“I came like a king, left like a legend.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic tweeted this missive out in 2016, when he confirmed he was leaving PSG (Paris Saint-Germain), the soccer club he had called home for four seasons. It is an amazing quote. It was, and remains, factually incorrect.
Did Zlatan in fact come like a king and leave like a legend? In those years with PSG he won 4 Ligue 1 titles, but failed to make any impact in the Champions League. The five major leagues in European football are England, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. France’s Ligue 1 is generally and accurately considered the worst. In European football, winning the French league four times is the least impressive thing you can do while still technically “winning.” The Champions League on the other hand, is a continent-wide competition featuring the top teams from each European league. It is akin to “The Avengers,” wherein each superhero is siloed off in their own world, only to band together to fight for global survival, and global box office supremacy. Although individual league titles are important, the Champions League is where kings are crowned and legends are born. Despite being considered one of the best players in the world for a decade and a half, Zlatan has still not won a Champions League trophy. So, in fact he neither came like a king, nor left like a legend. He is essentially the Swedish version of the University of Virginia basketball program.
What is a king really? And how does a king transcend to the status of legend? What are the rules and mechanics?
At the minimum, becoming a legend requires three works. All three must be in the same medium, in succession. They must also be great to transcendent. In short they must leave you awestruck. For sports this is easy. It is three straight comprehensive victories. Tiger Woods in 2000-2001 won four majors in a row. As immortalized in the award winning documentary, “Space Jam,” Michael Jordan sandwiched back to back three-peats around a brief sojourn through Low-A minor league ball. In politics, Ted Kennedy won seven straight senatorial campaigns. One might argue that losing in the 1980 Democratic primary to the incumbent Jimmy Carter makes him not a legend. I would counter that he succeeded in winning seven straight senatorial campaigns despite killing someone while in office.
Which naturally brings us to Nic Cage, Aaron Sorkin, and Albert Einstein.
In 1996, Nic Cage had most recently won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film “Leaving Las Vegas.” His Best Actor Oscar is only notable because of what it came before. In 1996 and 1997, he made, in order, “The Rock,” “Con Air,” and “Face/Off.” These are indisputably three of the greatest action movies of all time. This man, this legend, made them in order, in two years.
I do not know the day to day workings of a successful actor’s life. I would imagine there are many meals with your agent, producers, and executives, just talking shop. I would also imagine there is a lot of boring script reading. So, how did he find the three best scripts of 1996 simultaneously? In my imagination, Nic Cage has read hundreds, perhaps thousands of scripts. He has just broken out the scotch in frustration. He starts swigging straight from the bottle. He is about to pass out because he is outrageously drunk, until he stumbles upon the script for, “The Rock.” He turns to page one. The scotch falls from his hands. A piano starts playing slow, austere chords. As he suddenly sees “Con Air” and “Face/Off,” the horn section takes off. He is suddenly completely sober. This is followed by a short montage of him reading the three scripts deep into the night. Cut to Nic Cage watching the sunrise from the deck of his beach-front Malibu mansion, surrounded by the scripts, the scotch back in his right hand. It is rare for any single actor to be involved in three movies of this quality in an entire career. He made three of them in a row.
By 2010, Aaron Sorkin had already written, “The West Wing” and “A Few Good Men.” A beloved master of dialogue, he patented, “walking and talking.” He could have never written another word and become a modern day Harper Lee; who’s seminal work he not coincidentally adapted for the stage in 2018. What would have been the pinnacle of a lesser man’s career, was merely a staging ground for the successes to come. He proceeded to write the following film screenplays. “The Social Network” in 2010, “Moneyball” in 2011, and “Steve Jobs” in 2015. This triumvirate of achievements represents the highest possible degree of difficulty. Do you remember your feelings when you learned that they were making a Facebook movie? The concept that this concept would result in a passable film was an impossibility. Sorkin’s writing made it one of the most entertaining and important cinematic achievements of the century. “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
Think back to a simpler time, when you first learned they were making a “Moneyball” movie. A story about sabermetrics in baseball might be the single most unfilmable premise in movie history. In Sorkin’s hands, his pithy dialogue reinvigorated America’s love of the game. When you watch Moneyball you realize that every decision that was made was perfect. “Steve Jobs” suffered from the opposite issue. How to capture on film the essence of an icon as unfathomable as Steve Jobs? Sorkin essentially turned it into a tight three act play. Steve Jobs might not have been happy with his depiction, but it was a great movie nonetheless. It would be remarkable to write one, let alone three, movies of this quality in one career. A true legend, Sorkin made them three in a row.
Finally, the only thing rarer than a legend is a genius. How does one achieve genius? Becoming a genius takes at least 4 transcendent works, in the same medium, in succession. True genius is very rare. Even a legend like Mozart only comes close with the four late operas, “Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro),” “Don Giovanni,” “Cosi fan tutte,” and “Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute),” losing on a few timing technicalities. The bar is astronomically high. In fact, in human history there might be only one genius.
In 1905, Einstein published four papers in the “Annalen der Physik” scientific journal. Together they are sometimes referred to as his Annus Mirabilis papers. Annus Mirabilis roughly translates to, “Year of Miracles.” These four papers describe the Photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, Special relativity, and Mass-energy equivalence. These miraculous papers forever changed our views on space, time, mass, and energy. A short 40 years later, these concepts were the foundation of a successful effort to create and drop the most powerful weapon ever created by man. Maybe it is good that we have only had one genius.
Editors Note: Sorry for the typos, I do not currently have Microsoft Word and wrote this on Notepad.