During the two decades in which Jeremy Irons has become a familiar (which is not to say comfortable) presence in the movies, he has played all sorts of characters; but he has played a certain sort more often than others. Consider the creepy twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers; the updated Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne's Lolita; the diplomat scandalously obsessed with a gender-bending affair in Cronenberg's M. Butterfly; the British politician scandalously obsessed with his son's lover in Louis Malle's Damage; or the wan, ingratiating overseer of a young woman's deflowering in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. Magnetically attractive to adolescent women and alternately threatening and validating to neurotic men, Irons has become one of the most self-consciously, unnervingly erotic male performers in the business. If he has a niche then it's a strange and disquieting one: the go-to guy for the thinking person's kink.
Which is probably what makes his most recent appearance, as a Catholic inquisitor in Lasse Hallstrom's Casanova, the most interesting thing about the movie. Here Irons portrays a bishop appointed by the Vatican to punish a man for being the world's greatest lover. Is he winking at his audience, playing giddily against type, or is he playing headlong intotype by satirizing the sanctimony that stands against the carnal curiosities his characters seem so often to enjoy? Hard to say, but one gets the sense that Irons couldn't stand to let a movie about a legendary lover get made without him. His age precluded the title role so that left the lothario's nemesis-a man so inclined to power-tripping perversity himself that he tells one woman he can actually restore her virginity.
Regardless of whether or not this acting turn is a success, it must be acknowledged as very well-reasoned casting. Irons has said he gets parts that other actors decline. One can imagine an indignant Richard Gere flinging scripts at his agent's head, shouting, "What the hell are you trying to do to me?!" Cut to Irons reading the same material, rapt and silent, with half-closed eyes and impudence curling his thin lips. Critics often liken him to a reptile (something about the dark eyes, the apparently purposeful gauntness and the suggestion of cold blood) and they mean it as a compliment. We barely even realize how carefully he has us watching for that provocative flick of a forked tongue.
It's important, but not always easy, for filmmakers to know what to do with him. Stanley Kubrick didn't have a monopoly on Nabokov, but close; when Adrian Lyne came at Lolitaagain nearly four decades later, the affair felt second-hand and, accordingly, even seamier. (Probably the most Nabokovian thing about Lyne's movie was that it got a lot of hysterical press). Plenty of people think it shouldn't have been tried as a film even once, but that attitude shows a near-pathological ignorance of what base impulses we moviegoers are really made of: not pedophilia, of course, but voyeurism. There's no erasing the impression left by James Mason as Humbert, but there's also no denying that if a late-nineties remake couldn't be avoided, then neither could the casting of Jeremy Irons.
Anthony Lane wrote of the casting what most of us were thinking, that "Irons is right, and ripe, for these areas of promising moral rot. Once you've got an Oscar for impersonating Claus von Bulow, the prospect of Humbert Humbert must seem like a day at the office." When Irons accepted that Oscar, he made sure to thank David Cronenberg who had carved an opening for him (if you'll forgive the suggestive surgical imagery) with Dead Ringers years earlier. Irons knew that he'd moved beyond the aura of Brideshead Revisited, the film that had first established him. He'd found his territory as a movie actor, a place in which many feared to tread, and with Lolita, he found himself owning it.
You may recall that Natalie Portman had the chance to play the title role but turned it down. "It was widely reported that my parents were overprotective prudes," she later said. "They're not. They just didn't want to see their fourteen-year-old daughter having sex with Jeremy Irons." Note the suggestion that with another actor it might have been okay; that the universal standards of parental reasonableness may allow, for a responsible young lady, a little bit of movie-sex-but absolutely none with Jeremy Irons. Dominique Swain hazarded that duty instead and, though it may be cruel, it is not immaterial to point out that she has gone on to enjoy a career and a personal life of less-than-Portmanesque proportions. Props to Mere and Pere for recognizing what they were dealing with.
It's not completely Irons's fault that it is felt that promising young actresses should be shielded from him. He had actually said no to Lolita himself, at first. "I saw him as a sort of dirty old man, as a raincoat man, you know," he told the New York Times. "I thought I'd played enough of these creepy people." Well, talk about a reversal of fortune. He later went on to record-in that savory, single-malted voice of his-the Lolita audiobook and, of course, to continue to play slightly pervy characters in ways that no one else could.
An American actor could not accomplish so directly what Irons does for American audiences, which has something to do with subverting the codes of aristocracy and reconciling the haughty with the sleazy. He affirms for us that reading the tabloids aloud isn't so bad if we do it in an English accent. His service to the movie-friendly art of taking pleasure hasn't been entirely untoward; there's even some nobility in it. In Stealing Beauty, dying and prone on a stretcher, he gasps to Liv Tyler, "I've so enjoyed watching you," thus giving the rest of us permission to do so as well.
How appropriate that a notably prim new depiction of Casanova should be subject to Irons' review, and that even within the film's own scheme his comment should register, in the name of love, as dissent.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve's film flaneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.