The Pretty-Boy Syndrome

Photo: David Bailey

A friend of mine has a joke. He raises his eyebrows, shrugs his shoulders, and says, “Jude Law … ?” Which means that he is a straight guy, but given the chance? With Jude Law …? Because obviously, Jude Law is beautiful in a way that transcends regular handsomeness, even movie-star handsomeness: Jude Law is art, walking. Who could resist?

The puissance of Law’s physical flawlessness—along with his accent and his intensity, and, yes, right, his talent—have made him a compelling choice to play all manner of male Siren: the nubile treat who destroyed Oscar Wilde in 1997’s Wilde, a robot gigolo in leather in Spielberg’s A.I., the imperious Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and, most recently, the rakish Joe Sullivan in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But in the soon-to-be-released remake of the British classic Alfie—reset here, in New York City—Law plays the cad to end all cads: His irresistibility is the engine of the film.

“I found Alfie’s opinion, his inner voice, not shocking necessarily, but certainly still selfish, certainly still blind, and there are still Alfies … still people living and thinking like that,” says Law, sitting on a green-velvet-upholstered bench in a pub in North London at noon on a Friday. “Whether they’re projecting that outwardly, whether they’re letting the people close to them know that or not is another matter. For a terrain of storytelling, people’s sexual behavior is, and will always be, fascinating.”

Law’s looks notwithstanding, in person it’s actually extremely easy to forget about his sexuality, about sex in general. Where Alfie is all opportunism and desire, Jude Law does not exude appetite of any kind. He is genial and quite polite, but he is understated and entirely self-enclosed. He does not flirt; you cannot catch a contact high off his ego. “I think it has a lot to do with being English,” he says. “I think the English have a nature where they constantly want to be an Everyman. Because it’s ingrained in you to not be above your station. My point of view is very much an English point of view, which is, Look, it’s a fucking job and I’m getting away with it. What’s that?” he says to a bar back with greased black hair and a bow tie who has come up behind him. The man says something in an accent so thick I cannot make out a single word and then thrusts a napkin in front of Law.

This redecorated cad is not apredator but a pretty, well-groomed, well-heeled trap: partlady-killer, part lady. Sex has never been so narcissistic.

“Julie? With a u? There you go, mate.” Law signs the napkin, and the bar back walks away without thanking him. “I don’t want to act in order to be a star or a sex symbol or an icon of any kind,” Law continues. “If you ask anyone that flatly and they recognize their status as an icon, I think there’s something really wrong with them. If it enters my head, I look at it as something to react off of … a by-product of the company I work for.” And then, as he often does, Law employs Alfie’s signature line: “Know what I mean?”

There is an Alfie billboard up in the meatpacking district, picturing Law’s perfect face next to the words WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?, the refrain from Burt Bacharach’s theme song for the original 1966 film. The meatpacking district was, of course, initially a place for meatpacking, and then, briefly, it became something else, something fantastic. For a minute, it was the perfect corner of Manhattan: cobblestone streets from which you could see the Hudson River, tenements and brownstones no more than six or seven stories, tiny cafés in the day, dive bars and transsexuals in the dark. (Come to think of it, it felt a little bit like London.) Now it is a stylish theme park. So, hovering above a neighborhood that is a kind of slick, expensive re-creation of what it once was actually is an advertisement for a film that is a slick re-creation of what it once was actually. The new Alfie is the patron saint of Manhattan metrosexual paradise.

But to say that this Alfie is unrecognizable is not to say that it’s all bad. Like Sex and the City, the movie gets at something that is simultaneously alluring and inane about modern Manhattan. It is a fashion shoot and a rock video, but it is a fantastic-looking fashion shoot. The New York we see in Alfie shines and flashes—the Brooklyn Bridge speeding by, the posh, low-lit interiors of lounges and the high heels that dance on their floors, the white-light-strung trees outside Tavern on the Green gleaming in the night sky. And it is an entertaining rock video, set to a soundtrack mostly written and performed by Mick Jagger. When the original film came out in 1966, Jagger was recording the album Flowers with the Rolling Stones, and singing lyrics like “You take it or leave it,” and “Just you be my backstreet girl,” and, of course, “Let’s spend the night together.” He’s singing a very different tune now—a typical lyric from the new Alfie soundtrack: “Let’s talk it over, let’s make a deal … You know how I feel.” Which happens to reflect a lot about the difference between the two Alfies, and the difference between the eras in which they were made.

Michael Caine’s Alfie of the mid-sixties was alluring but frightening in his relentless self-interest. He called women “it” instead of “she,” and threatened to belt them if they asked him too many questions. He was operating in a London that had not quite started to swing, and the women he exploited weren’t miniskirted mods so much as meek, perpetually disappointed masochists. At that time, a protagonist who lived his life purely in service to his desires, unhindered by any sense of obligation or loyalty—and one who unapologetically declared this in a running monologue addressed to the camera—was scandalous. Like the selfish, compelling, masculine lust Jagger sang about on Flowers, Caine’s Alfie was a dark, hedonistic surprise.

People seeking the same cold jolt from this remake will be disappointed by Jude Law and director Charles Shyer’s Alfie. Law’s character has far less in common with Caine’s than he does with Carrie Bradshaw. He is a “fashion whore,” obsessed with his shoe collection, which he keeps meticulously organized in boxes affixed with Polaroids of the Ferragamo cap-toes and Prada lace-ups contained within. He flits about Manhattan, bouncing from affairs in lavish uptown penthouses to drunken trysts at Dumbo dance parties. The script, written by Elaine Pope, a veteran writer and producer on Seinfeld and Murphy Brown who has collaborated frequently with Carrie Fisher, is peppered with Sex and the City–style puns: “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.” “When we pitched it,” says Pope, “it was as a male Bridget Jones.” It is hard not to hear echoes of Carrie typing her column on her laptop in Alfie’s monologues to the camera—hard not to think of her “I couldn’t help but wonder” in his “Know what I mean?”

Sure, Alfie still wants sex, but he wants sex the way Carrie does, the way either one of them wants shoes: as something to accumulate. Sex in this film isn’t about the brutal, unstoppable drive of Michael Caine or Mick Jagger, and it isn’t about connection, either: It’s about consumption. Dating is a kind of shopping for Alfie; a way to get himself the best and the most pretty things. Alfie has come here from London primarily because “the most beautiful women in the world reside in Manhattan,” among them Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Susan Sarandon, Jane Krakowski, and Sienna Miller—who is Jude Law’s equal in pulchritude and, ever since they met on set, his girlfriend.

Alfie may be from out of town, but his approach to sex and sex appeal is native, millennial, Manhattan male, the kind with a medicine cabinet full of grooming products. This is a city in which the writer Rick Marin can title his memoir Cad, and then gush to InStyle magazine about his bride’s hand-painted, Italian-lace Cynthia Rowley dress. This redecorated cad is not a predator but a pretty, well-groomed, well-heeled trap: part lady-killer, part lady. Sex has never been so narcissistic.

As Alfie, Law is required to regard sex as a public thing, part of one’s urban currency. (Alfie even flirts with the old lady next door: He never turns it off.) But Law’s own sexuality is something he has cordoned off. His co-star Susan Sarandon says, “He’s one of the truly old-fashioned movie stars—a little inaccessible. There’s a kind of mystery about him, something you don’t quite get.” Unless you are actually sexually involved with him, he keeps his sexuality opaque.

I ask Law if falling in love on the job added any romance to his screen collaboration with Sienna Miller in Alfie. “Well, it’s work … you’re at work,” he says. He is not irritated; he is just resolutely, almost mulishly, unwilling to give an inch. “It’s like meeting at the post office if you work there. Doesn’t make sorting letters any more romantic.”

I point out that postal workers do not get naked together as part of their job. “Well, we barely got naked, really,” he says. “Let’s go for a walk.”

I have dog-biscuit face,” says Jude Law. He has just arrived, about an hour late, to the London studio of the legendary British photographer David Bailey to get his picture taken for the cover of this magazine. Law is sitting on a stool while his groomer applies man cream to his stubbly face and product to his perfectly mussed hair; he is wearing vintage tuxedo-striped pants with boots and a perfectly cut jacket over a gray sweater with a scene of a ghost in a graveyard knit on its front. On the wall, there is a shiny, abstract, black-and-white close-up of a vagina.

Law is animated as he talks to Bailey about his kids—Rafferty, 8, Iris, 4, and Rudy, 2—and how he is taking them to Venice tomorrow to visit Sienna Miller, who is there shooting a film with Lasse Hallström. Bailey says he’s leaving tomorrow, too, for Cuba, where he may get to shoot Castro. He warns Law he’s going to take a shot. Law immediately and automatically assumes the squint of someone serious and smoldering and busting with lust. Bailey snaps the shutter. Law relaxes and says, “But first we have my son’s football match in the morning.”

David Bailey was the model for the fast-driving, oft-shagging photographer played by David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. “If I were a woman,” he tells me, “I’d be a lesbian.” Bailey, who was once married to Catherine Deneuve, had a lot to do with the explosion of the aesthetic (and persona) we associate with swinging-sixties London: He shot iconic portraits of Michael Caine, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree, Jane Birkin, and Mick Jagger—who was his roommate around the time Alfie was released. While we were waiting for Law to show up, I asked Bailey if he had been a fan of the first film. “Nah,” he says, with classic British class contempt. “Trashy people. Not interesting … ‘trailer park’ you’d call it in America.”

Alfie’s New York is marked by mobility: social and literal. He works as a limo driver and when he’s off duty he traverses the city not by foot or by subway, like a regular New Yorker, but by vintage Vespa. His is an enticing New York, but it is an outsider’s New York.

“It’s very much New York as seen through the eyes of Alfie,” says Law. “Setting the film in New York made him a bit of a fish out of water, a bit of an alien. He’s rootless, familyless … that modern sensibility that when you go somewhere new, you start again: You can project what you pretend is you.”

At its core, Alfie is a story not just about promiscuity but about independence as well … craving it, fighting for it, seeing how much of it you can get while still getting what you want from other people. “I’ve been obsessed with the movie since I was 12 years old,” says Elaine Pope. “I think I was in love with Alfie, but also as a commitment-phobic person I could relate to him.” This is something we understand in New York. That exciting, lonely sense of limitless possibility—for sex and material gain and adventure—is built into our pace and place.

Law is not particularly sympathetic to his character’s quest. “He’s not actually quite as up-front with women as in the Michael Caine version. Michael Caine’s Alfie was more brutal: Clean my socks, do the floor. This one is kind of more seductive. Here’s the question: If the dynamics are the same, what does that say about where we are now? People are still treating each other like shit—cheating, lying, deceiving—but now we’re doing it with a smile and lip gloss. Why are we pretending we’ve moved on? Because we’ve all been to therapy? Yes, the tone of the film in the original is colder, harsher, and this one has got more humor, perhaps, but the behavior is exactly the same—just as despicable. What I’m saying is, it’s very symbolic of the time we’ve come to now when we feel like everything is softened through beauty, through kindness … then the actions are excused. People are still fucking each other over, but what, we do it with a smile now?”

Law does not discuss his personal life; indeed his cool reserve makes you feel trailer park, you’d call it in America, for even asking. But what exactly is he talking about? Who is doing all this cheating, lying, deceiving, and smiling? Who is getting treated like shit? (I couldn’t help but wonder; know what I mean?)

Law has the reserve of bitterness common among the newly divorced. As Susan Sarandon put it, “for a while there, his private life was really tabloid hell.” (One rumor had it that he was the father of Kate Moss’s baby; it can be dismissed pretty easily as fueled by the fantasy of a genetically perfect human—which, in fact, Law played in Gattaca.) There’s an irresistible touch of novelistic satisfaction in the fact that the woman from whom he recently and acrimoniously divorced is named Sadie Frost. The two met playing opposite each other in the British film Shopping when he was 21 and she was 27. They dated for a few years, then they had their first son, then they got married. It lasted six years.

Soon after his marriage dissolved, Law met Sienna Miller, 22. Miller—whose father is a New Yorker and mother is a Londoner and was raised in both places—plays Law’s most serious love interest in Alfie. The two of them read Vogue together and smash their champagne glasses in a shattering New Year’s Eve toast and literally burn up his bed. (In the original, her character is a pathetic waif who scrubs his floor and never leaves the house: a slave. She has been updated as a bipolar Bungalow 8 babe.) “When they first met, to be honest, I think Sienna was a little gaga … but Jude’s a cool customer,” says director Charles Shyer. “He was going through a lot of shit in those days. I think—well, I know, because we talked about it—that one of the reasons he did all these movies in a row”—Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I Heart Huckabees, Alfie, Lemony Snicket’sA Series of Unfortunate Events, The Aviator, and Closer, all six of which will be out before year’s end—“is because it allowed him to involve himself in something other than legal fighting.”

Now it would seem that Law has come around and is every bit as gaga as Miller. In between shots and squints at David Bailey’s studio, Law’s cell phone rings and it’s Miller calling from Venice. He laughs, hard, and says, “Lots of love. See you tomorrow, yeh? Love you. Did you really? You didn’t! Love you. Lots of love. Love you, too.” Unlike Alfie, Law doesn’t seem particularly invested in romantic independence. “Probably because I come from a family that’s still together, you know, that’s where my heart lies,” he says.

The British tabloids have reported that he and Miller recently became engaged. “We’re not,” says Law. “Unfortunately.”

Law lived in New York once, for a year, while he was in Cocteau’s Indiscretions on Broadway. (He appeared naked onstage and was nominated for a Tony.) “Without sounding too naff, I fell in love with it then completely,” he says as we walk toward Primrose Hill, a few blocks away from his home in London. In Manhattan, he lived in Alphabet City and was a regular at the bar 2A. “But this was, like, eleven years ago, so it was slightly more colorful. I still find it very exciting, but it’s just sad—and it happens the world over—London, too, is going through this peculiar sort of refurbishment, do you know what I mean? Where you go to an area which used to be wonderfully kind of seedy and homegrown, if you like, and now you’ve got apartment blocks and parking and sanitized warehouses rather than squats and art studios.” Still, Law says he’d still like to buy a place in the city once his kids get a little older and he can travel with them more freely.

“There’s an amazing natural sort of drive in New York that makes me want to do more, think more, see more,” he says. “Working there was a joy. You could feel the city and the life of the city just literally jumping into the camera; there was no containing it. When I’ve been there on weeks off, I go to more exhibitions and movies and plays and parties then I would ever do in London. There’s a logistic kind of angle to that; it always seems like it’s a very simple equation to get from one place to another … You just go ten up and four across. Here it’s like, Does anyone know where it is? Maybe one person does, or maybe just the cabdriver.”

Law cross-examines his idea of making a real-estate commitment to Manhattan. “I’m a big fan of dipping in and out of cities. I love going in, staying a week or two weeks, and then getting back out … an affair.”

If Alfie’s New York life—a life of affairs and dipping in and out and ceaseless, vertiginous motion—is at one end of the spectrum, Law’s London life would appear to be at the other. We reach the top of the muddy hill. “This is probably the best view of London, unknown to most people apart from Londoners or Londoners who live around here,” he says. “I’ve lived here for eleven years! It’s where 101 Dalmatians is set, yeh? This is where the dogs come away from their owners to meet each other, and when the midnight howl starts, it starts at the top of the hill. That’s the BT Tower, see the Gherkin? That slightly conical thing. Yeah, it’s shiny. I live just down there; we come here three times a day with our dogs.” He laughs. “I keep thinking we’re going to run into my little posse … that every dog is my dog and every kid is my kid.”

Being a father is clearly the most important thing in Law’s life besides acting. He bums cigarettes but worries that his kids won’t like the smell on him. After a quick lunch at a neighborhood café, he jokes, “You should really be eating more of the vegetables and the greens. I’m concerned—as a father.” He is worried about the American election because of what it will mean for the world left to his children. (I tell him I assume he wants to see Bush out and he says, “I can’t believe everyone doesn’t.”)

Two years ago, Law’s daughter, Iris, had an experience that would render any parent frantic. She was at a child’s birthday party at the Soho House in London (just like the one in New York except actually in England instead of just full of English accents), and she picked up a piece of an ecstasy tablet, ostensibly left around from the night before. It has been widely reported that Iris took the X, but Law says “in fact, nothing was ingested or digested. I wasn’t there but luckily it was spotted very, very quickly by another adult … It was clear that it wasn’t a sweet or a piece of chocolate.” Suffice it to say that the Law children won’t be eating any more cupcakes at the Soho House.

“They’re having a very weird time, aren’t they, because they’re growing up with me as their dad,” says Law. “My worry was always that I wasn’t this dad who was going to be home at five every night. Later, I realized this is my life; I am their father. You have to embrace what you do.”

Michael Caine’s Alfie might accuse Law—with his prettiness and his privacy and his dogs and his kids—of being “a bit mumsy.”

Then again, in the modern world, that’s part of his appeal.

The Pretty-Boy Syndrome