[Editors Note: I am pleased to welcome new contributor Diana Drumm to The Film Experience. The benefit of fresh voices? They often have subjects to opine on that we haven't run into the ground already here at TFE. Like this consideration of Jeremy Irons, late in his career. Enjoy! - Nathaniel]
Last week, the internet announced, buzzed and trounced the news of Jesse Eisenberg signing on to play Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman. (Insert maniacal mastermind Mark Zuckerberg joke.) Less buzzed about, but part of the same announcement, Jeremy Irons is set to play Alfred Pennyworth. Seriously. Jeremy “Scar is an unknowing introduction to masochism” Irons. Brushing aside millenial Disney hang-ups, Jeremy Irons is a glorious figure of bygone British manhood and Alfred Pennyworth is... A different sort of bygone British manhood.
Lithe yet powerful, languid yet vital, vulnerable yet undeniably masculine. As an actor, Irons’s performances take on a seductive quality, with an earnest veneer covering an implicit rascaliness or vice versa or a muddled mix of both. With a bewildered look as powerful as a forceful growl, he (his innate talent, his RSC work, his Oscar) is being wasted.
Not that he’s the first thesp to be called in as a ringer for a blockbuster (or that this is his first time on the merry-go-round -- Eragon, Beautiful Creatures, etc.)...
There’s actually a long tradition of big-name, highly respected actors phoning it in for big paychecks and low effort...(e.g. the whole Hellraiser gang -- Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed), and that’s not even getting into ad work (“We will sell no wine before its time,” hawked Orson Welles). A further case in point, previous Alfred Michael Caine missed the 1987 Oscars (and accepting his first Academy Award for Best Supporting for Hannah and Her Sisters) because he was busy shooting Jaws 4: The Revenge. So in the midst of so much waste of talent and so many actors uttering lines beneath them, what makes this latest announcement upsetting enough to highlight?
Well, we’re talking about Jeremy Irons...
This is the actor who played Claus von Bulow and Simon Gruber with equal panache. His is the voice that gave many conflicting feelings towards Scar and notions of evil. His are the eyes that similarly confuddled many minds with Humbert Humbert. His physicality swayed us into swoons with his early “Charles” roles (Smithson, Ryder and Swann). I’m not taking particular issue with the supporting (or inherently good) nature of Alfred (Irons can shine through his teeth and can play a bang-up earnest), I’m more concerned with it being another nail in the coffin of his leading man career (possibly a decade or so dead) and the idea that we’ve relegated yet another “thinking woman’s pin-up” to giver of token pearls of wisdom and judgmental glares, in the company of less worthy protagonists.
In a reverse trajectory of his characters’ own titles from missionary (The Mission) to Jesuit priest-musketeer (The Man in the Iron Mask) to bishop (Casanova) to pope (The Borgias), Irons hasn’t played a full-on lead in nearly 20 years (not counting the latest, in very limited release Night Train to Lisbon). Still seeing the twinkle in his eyes and wisps of vitality in his recent roles (with more leeway on the small screen in HBO’s Elizabeth I, Lifetime’s Georgia O’Keefeand Showtime’s The Borgias), I cling to the idea that in spite of his age and his interview nonsensicals, we could still see a few more beloved roles out of Irons before getting to his “Venus” stage and that we should put arms up against him going into that good “supporting” night, though he’s perhaps trodden too far to come back (The Pink Panther 2).
Without Irons, who do we have left to fill this slightly older (and therefore slightly more charismatic), swoon-worthy yet serious acting void?
Fellow musketeer of a certain age (playing D’Artagnon alongside Irons’ Aramis), Gabriel Byrne? Yes, he was a rather dashing German professor in 1994’s Little Women, but since then, he’s played a real rapey pseudo-father/patron/creeper in 2004’s Vanity Fair and this weekend will be seen in the latest, cringey tween “fantasy” Vampire Academy. Another sort-of swashbuckler (1983’s The Pirates of Penzance, 1992’s Chaplin), Kevin Kline? Oh, Kline. There’s another magnificent specimen going to plebeian pastures. Have you seen The Extra Man? Probably not (unless you’re a Paul Dano and/or Jonathan Ames aficionado). Have you seen The Last of Robin Hood? Almost certainly not (in spite of Kline’s Errol Flynn being one of the finest though least seen performances of the year, it’s barely been whispered outside of last year’s TIFF). You saw Last Vegas though, didn’t you? Where his go-to bits involved viagra, a scraggly beard and blunt old man-themed sex chat? Yep. This is why we can’t have nice things. A bit of a wildcard, I’d also place Timothy Dalton in this category, being the personification of a Bronte wetdream. From Bronte to Bond to parodies (both Looney and Cornetto), where have we left him? Voicing Mr. Pricklepants. Seriously, 3 out of 5 of his most recent roles (according to IMDb) have been voicing the Shakespearean-sounding, thesp wannabe stuffed hedgehog from Toy Story 3. What a waste of booming Welsh charisma.
So what does that mean for Irons? Does he join Michael Caine on the other side of romantic relevancy? Fie! Caine may have already done crossed into retrospective romance-land with last year’s Last Love, which looks a bit too close to Venus for comfort, but Irons is not ready to go into that self-reflective good night (again, overlooking the yet-to-be-seen, ghastly looking Night Train to Lisbon).
Jeremy Irons’ agent, I implore you to find strong, vital scripts that live up to the man’s talents and bearing, rather than letting more years go by in bit parts and on the cinematic sidelines. This is not my Jeremy Irons; I shall adore mine yet, with his contemplative roguish bearing and rapturous voice, and keep him with me as I listen to his narration of Lolita for the upteenth time.