The World Applauds a Matinee Idol for All Seasons

The World Applauds A Matinee Idol For All Seasons

by Staff Writer, Sunday Times
January 13, 1991

It has been another good week for Jeremy Irons, that very model of a modern sophisticated Englishman, to so many of his admirers on this side of the Atlantic forever Charles Ryder. After a series of good notices in the United States for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, he has received similar acclaim in Britain, where the film opened last week. He also heard that the National Society of Film Critics in New York had voted him best actor of 1990 for the part.

Jeremy Irons is an example of that still relatively rare phenomenon, a British actor who has acquired an international reputation while managing to resist the domestic attractions of Hollywood. Irons remains assertively himself, in charge of his own life, living in London where he wants to live, dictating the terms of his own career. Yet, paradoxically, he is an actor who has produced most of his best work under foreign direction. Reversal of Fortune was made by the German director Barbet Schroeder.

Perhaps Irons was an unlikely actor to portray a Danish aristocrat, to adjust the perfect English accent so that it contained the necessary overlay of European. But he has carried it off with considerable success. He was offered the chance to meet von Bulow, who now lives in London, but decided against it. He felt, he said, it would have stunted his creation of the role, and not have allowed his imagination to take wing sufficiently. Von Bulow was tried in America for attempting to murder his wife by injecting her with insulin. She was left in a coma. Von Bulow was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years. His convictions were reversed on appeal, where a Harvard law professor, Alan M Dershowitz, conducted his defence.

Schroeder, explaining why he had chosen Irons for the part, said last year: ”We didn’t want von Bulow to come across as the evil foreigner. We didn’t want to go along with those cliches. Von Bulow had British associations for much of his life and Jeremy was able to bring out that side of him. He also delivers the mysterious, cynical humour so accurately.”

John Richardson, a friend of von Bulow, writing in Vanity Fair, described how he thought Irons would be unsuitable for the part. ”He was surely too young and slender and callow, too deferential to impersonate someone as overwhelmingly urbane, let alone as physically imposing and bald, as Claus. When this laid-back, youthfully handsome actor came to pump me for pointers on playing my old friend, I was more than ever convinced that Irons would not fit into the exquisite shoes that the incomparable Mr Cleverly made for Claus, or those smart shirts from Battistoni that never crease because they button between the legs. But I was wrong. Irons has caught not just Claus’s dandyism, but also his mystery.”

Irons was born in 1948, the son of an Isle of Wight chartered accountant who ended up as a director of Hawker Siddeley. The family moved to Hertfordshire when he was 13, and young Jeremy was sent to Sherborne public school. He was not an academic success, failing his A-levels as a result of his commitment to the school play. He was playing Mr Puff in The Critic. He decided he wanted to be an actor, and to his surprise his father told him to give it a try. He joined the Marlowe Theatre at Canterbury and then went on to the Bristol Old Vic School. There, at the age of 21, he married an actress, Julie Hallam.

He worked in rep, earned some extra money odd-jobbing, and waited for the break. It came with the rock musical Godspell, in which he played John the Baptist. The show was a huge hit, one of the 1960s musicals that removed all the traditional conventions, replacing them with noise and abandon. It was utterly out of character with today’s Irons, whose image is of a man more comfortable in well-cut suits than jeans. Godspell brought Irons Sinead Cusack, who was acting in the next-door theatre in London Assurance. Irons insisted on securing an annulment of his first marriage so that he could marry Cusack in a Catholic church. It has been one of the successful and enduring actor marriages.

The early part of Irons’s career owes much to Harold Pinter. Irons played the lead in Simon Gray’s The Rear Column under Pinter’s direction, and acted opposite Pinter in the BBC production of Aidan Higgins’s Langrishe Go Down. It was the latter performance that prompted Karel Reisz to cast him in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In the meantime, however, he had become a household name for his performance as Ryder in the moody TV serialisation of Brideshead Revisited. His matinee-idol looks and his received pronunciation English accent at last found favour, as the early 1980s ushered in an era when young men wore suits again and ”classical” values returned.

Evelyn Waugh’s heroes are men of decent disposition who lack the spine to survive intact the moral lunacies of the 20th century. Certainly Irons managed the role of a pseudo-gentleman, his eyes moist at the dying gasps of a dissipated aristocracy. But the abiding memory is of a stuffed shirt; a feeling confirmed by The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Irons seemed set for a career typical of a certain kind of English actor. A clenched jaw, and a tendency to do the decent thing.

But then the expatriate Pole Jerzy Skolomowsky cast him in Moonlighting, and the change was extraordinary. Here was a whey-faced Polish straw boss, both protecting and exploiting his small gang of illegal Polish labourers renovating an English house. It was a film obviously restrained by a tiny budget but, like so many British films made by foreign directors, it shamed the British film industry with its invention, originality of thought and stress on cinematic movement. Irons had half the dialogue that he had been used to previously, but suddenly there emerged a man with a heart and mind.

The filming of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu was an undertaking that probably had the longest gestation period of any movie. Many directors had stubbed their toes on the project and when Volker Schlondorff announced final casting for his version, Un Amour de Swann, the French succumbed to a collective fit. Not only was Schlondorff a German (albeit a longtime resident in France), but Alain Delon was to step out of character to play the screaming queen Baron de Charlus, Odette was to be played by the Italian Ornella Muti, and Swann himself by Jeremy Irons. In fact Irons’s performance was warmly received by the sternest French. Schlondorff had spotted a fastidiousness in the man never exploited before.

There were some less successful performances, in The Mission and Dead Ringers, and a family affair with Danny, The Champion of the World, where he starred with his then 10-year-old son Sam and Cyril Cusack, his father-in-law. This came in a Stakhanovite year in which he made four films.

Now Jeremy Irons is indisputably on top again, still fighting successfully against becoming what he describes as ”Hollywood’s resident Englishman”. Some say he is arrogant, some say he is rude. He said in one interview: ”I’m impossible. Intolerant, impatient and impossible. I’m appalled by sloppy work and if I see something done badly I say so.”

  • Sunday Times / January 13, 1991 / by Staff Writer