new fandom outside of the old Holmes circles, a large energetic fandom, converting many a non-Sherlockian to Sherlockian status. And even more interesting, Cumberbatch eclipsed a major, already popular actor who came out with some very popular Sherlock Holmes feature films at the same time. He became the next actor to risk typecasting as he rose to iconic Holmes status the way Rathbone did.
Time will tell. Even Mount Rushmore's four massive heads were based on choices from a single point in time, so they have their disputable qualities as well, especially with the newest guy. But the monument still stands. And were we to build our own Mount Rushmore today, I have to think that the four guys above would be the four the greater number would choose.