Entering IMDb into Evidence? From CSI to being CSI'ed

Actor bios, for better and worse.

Posted Jun 07, 2011

I know that I'm not the only one who filters most of my movie experience via IMDb (the International Movie Database). The first thing I do after I see a movie is boot up the website to figure out who the sixth-billed character actor was, find out what Roger Ebert thought of the movie, and see what the director or writer is working on now. One of the glorious side effects of surfing IMDb is getting to read many of the "mini biographies" written about the actors.

In most places, the length of someone's biography is linked to eminence. Indeed, one paper I co-authored (Runco, Kaufman, Halladay, & Cole, 2010) argued that the length of one's entry in an Encyclopedia Britannica is a reasonable metric not just of renown but also of how one's fame changes over time.

This law does not hold for IMDb.

This is Brad Pitt's biography, in full:

Brad Pitt was born in 1963 in Oklahoma and raised in Springfield, Missouri. His mother's name is Jane Etta Hillhouse. His father, William (Bill) Pitt, worked in management at a trucking firm in Springfield. He has a younger brother, Douglas (Doug) Pitt and a younger sister Julie Neal Pitt. At Kickapoo High School, Pitt was involved in sports, debating, student government and school musicals. Pitt attended the University of Missouri, where he majored in journalism with a focus on advertising. He occasionally acted in fraternity shows. He left college two credits short of graduating to move to California. Before he became successful at acting, Pitt supported himself by driving strippers in limos, moving refrigerators and dressing as a giant chicken while working for "el Pollo Loco." 

I have no idea if this is true (no reason to think it's not, except that it's from the internet). But it's concise, amusing, and clearly not written by Brad Pitt (indeed, it seems to be written by JJH).

I could easily make the rest of this essay be a clever overview of the puff pieces and hype from bit players, but instead I'll awkwardly segue into a recent news story of a much different bent - a minor actor (Bryan Irvin) who was arrested for pretending to be a police officer and using this false authority to coerce someone into having sex (i.e., rape). Obviously, all crimes are "alleged." But pretty damned despicable if true.

If you look up Bryan Irvin on IMDb, you find the basic resume of a hanger-on and background extra. If read the bio (ostensibly by "Lisa" - Friend? Family? Self?), though, you find:

He has established his individuality as an actor, bringing to the screen a distinctive voice and a keen edged presence. He's one of those actors we feel close to because of his chameleon character and charm he woos us with...

Okay - this is fairly standard soufflé of narcissism. Then...

Irvin dedicated 10 years of his life to a method acting lifestyle while writing "The Imprecation" - a decision for which he has been severely criticized and excoriated for squandering his talents.

Curious.  Most bios do not have this level of antagonism. Criticized by who?

Irvin managed to escape the vocational doldrums forecast for him by his competitive family.

 Here we go. Basic dysfunction, with limited evidence (except for a certain recent arrest) as to the story's veracity.

Acting was a skill he honed as a child, the only child/ son of very busy parents. With his father always working in the oilfield drilling for oil and gas, and his mother pinning away as a housewife, the young Irvin would play-act for her to draw her out of her stupor and to attract her attention and love.

And - wow. I'm not therapist or clinical psychologist (although I'd love to hear thoughts on this), but it is fascinating for me as somewhat-educated-layperson to read this. The crux of this story (actor discovers calling when entertaining family/making parents laugh during hard times) has been overdone. Yet here it is on its head. Actor discovers calling when play-acting to keep Mom from stupor and to desperately get her love?

Of course, most notable is the location of the story - an actor's biography. The way in which a story is told often outstrips the content of the story itself. Hearing this tale from the person himself or on a blog or personal essay, some warning bells might go off as to the reliability of the narrator. Reading it as part of someone's professional biography, though? It's like stapling a living insect onto your resume. It attracts attention, but for the wrong reasons.

Let's keep digging. Look at the photos (traditionally uploaded by the actor's agent or manager...or the actor himself):

Brian Irvin as police officer

Brian Irvin as police officer

Brian Irvin as police officer

Brian Irvin as police officer

Brian Irvin as police officer

Brian Irvin as police officer

Brian Irvin as police officer

Brian Irvin as police officer

Close-up of gun from Brian Irvin's IMDb page

From Brian Irvin's IMDb page

Close-up of badge from Brian Irvin's IMDb page

From Brian Irvin's IMDb page

A few candids, interspersed with shots and shots of the actor as a policeman/authority figure. Close-ups of badges. Guns.

An IMDb page can be many things - a source of information, promotion, entertainment, or amusement. But rarely have I seen an IMDb page that seems like a harbinger of bad things to come. 

The predictable irony, of course, is that Irvin's IMDb ranking (a basic barometer of an actor's popularity) has shot up -- last week he was #83,520 [to put it in some context, the lowest ranking of any credited actor in the recent X-Men movie was #63,411]. This week he's #5,564. Better than O. J. Simpson (#6,269) and Shelley Malil (#9,221), and Lilo Brancato (#6,183)...

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About the Author

James C. Kaufman, Ph.D., is a creativity researcher and associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

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