Which actor and actress won the decade?

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It’s the end of the decade, and as we hurtle toward the 2020s you’ll probably see a lot of articles crowning the “best” of the decade in endless categories. You’ll see those articles, in fact, on this very site. And all of those articles will have one thing in common: they are just opinions.

And while criticism has value, these takes say nothing about another interesting question that is more likely to go unanswered: who was the most successful? The box office tracks this pretty clearly for the movies (although Netflix is complicating that equation), but it’s a much harder assessment for individual actors.

So I set about quantifying it. Here’s how:

  • I took each actor’s five highest-rated movies between 2010 and August 2019 on Metacritic and averaged them.

  • I took each actor’s five highest domestic grossing movies according to The-Numbers.com and averaged them.

  • I converted those two numbers to the same scale. (The Force Awakens is the highest domestic grossing movie ever at $936 mil, so I assumed $1 billion was the maximum for the scale so I could convert box office to 100 easily. It's not exact science, but it gets toward an approximate even valuing of critical reception and box office.)

  • I averaged those two numbers now that they were both on a scale of 100, giving me a composite "Decade Dominance" score.

The results are not comprehensive, because I did these searches manually—out of the people I searched for that I estimated were the most successful of the decade, these were the ones at the top. Here’s how the results came out.

The 25 Most Successful Actors and Actresses of the Decade

Tableizer using codebeautify.org
Actor Actor Score
Chris Pratt 73
Sam Jackson 72.9
Tom Hanks 72.3
Jeremy Renner 71.4
Mark Ruffalo 70.5
Chris Evans 68.2
Bradley Cooper 67.4
Paul Bettany 66.3
Robert Downey Jr. 65.6
Don Cheadle 65.6
Chadwick Boseman 65.4
Chris Hemsworth 65
Tom Holland 65
Benedict Cumberbatch 64.8
Sebastian Stan 64.6
Tom Hiddleston 64
Anthony Mackie 63.2
Simon Pegg 62.9
Josh Brolin 61.8
Dave Bautista 61.8
Idris Elba 61.7
Jon Favreau 60.6
Paul Rudd 60
Martin Freeman 57.7
Benedict Wong 57.5
Tableizer using codebeautify.org
Actress Actress Score
Lupita Nyong'o 71
Scarlett Johansson 70.4
Gwyneth Paltrow 65.5
Karen Gillan 64
Elizabeth Olsen 63.2
Zoe Saldana 62.2
Letitia Wright 61
Danai Gurira 59
Angela Bassett 58.7
Jennifer Lawrence 58
Brie Larson 57.3
Daisy Ridley 56.5
Tessa Thompson 55.5
Elizabeth Banks 54.3
Laura Dern 53.5
Amy Adams 53
Cate Blanchett 52.8
Evangeline Lilly 52.2
Natalie Portman 52.1
Jessica Chastain 51.3
Emma Stone 51.2
Gal Gadot 50.1
Bryce Dallas Howard 49.6
Michelle Williams 49.6
Emma Watson 49.3

These results are a testament to just how much Marvel has towered over everything else in the movie world this decade. Of the top 25 actors, 23 appear in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and 21 appear in the same movie: Avengers: Endgame. Endgame was an unparalleled success, and it’s worth wondering what will fill the void in the moviegoing business now that that chapter of the MCU is over.

The only two actors who do not appear in a Marvel movie are Simon Pegg and Tom Hanks. Pegg is in Star Wars, the other dominant franchise of the decade, so Hanks claims the honor of the only non-Marvel, non-Star Wars actor to make the top 25. (He has his own Disney franchise in Toy Story, however.)

The results are similar among the actresses: 15 of the top 25 actresses appear in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. The difference between the actors and actresses stresses just how male-dominated that extended franchise is. Beyond those 14 however, five more star in a non-MCU superhero movie. The remaining five are all in a franchise of their own: Banks has Hunger Games, Dern and Ridley have Star Wars, Howard has Jurassic World, and Watson has Harry Potter.

The two overall winners of the decade are Chris Pratt and Lupita Nyong’o, and they vaulted themselves to the top the same exact way: by starring in the MCU, one other major franchise, and multiple non-franchise critically acclaimed films. For Pratt this equation is MCU+Jurassic World+Zero Dark Thirty+Her+Moneyball. For Nyong’o this equation is MCU+Star Wars+Us+12 Years a Slave.

The real lesson of this list is that movie stardom takes a backseat to intellectual property. According to these rankings, Paul Bettany is the 8th most successful actor of the decade. No offense to Paul Bettany, but he is not an A-list movie star. The brand is driving these rankings, not the people themselves.

Which got me thinking: how many actors remotely close to the top 25 could I find that had not starred in a single franchise film the entire decade? This would be a true test of movie stardom: critical and commercial success without the safety net of brand recognition.

I could only find three names. The first is obvious: Leonardo DiCaprio came in at #33, and remains our greatest movie star because he only stars in original films and still pulls in big box office numbers.

There were two actresses that qualified. Saoirse Ronan came in at #37, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. Ever since her star-making turn in Lady Bird she’s been crowned as the next big thing in Hollywood, and her next few slated projects remain non-franchise.

Beating out Ronan for the top non-franchise star among actresses, though, was Rooney Mara, at #26. Mara is not often considered among the great actresses, but perhaps she should be. Between The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects, Her, Carol, and A Ghost Story, Mara is churning out excellent films without being sucked into a franchise. Next up is a starring role in Nightmare Alley, Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to The Shape of Water.

There are two ways to think about these rankings when looking toward the future. On one hand, the future looks bleak: without the MCU, we don’t have any movie stars, and it’s a tenuous situation for the industry.

I choose to interpret these results more optimistically, though: as the MCU and Star Wars end (or, as much as they can end, move into a different phase), the field is wide open for new stars. We didn’t know who Lupita Nyong’o was a decade ago when the MCU was just starting out, and I’m looking forward to discovering someone new this decade, assuming the film industry survives the climate apocalypse. Speaking of which: I’m expecting to see Timothée Chalamet at number one a decade from now. Get ready for the decade of Dune.

Jacob SkubishComment