Oh! You Pretty Thing

October 7, 2004

The List Magazine
7–21 Oct 2004

Acting up as Alfie is JUDE LAW’s latest job. He may be talented and he may be prolific but, Ruth Hedges argues, it’s impossible to ignore the way this man looks.

Jude Law - Talented Mr RipleyThere’s a scene in The Talented Mr Ripley that is one of the sexiest in recent film history. Jude Law is lying in a bath tub playing chess as steam curls up from the deep, soapy water. Candle light catches the hard lines of his wet skin and flickers in his eyes. Matt Damon watches in the doorway.

The tension is exquisite, and through another man’s eyes we see a vision of male perfection. Attraction, envy and longing are broken only when Law’s character cuts the sexual tension, lifting himself out of the bath and stropping across the floor, giving us one final glance at a physicality that is blessed. Yes, I am beautiful and I am completely, absolutely in charge of it, he and his character say.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Jude Law has been chosen to play Alfie, the charming, selfish, lonely womaniser made famous by Michael Caine, in a Hollywood remake that transplants the film from London to Manhattan. He’s good at charming bastards – just look at Bosie in Wilde. But can he get away with this one? Caine, with his rough diamond working-class edge, was perfect for the role in 1966, Law epitomises our idea of manhood in the 21st century – he’s the essential ‘metrosexual’. On the surface, they’re very different creatures.

Rarely does the camera look at men as objects of pure lust. In the scene above, however, Jude Law is shown as unearthly, his looks demand unfettered desire. While women’s responses are unambiguous, it is more confusing for men. Matt Damon admires, is welcomed but is suddenly rejected. From the genetically perfect (though physically decrepit) Jerome Eugene Morrow in Gattaca to Inman in Cold Mountain, it is clear that Law, unlike Caine, doesn’t try to be one of the lads. It’s why journalists such as The Guardian’s John Patterson of have referred to his ‘annoyingly perfect physical and facial beauty’. His charisma, on the other hand, isn’t in question. If anything Law is in danger of outshining his co-actors.

Despite these star qualities, he isn’t simply a Hollywood star. He is also an exceptional actor. Energy that sparkles in the jazz bars of Talented Mr Ripley shifts into cold reserve in Gattaca, bleeds into epic strength in Cold Mountain and creeps into chilling sickness as an assassin/photographer in Road to Perdition. This versatility is only increasing: indeed six Law films are coming out before Christmas. Admittedly they’ve been made over a two-year period and Law comments how it’s, ‘just my luck,’ for them all to be released in one go. It still indicates a man in the highest demand.

Currently starring in action/scifi flick Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and due to appear in I Heart Huckabees, Closer and Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, his performance in the remaking of Alfie is by far the most interesting. When Alfie appeared on film screens in the sixties, he was a shock. He was a character that audiences had never seen before – an anti-hero who told the honest, often ugly truth. Alfie was an icon. Can a man known for perfection update such a deeply flawed character for the new millennium?

The arrogance, charm, and misogyny in Alfie represented the best and worst of the sixties. Boundaries were broken but free love wasn’t always sweet liberation, it was backstreet abortions and respect was a notion reserved for a few. The way Alfie spoke directly to the camera was unusual for mainstream cinema (although it had been used in scriptwriter Bill Naughton’s stage play of the same name). It was the first film to deal with abortion so explicitly and prompted a relaxation of the censorship laws in the US. It also signalled the increasing confidence of working-class youth. Director Lewis Gilbert has said: ‘Alfie is rooted in the swinging 60s. Suddenly young people were the centre of the world – not 30 or 40 year-olds.’ Its premiere at The Plaza gathered together the Beatles, the Stones and George Best. You suspect that at this year’s premiere the celebs will be less rock’n’roll now that the people at the centre of the world are teenagers controlled by the 30 or 40 year olds. Joss Stone is to sing the opening song, originally written by Burt Bacharach.

But Law isn’t so sure how far things have moved on. ‘We felt there was room to reevaluate the sexual kind of territory of today,’ he says. ‘The idea that Charles Shyer [the director] really sold me on was the idea that this type of guy hasn’t changed since the 1960s. There are these kind of guys who only have sex on the brain, still out there. We’re all, if we’re honest still thinking like that and feel like that,’ Law says. ‘It’s all the British mods and American jocks in us men. It’s still sex, sex, sex. Yet, the women have changed a huge amount, so the stakes between men and women have been raised.’

In the original all the woman apart from Shelley Winters (Ruby) are wholly passive. Alfie behaves the way he does because he gets away with it.

‘Our film still has the same twist of morality and inner-questioning that the original had,’ Law says. ‘But we decided on a slightly more comical take on the story and where he’s not a total idiot and clueless when it comes to other people’s feelings.’ This is a more self-aware Alfie without the underscoring sadness, then. It is a very Y2K way of doing things – FHM rather than top shelf – with irony smoothing over the rough edges. But if Hollywood wants to do it this way then Jude Law is your man. By setting it in Manhattan, playing up the comical side and bringing in stronger women (Susan Sarandon, Omar Epps) Alfie will be a different tale. Jude Law can be trusted to handle it with the panache audiences love him for.

As he turns to the camera, looks straight down the lens and winks knowingly, ‘I am Alfie; I’m a blessed man,’ you know that it’s true. And we will be staring right back at him.

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