The Observer Profile: Trouble With Girls; Jeremy Irons, Courting Controversy
by Robert Yates, The Observer
Consider Jeremy Irons the presenter of children's TV programme Playaway; Jeremy Irons the Leicester Square busker; how about Jeremy Irons the long -distance lorry driver? If you're finding it tricky to summon up such images, then it is perhaps a measure of how much we like to fix our actors in a particular kind of role, or perhaps how much Irons has fixed himself.
Elegance, reserve and stiffness are some of the words that cling to Irons. Strumming Dylan in a subway a way of making ends meet when he struggled for work does not quite fit the picture; much less, the manic brightness of a kids' TV presenter which was an early job. ('Do clap along now, children,' was his cry.) Lorry driving also crossed his mind as an ambition after leaving school the very idea of Irons in a motorway service caff! though he does appear to have thought of a lorry driver as an updated, motorised version of a wandering gypsy.
And of course that is more like it. The image Irons, 49, most readily conjures up encouraged in large part by himself is that of the raffish public school figure who has become declasse through his adventurous choice of work. (At his school Sherborne, in the Sixties, contemporaries say acting was still seen as left-field.) He is happy to come on as the cavalier saying what others are afraid to say, borne on his 'urban horse' (a tag he likes to use for his motorbike).
He has been known to turn up for interviews on a 1,000cc BMW, before casting aside scarf and jacket and saying something bold. 'I'm not concerned if I'm sometimes difficult as a person,' is a typical pronouncement. 'I'm not interested in doing anything second-rate.' Van Gogh was probably a bit difficult too, he once claimed in self-justification the implication being that Van Gogh (like himself) also produced fine work.
It is this Irons who has been performing this week, courting controversy while promoting his latest role as Humbert Humbert, the lead in Adrian Lyne's film adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita. Nabokov described Humbert, the European professor of literature who makes a lover of the 12-year-old Lolita, as a 'vain and cruel wretch' (though Nabokov too had his censors to appease). When casting, Lyne was convinced that Irons was his man, more convinced still when he saw him on screen as the beaten Humbert at the story's close. Humbert's mixture of flair and fastidiousness also falls easily within the Irons range.
Irons initially turned down the role. Lyne won him round by telling him he was being 'politically correct'. No jibe could have been better chosen: in Irons's mind, worrying about being PC is contemptuous. As a result, he has made a point of confronting Nabokov's subject matter in public.
Soon after completing the film, when problems of distribution and issues of censorship first arose, he noted that: 'We are bringing up a generation of fathers who are confused about their feelings towards their prepubescent daughters. And instead of saying your daughter will test the hell out of you you are the man in her life, don't reject her, but remember it can never lead to anything we practise political correctness.' (In a further anti -PC gesture, he refused to allow a signer for the deaf to share a stage with him when he gave a reading from Lolita. 'He goes or I go,' he said.)
This week, he continued his assault on kneejerk moralising by suggesting, after a screening of the film, that some victims of paedophilia go on to have a perfectly happy life: 'I'm not saying it's right but we shouldn't whip ourselves too much.' (Cue: 'Jeremy Irons In Child Abuse Storm', a headline in Friday's Daily Mail.)
The easy line to take when promoting Lolita is, of course, to talk art. Mention of Nabokov's genius is always a good move (less so, Lyne's cv, which includes the cheesy soft porn 91/2 Weeks), as is underlining Humbert's final comeuppance. Irons, however, has gone out of his way to raise the subject of paedophilia, as if relishing the fight Iron Jeremy Takes on the Small -Minded. In short, it boils down to: 'Let's act like grown-ups and not bury the issue.' (He even admitted that, yes, he became briefly 'obsessed' with Dominique Swain, the teenage actress playing Lolita.) Perhaps we should applaud him for his candour, though word comes back from America, where the film has still to receive a theatrical distributor, that the investors might prefer a more placatory approach.
Irons's insistence on speaking his mind is typical, though it does not always win him friends. Some colleagues talk of 'strength' and 'openness'; others 'arrogance' and 'rudeness'. Harold Pinter, who has worked many times with Irons on stage and screen, has commended him for not craving approval. 'Most actors want to be liked,' he says, 'but Irons doesn't mind being unlikeable.' A liberating state of affairs, one presumes. For one thing, it means you can cast aside others' reservations about playing Claus von Bulow, the society figure accused of murdering his wife (Irons won an Oscar for his portrayal of Von Bulow in Barbet's Schroeder Reversal of Fortune).
And it means that you happily take on the perverse twin gynaecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, a task which produced Irons' most brilliant performance(s) to date. You also might embrace the part of Humbert Humbert, who, according to this week's tabloid reports, has ceased to be a great creation, becoming merely 'a middle-aged paedophile'.
Many Britons, though, will still insist on thinking of Irons first and foremost as Charles Ryder in Granada's sumptuous 1980 production of Brideshead Revisited. Irons has bemoaned the lingering influence of the role a result of the reach of TV ('More people have seen Brideshead than all my films put together)'. As the narrator of Waugh's novel, Irons's appearance was also supplemented by the first mass airing for that well-modulated voice, custom -made, it seemed, for country house and opulence.
The role of Charles Ryder was backed with his starring role opposite Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman. He recalls being told that his career was set: he could be the new Englishman in America, 'the upper-class English gent'. Immediately, and to his credit, he seemed bored by the idea. 'There is something inside me dirtier, rougher, odder, uglier,' he claimed.
The intervening 18 years have given him plenty of opportunities to suggest as much. Looking back at photographs of Irons from the early Eighties is quite disconcerting. He looks as if he is working the public schoolboy franchise for a mail-order catalogue floppy fringe, cords, sweater knotted around the neck while press introductions made great play of his 'class'. (Irons's late father was a chartered accountant who became director of Hawker Sidley; Irons spent his childhood in Cowes on the Isle of White, before boarding at Sherborne.) After school, he cast around for a while earning money gardening, still contemplating the open road as a lorry driver before securing a place to train at the Bristol Old Vic. There he met Julie Hallam and, aged 21, he married her. Irons has offered a need for security as an explanation for the early marriage. When he and Hallam parted (she later gave up acting when she remarried), he settled down with the actress Sinead Cusack, his wife of the past 24 years (they have two teenage sons). Domestic stability allows him to be adventurous in work, he has said repeatedly which might not sound that romantic if you were the wife. Still, a friend of both Irons and Cusack says that she can take care of herself.
Irons met Cusack who by then had acquired some notoriety as an ex of George Best while he was playing John the Baptist in the rock musical Godspell, his stage break. He appreciates the skills picked up in the theatre without making a fetish of them, as other movie stars might. His Broadway debut, in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing in 1984, earned him a Tony, and he has done stints with the RSC. He also first worked with Harold Pinter a screenwriter on several films in which he has starred in the theatre, playing the lead in Simon Gray's The Rear Column under Pinter's direction.
Irons has described Pinter as one of his most important collaborators which might strike Pinter as an odd description. (Hold on, Jeremy: he writes, you mouth the words.) It is a typical comment, though. Irons dislikes the idea of the actor as passive marionette, and always takes an active part in a production, arguing the toss with writers and directors. In fact, he is too active for some. 'He knows a little bit too much. He'll tell you what to do as well as doing his own thing,' says one technician who has worked with him. 'Still, his own thing is always good,' he concedes.
After The French Lieutenant's Woman, Irons proved true to his word, resisting the easy English gent options. In Jerzy Skolimowski's Moonlighting (1982), he played a Polish building worker, and took the title role in Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Swann In Love (1984). Weariness and melancholy has always come easy (the set of his face helps), and Roland Joffe, directing The Mission, figured it would make sense to pair Irons with Robert De Niro. Thought versus muscularity was the idea. The film lost itself in its pretensions, but it gave Irons a chance to reconfirm his thoughts on acting: there was far too much 'bullshit' from the De Niro school, he decided.
The something 'dirtier, rougher' Irons had promised finally arrived with Dead Ringers (1988)in which he played gynaecologist twins, each struggling to win an identity for himself. It was a technical tour de force without ever becoming mannered. Describing how he managed to distinguish between the characters, Irons talked vaguely about different energy levels one centred in the head, the other in the chest but did not really give much away. He prefers not to discuss craft beyond stating how straightforward he finds acting. He feels something, he says, and it shows on his face: simple.
Only Michael Caine, among British film stars, is so keen to avoid complicated actorly theories. Like Caine, Irons is not beyond taking jobs for reasons that have little do with high art. Danny, The Champion of The World (1990), a cloying adaptation of a Roald Dahl book, seemed like a good idea, he explained, because it gave his then 10-year-old son Sam a chance to try out acting and the set was close to his Oxfordshire home.
And he turned out in the last Die Hard as a bottle-blond villain because, he says, he always thinks it's wise to show Hollywood that you are game for a laugh. (Presumably, using the same logic, he can only have agreed to do Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty for the very good reason that the shoot amounted to a summer holiday in Tuscany.) Talking about such work, Irons catches the right tone he attempts no high-flown justification but suggests the films are fine for what they are. Louis Malle's risible Damage was, it has to be said, another matter, however.
Irons played a government Minister who has an affair with his son's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche); the film met with laughter from both the critics and the stalls a rare thing in Irons' career. He responded by blaming everybody but himself; David Hare's script lacked passion, the perennial problem with the English, he explained.
And so to the Irons philosophy. Passion, he believes, should always overturn things. It's a refrain that has already become familiar in his promotion of Lolita. Jeremy Irons, The Defender of Passion it's rather an unexpected role. Particularly, perhaps, for somebody who once revealed that it was only at drama school that he learned how to touch someone else.