James McAvoy and Jude Law: Handsome Devils

Why leading men are unshackling themselves from their good looks

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Illustration by André Carrilho

Newest Oscar darling Matthew McConaughey was People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in 2005. He was preceded by Jude Law in 2004, a decade before Dom Hemingway, in which Law plays a loud and balding second-rate crook fated to be ridiculous.

Another handsome devil, James McAvoy, was People’s runner-up (to Matt Damon) in 2007, his breakout year on the heels of The Last King of Scotland and his romantic lead in Atonement. I don’t know whether McAvoy welcomed his status as the universe’s second-hottest man with the same enthusiasm the rest of us would, or with the early ambivalence he had for being a movie star in the first place. Whereas actors have been known to choose their vocation because it means more women in their lives, in McAvoy’s case it was the other way around, a chance romance in an early theatrical endeavor igniting his commitment to the craft.

Isn’t this a curious way to begin a piece about actors? We haven’t spent a syllable talking about whether the above guys are any good—a reminder that image first and foremost makes somebody a leading man and then leaves him stuck as one until the image changes. Maybe this explains why McAvoy is such an unholy mess in his new picture, of which he could be considered its title character: Filth isn’t the name on the birth certificate of the Scottish police inspector that McAvoy plays, but it can be found stamped on the traveling papers of his id, ravaged as he is by self-loathing, guilt, and a determination to live down to whatever treachery, depravity, and bad faith can be connived by someone just smart enough to outsmart himself. Like Law’s Dom Hemingway, Filth is in the vein of two decades of British neo-noir, including Snatch, Sexy Beast, and In Bruges, and both are engaging until they get goofy or confused in the last half hour, when the filmmakers don’t know where to go. To the extent that either succeeds, it’s as tours de force for McAvoy and Law as they deconstruct—a fancy academic term that, by way of its implied violence, happens to be perfect in this case—the pretty-boy reputations burdening them. In 30 years, four actors have repeated as People’s “Sexiest Man Alive”; Law manifestly has no ambitions to be the fifth. McAvoy, not even counting Filth’s cross-dressing scenes of him unshaven in a blond wig, nylon stockings, and smeared lipstick, would seem to be dooming his chances altogether.

Of course several thousand actresses reading this right now wish they had such luxuries. Beautiful women get in Hollywood’s door quickest and then are shut out when their beauty no longer measures up to whatever it is that Hollywood or audiences decide is beautiful enough; once they’re inside, their choices are limited by the same beauty that won them their entrée. Beautiful actors are learning what beautiful actresses like Charlize Theron discovered a while ago—that they get taken more seriously when they trash the same beauty that got them taken seriously to begin with. Anyone charting such things may note that the stars of seven decades ago, such as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, and Barbara Stanwyck, didn’t look like pinups. They captured our imagination by sheer force of personality, assembling personae rather than taking them apart (though in fairness it might be added that, after more than a decade as a character actor, once Bogart became the biggest star in the world, he spent his last decade becoming a character actor again).

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As opposed to the women currently dominating the screen, trying to defy the gravity of time as easily as the nearly half-century-old Sandra Bullock in Gravity, the men seem all too untouched by time, defying instead the gravity of temperament and experience. This is to say that 38-year-old James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life looks like he’s lived more life than a battered and bloody 51-year-old Tom Cruise (“Sexiest Man Alive,” 1990; “Most Beautiful Person in the World,” 1997) in Edge of Tomorrow. Leonardo DiCaprio—Cruise’s most-beautiful-person successor in 1998—has been making movies for a quarter of a century, which constitutes a breach in the space-time continuum, since he’s 17, and was 17 last year, and will be 17 next year, and will be 17 in another 40 years, when misguided references try to convince us he’s 79. DiCaprio, I want to be clear, is a fine actor, stealing films from the likes of Robert De Niro as far back as This Boy’s Life in 1992, when DiCaprio actually was 17 but looked 12. In the proximity of clocks and calendars, however, Leo is an invisible man, hounded enough by the heart-throbbery of Titanic to run naked among jars of urine in The Aviator, hoping audiences might think of him in any other way. The late Heath Ledger was so intent on shedding his beautiful-People designation (2001) that he resorted to playing a deformed and utterly unrecognizable homicidal maniac in The Dark Knight.

As for Matthew McConaughey, there’s not much to add about his aesthetic valor, aspirational determination, and sheer fabulousness that the great man himself didn’t tell us so charmingly and Texanly in his Oscar acceptance speech. Humbly assured by McConaughey that his hero isn’t the Matthew of today—which would be bigheaded—but the Matthew of ten years hence, the film industry was moved enough by the spectacle of a movie star radically reinventing himself into a whole other profession (acting) that the academy’s verdict was a foregone conclusion. McConaughey, dieting himself to immortality as an AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club, represents the watershed moment in stars laying unyielding siege to their own splendor, even as the culture’s proclivity for lavishly rewarding the beautiful and then lavishly rewarding them again for making themselves unbeautiful remains something of a puzzlement, if nothing so cosmic as a paradox. In the meantime, a trivia question for the ages: Has anyone in the movies ever gone from underrated to overrated faster?

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