M. Night Shyamalan, Mel Gibson, and John Wayne

Part II of the Two-Envelope problem was not too friendly, so here’s something that is.

Via HotAir, I came across the site Marginal Revolution, in which was featured a graph showing the career trajectory of director M. Night Shyamalan. I loved it. The graph, I mean. Not Shyamalan’s movies.

The picture shows the ratings, culled from Rotten Tomatoes, for each of Shyamalan’s offerings, presented through time. Higher ratings are better; the ratings are an average from “approved critics”.

If the picture had any flaw, it was fitting a linear trend to the data, which, if extrapolated, would give Shyamalan negative ratings for any movies released after 2015. Much better would have been to let the data alone, which is what I have done here in this recreation of the original.

M. Night Shyamalan's Career

A precipitous drop! I have only seen The Sixth Sense, which was decent, and Signs, which was ridiculous at best. The trailers for The Last Airbender—in 3D!—never rise above absurd, a movies are almost always worse than their trailers.

Most of Shyamalan’s movies are leftest fantasy morality plays; never big sellers, but they usually are greeted warmly. That his were not must then imply that they were extraordinarily poor.

What struck me was a comment to the original picture in which somebody said, “A lot of artists has the same kind of trajectory.” I wondered whether that was true.

Mel Gibson is in the news, and has been in a Shyamalan movie, so I thought it would be fun to create a similar chart for him. Only live-action movies in which Gibson played the lead are shown. It’s important to understand that the Rotten Tomato ratings are for the movie and not the man. Of course, since the man was the star vehicle, a lot of the credit for the success of failure of a movie goes to him.

Mel Gibson's Career

The movie names are more difficult to read because of their number. With some departures to stinkhood (Air America, Million Dollar Hotel), Gibson’s career has been one of a steady, downward trajectory toward mediocrity. It’s easy to imagine his recent run-ins with the press will not help his career positively, so a crude extrapolation makes for a safe bet.

And then there’s John Wayne, my personal favorite.

John Wayne's Career

Wayne jumped around a bit. He would star in something great and always-watchable like The Quiet Man, and then appear in something crude like The High and the Mighty. But immediately after that lackluster movie came The Searchers, one of the best of them all.

This was quickly followed by the dull North to Alaska, a movie forgotten after the not-to-be-missed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And after the next low of Circus World came the fantastic El Dorado.

Then Wayne stepped into politics, right-wing politics, then as now a forbidden subject in Hollywood. So we mustn’t give too much weight for the abysmal rating of The Green Berets. His next low, Brannigan was bad, but it was followed up by one of his best, The Shootist.

There’s somewhat of a downward trend in Wayne’s career, but it’s not as clear as in the case of Gibson or Shyamalan. Of course, with a sample size of only three, we cannot say whether all or even most artist’s careers are similar.

It would be fascinating to see how true a decreasing trend is for actors and directors in general. Or perhaps to classify the kinds of careers: meteoric rises and falls, steady increase and plateaus, and so forth.

If we just had access to that Rotten Tomatoes’ data…


  1. PJ

    Perhaps it would be more instructive to compare Shyamalan’s trajectory to other “auteurs” rather than actors.
    A direct comparison to Hitchcock or Fellini might be a bit like pitting Lindsay Lohan against Bruce Lee so we’d need to find someone more middling. Robert Zemeckis? Roland Emmerich? Michael Bay?

  2. Doug M

    Disjointed reactions —

    I love the Avatar Cartoon. I didn’t think it would translate to a live action movie, and when I saw that it would be directed by Mr. Shamalan, I knew it would be a disaster.

    Why does Shamalan have the name recognition that he does? I can name about a half a dozen active movie directors. Why do I know this man’s name? And, after his last few snoozers, why does anyone give him the money to make crap?

    Does the start quality of the actor cause a rise in the rankings of their early work? ‘Mad Max’ would be a forgotten movie if it hadn’t been followed by ‘The Road Warrior.’ And, The Road Warrior wouldn’t be a 100 point movie if Mel Gibson didn’t hit superstar status. Lethal Weapon launched Gibson’s star. How would these charts look if we had the critical reaction at the time of release?

    To what degree does success breed success? Once a star has established himself, he gets first pick of scripts, better talent to work with, and bigger budgets. While plenty of actors debut with a hit, I would think what is more typical is a series of bad roles and mediocre movies, followed by a breakthrough success. In the “meaty” period of his career, we would have a wiggly period of up and down movies, and then his star would fade.

  3. Doug M asks a telling question.

    “To what degree does success breed success?”

    My view is that success inhibits success in the entertainment industry. What happens is the more successful a star becomes the less she/he/it is surrounded by honest staff. “Yes”-persons crawl from the woodwork and no one in the inner circle possesses enough integrity to tell the truth to the money-maker. Ergo, artistic judgment goes down the drain.

    The chart on “Duke” was interesting in that he was a “character” more than an “actor”, and most of his data came from an era before today’s instant communication age . Yet it somewhat mimics modern responses. Btw, wonder how Jimmie Stewart and/or Gregory Peck would fair? Somehow I think the more talented individual’s chart might be different.

  4. j ferguson

    These are very interesting observations. If one were to agree that Wayne was Wayne more than he was the roles he played, is it possible that interest in Wayne could wax and …..(ah, er, I got there before I’d realized what I’d done)

    It would be interesting to see Meryl Streep’s chart, Katheryn Hepburn’s, or others comparing those who were always themselves and those who lost themselves in the role.

  5. DAV

    You liked Air America? I mean enough to give it a below 20 rating? Even the IMDB rates it 5/10 (OK, 5.3). Is the scale logarithmic? Or do I have it backwards? Where I’m from, most would expect a “Rotten Tomato Rating” to express the number of tomatoes one would like to throw at it. IOW: 100=Manos: The Hands of Fate** quality and 0=Casablanca++.

    **MST3K rated it the worst movie ever.
    ++AFI rated it the 2nd best movie in the 20th century after Citizen Kane but what the hell do they know?

  6. Briggs


    No! I’ve never even seen Air America.

    But I’m with you on the Rotten Tomatoes ratings. They do look backwards.

  7. gcb

    Off-topic for this posting, but are you aware of the controversy that’s erupted in Canada over statistics and the census? The government is proposing to abolish the mandatory long-form in favour of voluntary completion of the long-form, and the head of Statistics Canada has just resigned rather publicly over the whole mess.

    See, for example:

  8. Bernie

    It seems to me that some of these ratings reflect political sentiments of movie buffs. For example, I found “We Were Soldiers” an excellent movie. Movies depicting heroism in what some see as “bad” wars seldom get the credit they deserve.

    I checked out the site. Apparently there are 3 classes of ratings: T-meter critics, 63% – 51/136 rotten tomatoes; Top Critics, 75% – 9 of 36 rotten tomatoes; RT Community, 84% – 14132/88326 rotten tomatoes. Once again the great unwashed masses agree with me more than the self appointed elite.

    Given the variability in ratings by group, it seems like we should chart all 3 groups.

    The pattern of the ratings reinforces my belief that the majority of serious movie buffs are utopian liberals who see the world as a bad movie that could be dramatically improved with a better director, i.e., them

    To check my hypothesis, I looked at two quintessential political litmus test movies, Red Dawn and Erin Brockovich.
    Red Dawn – T-meter critics 50%, Top Critics N/A, RT Community 68%
    Erin Brockovich – T-meter critics 83%, Top Critics 91%, RT Community 76%

  9. Steven Mosher

    Familiarity breeds contempt.
    Early success breeds contempt.

    Artists should die young, produce few works, and go unnoticed for a long time.
    That way they never experience the success that breeds contempt
    and the audience cannot become too familiar with them and expect
    great things only to have those expectations dashed.

  10. Dennis Dunton


    Since you’re a fan of “The Duke” can you tell me which two movies he made that had nearly identical story lines and characters…just with different names…and actors playing them?

  11. Briggs


    There were at least Rio Bravo, the one with Dean Martin and Rickey Nelson as “Colorado”; El Dorado, the one with Robert Mitchum and James Caan as “Mississippi”. I seem to recall a third, but can’t bring it to mind.

  12. Bernie

    Did you hand pull the RT ratings for each movie or is there a tool for collating the results for an actot/director?

  13. Briggs


    Grabbed by hand. Pain in the butt, too.

    I emailed IMDB once, asking to be part of their license deal. I’d do some analysis free, and they would put my name on it. But I never heard back from them.

  14. Kevin

    Compress the time scale for Gibson and Shyamalan to better match that of Wayne, and Shyamalan drops over a cliff — Wayne looks even better. However, I do not see how Flying Leatherheads ranked where it did and it seems McClintock is missing entirely so I’m suspicious of the measuring apparatus. Was it plugged in?

  15. Geckko

    I think you have discovered a psychological trait of “reveiwers” rather than directors, or movie stars.

    Listen to any reviewer (invariably a Leftist morality disciples) and they will always drone on about how this actor or that director was so great early in their career (usually before discovered by the hoi polloi) but have “lost their way” as they have become more successful (and usually put more bums on seats).

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