Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
It’s rare to realize in real time that you’re witnessing the moment that signifies that an actor is over. Not that he’s never going to work again, or that he won’t continue to give strong performances — just that, from here on out, we’re probably always going to think about him in a different, less-favorable light. You almost feel bad for the guy — does he know? Should we tell him?
For Jude Law, that moment was February 27, 2005, which just so happened to be the biggest annual event in his profession, the Academy Awards. He wasn’t there, but Chris Rock was, and in his opening monologue as host, he talked about the fact that there’s only really about four movie stars — “the rest are just popular people.” Rock’s examples of real movie stars? Guys like Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise. Law was watching the broadcast with a few friends, with no clue that he was about to be the target of Rock’s bit:
“You want Tom Cruise, and all you can get is Jude Law? Wait. It’s not the same thing, okay? Who is Jude Law? Why is he in every movie I have seen the last four years? He’s in everything. Even the movies he’s not acting in — if you look at the credits, he made cupcakes or something. He’s in everything. He’s gay, he’s straight, he’s American, he’s British. Next year he’s playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a movie! If you can’t get a star, wait, okay?”
You could feel the uncomfortable laughter in the room. Oscar hosts tend not to rip actors too severely — and, even then, it’s very much fun-loving and just-playing-around. But by the show’s tame standards, Rock obliterated Jude Law. Want to know how severe the mocking was? When the Academy put Rock’s monologue up on YouTube, they left out the Jude Law joke — although they did include Sean Penn’s introductory remarks when he came out later to present Best Actress, awkwardly defending his All the King’s Men costar. “Jude Law is one of our most talented actors,” Penn stridently declared, which wasn’t the point. Rock wasn’t talking about talent — he was speaking about something much more precious, star power.
Best as I can tell, Law has only twice discussed Rock’s joke. In the fall of 2006, he told The New York Times how much it annoyed him:
“At first I laughed, because I didn’t think he knew who I was. Then I got angry as his remarks, I felt, became more personal. My friends were livid. I was moved when Sean came to my defense. As a celebrity I know I’m fair game for a lot of things that I don’t like, but Rock crossed the line when he made his point and got his laugh then seemingly wouldn’t stop. It’s very unfortunate that I had five or six films come out at the same time. However I had no control over that.”
He didn’t talk about the incident again until early this year, for Vulture, and it sounded like, more than a decade later, he was still a bit scarred from the experience:
“I’m going to be really candid. Chris Rock slagging me off at the Oscars was upsetting. It felt like, ‘Fuck, am I that guy that you point fun at?’ Obviously, I’ve realized since that a gag is a gag is a fucking gag. Whatever, it could’ve been anyone.” He pauses, maybe worried that he has said too much. “It was probably a bubble that needed bursting around myself. Like, ‘Oh, this could be brutal. This isn’t all plain sailing.’”
Just like you, I can recite plenty of hit films and/or solid performances to Law’s credit since the 2005 Oscars — The Holiday, Sherlock Holmes, Contagion, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Vox Lux, Captain Marvel, The Young Pope/The New Pope and especially Spy — but after Rock’s monologue, it was over. He no longer seemed beautiful and invincible. That bulletproof confidence was gone.
We can always revisit its peak, though. Although he’d done some film work to that point, most notably in Gattaca, Jude Law emerged fully formed in 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which announced him as the next promising young actor — British, impossibly handsome, with an old-school Hollywood suaveness about him. (Little wonder that, a few years later, he’d play the impeccably dashing Errol Flynn in The Aviator.) When we meet his character Dickie, he’s sunning himself on an Italian beach with his perfectly pretty girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Like Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), we can’t help but gawk. Tanned, smiling, utterly pleased with himself and his wealth, Dickie is a bronzed beauty — he has everything, and Tom wants it all.
The trick, of course, was that Law made you realize that Dickie wasn’t just fabulous cheekbones and cosmopolitan flair — we sensed the rot underneath that flawless physique. Law’s director, English Patient filmmaker Anthony Minghella, hinted at that when he praised him by saying, “He shows this interesting tension between grace and danger. He has extraordinary charisma and lust for life, but he also has cruelty in him.”
The Talented Mr. Ripley was filled with stars — not just Damon and Paltrow but also Philip Seymour Hoffman and an up-and-comer named Cate Blanchett — but because Law wasn’t as famous, we just assumed he was the gorgeous, witty, unattainable creature he played in the movie. Law had earned a Tony nomination a few years earlier, for Indiscretions, but filmgoers weren’t well acquainted with this kid who turned 27 just a couple days after The Talented Mr. Ripley came out. It felt like a discovery. He earned an Oscar nomination for the movie — the only actor in that impressive cast to do so.
He was on his way.
The next few years, Law kept earning accolades. He was a very fun sex robot in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (he had the smooth, inhuman features); appreciably menacing as a vain hitman in Road to Perdition (showing the shades of cruelty that Minghella mentioned); and convincingly romantic as a Civil War soldier coming home to Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain (earning a second Oscar nomination in the process). But by the time of the 2005 Oscars, something got lost. It’s often blamed on his back-to-back 2004 bombs Alfie and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which severely torpedoed his movie-star ascension. I think, though, it went beyond the fact that those films were duds — it’s that they seemed to be indicative of Law’s inability to be anything more than the good-looking, slightly roguish charmer. Was he just a pretty face? Was there any depth there? Those movies weren’t rejected — it was more like audiences rejected him.
Then came Rock’s comments, which pinpointed the intangible that defines movie stars — we either believe they are, or we don’t. And by comparing Law to Cruise, Rock made the contrast between them obvious — and announced it on the most public stage imaginable. Suddenly, we all knew it, too. Once your aura gets taken away, you can’t get it back.
I like several things Law has done since then, but that special glow has faded. The work he’s done post-Rock has largely felt like a reaction to that fleeting golden-god status he once enjoyed. Boyish Brits, complete scoundrels, snooty gents, cocky popes — tellingly, the guys he’s played are often either humbled or indignant because their lives didn’t exactly work out. (And off-screen, his tabloid exploits began to draw more attention than his roles, underlying the idea that he’d squandered his potential.)
Lots of beautiful actors have to work hard to be taken seriously as dramatic performers, but Law made it too easy for naysayers to dismiss him. He still gets good reviews — I haven’t seen The Young Pope, but I imagine he could get a lot of mileage out of a cheeky line like, “I know, I’m incredibly handsome. Please, let’s try to forget about that.” But overall, his career has become a bittersweet acknowledgment that, yes, we used to think so much more highly of Jude Law.
Back in 1999, as The Talented Mr. Ripley was about to change his life, he pondered what made his character so fascinating. “I liked Dickie’s darker side,” Law said, “but there’s also a bravado to him and a kind of boldness that’s enviable. He’s always out doing what he wants to do and expects that everyone else is doing the same. That’s enviable but painful, too. He’s selfish.”
Watching the movie now is additionally poignant. Back then, Jude Law seemed like Dickie — a vibrant, carefree young man luxuriating in his own effortless gorgeousness. Today, though, the film is a passing glimpse of a star with everything in front of him, the quick descent just around the corner. Dickie is doomed in The Talented Mr. Ripley — he has no idea what’s coming. Law didn’t, either.
Skipping past the obvious Jude Law highlights, here are three personal favorites that I think show his range — and, occasionally, his sense of humor:
I Heart Huckabees (2004). David O. Russell’s existential screwball comedy made excellent use of Law’s smiling sliminess. He plays Brad, the Brad-iest corporate executive imaginable: a soulless PR executive at a big-box store who tries to co-opt an earnest environmentalist (Jason Schwartzman) in order to acquire some marshlands for development. But Brad’s polished demeanor is about to get wrecked by a couple of unconventional detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), who hit him with a heavy question: “How am I not myself?” Law is great as this empty nobody in a nice suit.
Spy (2015). As Fine, the smooth-talking agent in Paul Feig’s action-comedy, Law does a James Bond riff that makes playful fun of the fact that he’s almost too Ken Doll-perfect in the role: He’s got the swagger, he’s got the style, he’s got the looks. Opposite Melissa McCarthy, whose Susan is his handler (and also secretly in love with him), Law gives us an unobtainable dreamboat who, spoiler alert, is too good to be true. He’s never been more wonderfully snide than he is here.
The Nest (2020). One of my favorite films at this year’s Sundance was writer-director Sean Durkin’s deeply unsettling domestic drama about a family (led by Law’s investment broker) who move from the States to England so he can pursue a lucrative job opportunity. Not exactly a horror movie or a thriller, The Nest watches as this husband and his wife (Carrie Coon) start to unravel — primarily because he isn’t telling her everything about his precarious work situation. Wanna watch Law’s handsome shell implode? This movie, which IFC Films will hopefully release later this year, is the actor at his phony best.