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Ralph Fiennes Was Having an Amazing ’90s. Then Came ‘The Avengers.’

The notorious 1998 flop could have derailed a promising career. But in hindsight, we can now see how it helped shape the remarkable performances he’s given us since.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Few actors come out of nowhere with the authority that Ralph Fiennes did in the early 1990s. Because we didn’t know him — not unless you’d seen his big-screen debut Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights — he seemed even more frightentingly villainous as Amon Goeth, a cruel Nazi officer in Schindler’s List. Veteran stars with a track record of playing bad guys have a history with their audience — we relish the memory of those past parts, which help inform the new character — but this acclaimed English theater actor, who had just turned 30, was a mystery to most American viewers. He might as well have been Goeth, this handsome, erudite killer who was quite dashing, despite the fact that he’s a monster. A portrait of evil that was so relaxed — so content in his assurance that he was superior to the Jews he was massacring — Goeth was a complete performance although it was only one corner of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winner. You detested the character, but you wanted to know more about who the actor was.

Once we learned more about Fiennes, it was a relief just how much he wasn’t like Goeth. For one thing, he was far trimmer, deciding to bulk up to play that Nazi. “Goeth was a man with a sense of his own incredible power, the power to let people live or die,” Fiennes said at the time. “And powerful men often carry a paunch around with them in a way that demonstrates that power. It makes them more expansive, it creates extra space around them. There’s something almost phallic about it.” The weight also helped convey that sense of comfort Goeth had with his villainy, and the role earned Fiennes a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

He could have earned a second the following year for Quiz Show, where he played another real-life figure with conflicted morals. Charles Van Doren wasn’t a killer like Goeth, but underneath that charming smile was a similarly treacherous soul. Wanting to impress his learned, accomplished father, Van Doren appears on the 1950s game show Twenty-One, quickly wowing the producers with his good looks and sophisticated air. They want him on the show for as long as possible — a handsome gent like him is good for ratings — and so the producers conspire with Van Doren to rig the game, feeding him the answers so he can’t lose. Vain and insecure, Van Doren agrees, becoming a TV sensation and, then, a disgrace. Maybe Van Doren wasn’t evil, but his everyday ethical lapses made him, in some ways, just as troubling as Goeth. And Fiennes was still anonymous enough that he could slip inside the role, giving us a gorgeous, soulless opportunist in a suit. Early on, the young Fiennes was a master of playing blank slates.

The case could be made that few actors had as good of a 1990s as Ralph Fiennes. Schindler’s List and Quiz Show would be imposing enough, but then he brought his brooding handsomeness to bear on The English Patient, the sort of old-fashioned period romantic drama that people like to mock until they own up to the fact that, actually, it’s pretty fantastic. As a gentleman hopelessly besotted with another gentleman’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), Fiennes cast off the villainy of his earlier high-profile roles and instead played a lusty, tortured lover, making audiences swoon. When Scott Thomas auditioned for this Best Picture-winner, she met Fiennes for the first time. “The only thing I remember about him was that he was wearing very squeaky trainers and was devastatingly good looking,” she said in 2016.

There’s a certain kind of dignified, handsome, well-trained British actor that American audiences can’t get enough of. We think of them as the embodiment of class and refinement. We’re intimidated by their accent. They simply seem like more evolved human beings than the rest of us. And in the 1990s, Fiennes held that position better than anyone. Even when the chances he took didn’t entirely work out — playing an edgy black marketer in Strange Days was nervy, if not entirely convincing — this Royal Shakespeare Company alum seemed primed to do anything. He had the chops and the looks and two Oscar nominations. (He lost Best Actor in The English Patient to Geoffrey Rush for Shine.) It was a terrific run.

But the end of the 1990s was also the scene of the crime for, to date, still his biggest fiasco. He survived it, thank goodness, but imagine a parallel universe where The Avengers was the beginning of the end for him. Not the Marvel Avengers. The terrible Avengers. This one:

On its face, there was no reason to assume that The Avengers would be an embarrassment. Based on a popular 1960s British series about a well-dressed spy named John Steed, the movie starred Fiennes as the man in the bowler, assisted by the eye-catching Emma Peel (Uma Thurman) as they battled an evil scientist (Sean Connery) who can control the weather and, therefore, the world. Sure, Warner Bros. was taking a risk by hiring director Jeremiah Chechik, who was best known for making National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Benny & Joon — not exactly action blockbusters — but the idea was that this Avengers would be a witty, stylish romp. It ought to have been tailor-made for an actor of Fiennes’ polish and urbanity.

So what went wrong? 

Chechik, who initially wanted Nicole Kidman to play Emma, had to find another actress because she was in the midst of the marathon shoot for Eyes Wide Shut. The studio suggested Thurman. “I met Uma,” he later said, “she was perfectly nice and charming and talented. But, ultimately, her chemistry with Ralph was not there, I felt, at the end of the day.” 

The director went on to blame studio infighting and other factors, but the problem was also that Fiennes, at that stage of his career, couldn’t pull off something that big and complicated. Not that he realized that at the time — like Chechik, he was convinced on set that they were making something fun. “I loved going to work on The Avengers,” Fiennes told The Guardian in 2011. “You don’t go to work thinking you’re going to make a bad film. I went to work thinking, ‘Great, let’s reinvent The Avengers,’ which I loved as a kid. It’s only now, because of the way it was received, that we look back and groan.”

The Avengers exposed something about Fiennes that’s a strange Hollywood phenomenon: Great actors aren’t necessarily great movie stars. They’re two different skill sets, and while plenty of folks have done both well, Fiennes couldn’t yet. He’s hardly awful in The Avengers, but he didn’t convey the sort of casual authority that an action hero needs to in a movie — the sort of thing we absolutely take for granted until we notice that it’s not there. Even in the predictably lame behind-the-scenes promotional videos Warner Bros. produced for the film, he didn’t look comfortable — as if he knew that the indignities of talking up a spectacle-driven event film were beneath him.

The Avengers was a commercial disaster and a multiple Razzie nominee. It was the sort of stinker that people love to point at and mock. It probably set back Fiennes’ mainstream/blockbuster career. No worries: He kept making smart, interesting specialty films like The End of the Affair (very much in his heartthrob wheelhouse) and Spider (a disturbing vision of mental illness) in which he easily commanded centerstage. And he did keep a foot in Hollywood, showing up in Red Dragon and playing the well-to-do politician who romances a lowly hotel maid (Jennifer Lopez) in Maid in Manhattan. The latter was a hit, albeit incredibly cheesy, but Fiennes lamented how the film turned out.

“I thought, ‘I’ve always done serious drama and here I am doing this great thing, a rom-com with a social-conscience twist,’” he said in that same Guardian profile. “It didn’t turn out like that. It was produced and packaged in a very different way. But you have to make a choice.” His biggest criticism, though, was with himself. “I think the part required a light, deft, Cary Grant-ish thing, which I quite quickly felt was not my strength,” he said. “That and doing an American accent, to be honest. I’ve tried it. I’ve worked really hard with dialogue coaches, but I wonder if I’ll ever inhabit an American accent in a completely natural, organic way.”

Like with The Avengers, Maid in Manhattan required something of him that he didn’t possess — a lightness, a confidence, a showmanship that made watching him pure pleasure. As terrific as he was in his 1990s peaks, there was an intelligence and seriousness in those roles that didn’t necessarily translate to fighting Sean Connery in the middle of a raging storm. It was that deficiency that, among other factors, probably guaranteed he’d never play James Bond, even though his name came up from time to time as a possible 007. “There was a discussion, once, some years ago, about my playing 007,” Fiennes admitted in 2019. “I don’t think I would have been very good, but I did feel that I could have had a crack at it if it had been set in the 1950s. I love the books, and I always saw them in black and white, gritty, noirish and very dangerous.” 

There’s no shame in not having the right makeup to be a full-fledged movie star — a bankable leading man who puts asses in seats. But it was around this time in the early 2000s when I started to assume that Fiennes had “peaked” in terms of the truly great work he’d do in movies. After all, that 1990s run was pretty special — anybody would have a tough time living up to that.

I’m very happy to say I got it wrong. Not that long after, he suddenly seemed to have flipped a switch and found another gear. It was three years between Maid in Manhattan and his next big-screen roles, and there were several in 2005. The White Countess was an arthouse love story, while The Constant Gardener was a character study and a political drama. He’s very fun as a voice in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But the revelation was Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And he almost missed out on doing it.

“The truth is I was actually ignorant about the films and the books,” Fiennes said during an appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show, later adding, “Out of ignorance I just sort of thought, ‘This isn’t for me.’ Quite stupidly I resisted, I was hesitant. I think the clincher was that my sister Martha — who has three children who were then probably about 12, 10 and 8 — she said, ‘What do you mean? You’ve got to do it!’ So then I rewound my thinking.”

Fiennes had played evil men before, but this was different: Voldemort was a bold, hissable villain. He was a character beloved by millions of readers, who each had their own very specific idea of who would be the perfect Voldemort. It’s no small task that Fiennes managed to be everyone’s vision of Harry Potter’s nemesis — how he gave Voldemort the quiet, slithering menace that chilled your blood. It was the first time on the big screen that Fiennes had really given a show-stopping performance — the kind that movie stars do with ease. 

His Goblet of Fire director, Mike Newell, later surmised that what convinced Fiennes to play Voldemort was the filmmakers’ approach toward the material: “[H]e was watching … whether we were taking it seriously or not, you know, was it some kind of camp flip around a Harry Potter novel, and it wasn’t, we were doing a drama, we were doing a proper drama.” You have to wonder if, in part, Fiennes wanted to make sure he wasn’t getting himself into another cheeky/cringey Avengers-like situation.

Fiennes was still doing superb dramas — small but crucial parts in The Hurt Locker and The Reader, starring and directing Coriolanus — but after Voldemort, he started showing other sides of himself. He’s darkly funny in In Bruges, and even in blockbuster junk like the remake of Clash of the Titans, he’s sort of a hoot playing a god. There’s no other way to say it than he just seemed to lighten up. 

In a 2015 interview, he talked about this comfort he’d gotten with being himself as he grew older. (He turned 58 a few weeks ago.) He compared aging to finding the right outfit that suits you. “You go, ‘That’s perfect, I love that. That feels like that’s me,’” Fiennes said. “I remember wearing trendy clothes when I was younger thinking, ‘I want to be sharper.’ They were all an attempt to be something else.”

Actors are luckier than actresses because they’re actually allowed to get old on screen, which sometimes means their youthful beauty develops into something far more interesting. It’s been gratifying to watch Fiennes both take more chances and settle into sturdy character-actor roles in event movies. He’s a terrific addition to Daniel Craig’s James Bond films: He’s not the reason you go to them, but he’s so skillful as the future M that he helps class up those already engaging films. (In fact, his wingman role only further suggests why his instincts were correct that he wouldn’t have been right as 007. “I think that Daniel is a fantastic Bond,” he once said. “He has a really strong weight and sense of threat and danger and he has a really interesting complex interior life. I think he’s brilliant.”) 

But whereas he struggled to be funny in his early career, he’s now developed his comedic side. Fiennes hasn’t received an Oscar nomination since The English Patient, but he was deserving for his work in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Teaming up with Wes Anderson, he unlocked a droll wit to play Gustave, a fussy, haughty, utterly ridiculous concierge for an elegant but fading European hotel. We had never seen this Fiennes before, and his ability to lock right into Anderson’s arch tone was a delight. That he was able to make Gustave simultaneously so funny and so sad was the mark of a fine actor who, actually, really was a movie star.

The hot streak continued the following year with A Bigger Splash, in which Fiennes is outstanding as shamelessly egotistical mover-and-shaker Harry Hawkes. It’s not inherently a “comedic” performance, but Fiennes brings such swagger to the role that you can’t help but laugh anyway. Harry is a backslapper and a bon vivant and probably an asshole, but he’s such fun to be around — especially when he starts dancing. With all due respect to Oscar Isaac’s much-memed moves from Ex Machina, I love Fiennes’ dance in A Bigger Splash almost as much — partly because it’s Ralph Fiennes cutting loose. Who could imagine the younger Fiennes doing this?

Nowadays, it’s hardly a surprise to see him be funny in everything from Hail, Caesar! to The Lego Batman Movie. But the secret is always that he’s not really trying to be funny — rather, he often seems to seek out self-absorbed characters who don’t grasp how foolish they are. “If there’s any way that I can land anything comedic with any degree of success, it’s if the writing is comedically great,” Fiennes once told Variety. “You can have an awareness of timing and stuff, but a lot of the times you play it straight and it will be funny. If it’s as well-written as I believe it is then the comedy will be better served in that way.” 

There’s a certain kind of dignified, handsome, well-trained British actor that American audiences can’t get enough of. But there can be a limit to our adoration. They might turn out to be too stuffy or snooty — or they get replaced by a hot new dignified, handsome, well-trained British actor. Rarely do they have the career of Ralph Fiennes, who started off as a marvelous dramatic actor and has evolved into a very funny one. (He remains a marvelous dramatic actor, by the way: Look no further than The Dig, his new film with Carey Mulligan, which just arrived on Netflix, for proof.) In either mode, he carries himself with such assurance. He’s not the blank slate he was when he started out — we know him now — and yet he still seems capable of surprising us like he did at the beginning.

I have no desire for Fiennes to redo The Avengers. But I do wonder if the performer he is now would have been better — would have been more confident — in the role than he was in the late 1990s. That movie exposed what a great actor wasn’t yet capable of achieving. His subsequent career has demonstrated how those limitations no longer exist.