Nationality: British. Born: Jeremy John Irons in Cowes, the Isle of Wight, Hampshire, 19 September 1948. Education: Studied at Sherborne School and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Family: Married 1) Julie Hallam; 2) the actress Sinead Cusack, 1978, sons: Samuel and Maximilian. Career: 1971—actor for Bristol Old Vic repertory company; subsequent stage work includes Godspell, 1972–73, Wild Oats for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1976, The Real Thing on Broadway, 1983, and The Rover, The Winter's Tale, and Richard II for the RSC, late 1980s; 1974—in TV mini-series Notorious Woman; 1979—in TV mini-series Love for Lydia; 1980—film debut in Nijinsky; 1981—role as Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited mini-series for TV; 1985—directed video promo for Carly Simon; 1990—narrator for TV mini-series The Civil War. Awards: Best Actor, Award, New York Film Critics, for Dead Ringers, 1988; Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Actor Award, Los Angeles Film Critics, for Reversal of Fortune, 1990. Address: 194 Old Brompton Street, London SW5, England.
Films as Actor:
Nijinsky (Ross) (as Mikhail Fokine)
The French Lieutenant's Woman (Reisz) (as Charles Smithson/Mike)
Moonlighting (Skolimowski) (as Nowak)
Betrayal (David Jones) (as Jerry); The Wild Duck (Safran) (as Harold Ackland)
Swann in Love (Un Amour de Swann) (Schlöndorff) (as Charles Swann)
Dead Ringers (Cronenberg) (as Beverly and Elliot Mantle)
A Chorus of Disapproval (Winner) (as Guy Jones); Danny, the Champion of the World (Millar—for TV) (as William Smith); Australia (Andrien) (as Edouard Pierson)
Reversal of Fortune (Schroeder) (as Claus von Bulow)
Operation Zebracka (Zebracka Opera) (Golan and Menzel) (as prisoner); Kafka (Soderbergh) (as Franz Kafka)
Waterland (Gyllenhaal) (as Tom Crick); Damage (Malle) (as Dr. Stephen Fleming); Tales from Hollywood (Davies—for TV) (as Odon Von Horvath); From Time to Time (Blyth) (as H. G. Wells)
M. Butterfly (Cronenberg) (as Rene Gallimard); The House of the Spirits (August) (as Esteban Trueba); Earth and the American Dream (Couturie—doc) (as voice)
The Lion King (Minkoff—animation) (as voice of Scar)
Die Hard with a Vengeance (McTiernan) (as Simon Peter Gruber)
Lolita (Lyne) (as Humbert Humbert); Stealing Beauty (Bertolucci) (Alex Parrish)
Chinese Box (Wang) (as John)
The Man in the Iron Mask (Wallace) (as Aramis)
By IRONS: articles—
Interview, in Films in Review (New York), November 1981.
Interview with M. Bygrave, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1983.
Interview with M. Smith, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July 1984.
Interview with M. Open, in Film Directions (Belfast), vol. 8, no. 32, 1986.
"Double Trouble," interview with Karen Jaehne, in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1988.
Interview with David DeNicolo, in Interview (New York), June 1990.
"A Question of Character," interview with Georgina Howell, in Vogue (New York), January 1993.
"Grenzsituationen faszinieren mich," interview with Margret Köhler, in Film-dienst, 7 December 1993.
"Humbert's Humbert: Lolita," interview with Mick James, in Sight & Sound, May 1998.
On IRONS: articles—
Current Biography 1984, New York, 1984.
Hibbin, S., "Jeremy Irons," in Films and Filming (London), July 1984.
Dossier on The Mission, in Stills (London), May/June 1986.
Kennedy, Harlan, "Metamorphosis Man," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November/December 1991.
James, C., "Wrapping Himself inside Enigmas," in New York Times, 18 November 1992.
Johnson, Brian D., "Irons Mines a New Vein," in Maclean's (Toronto), 11 April 1994.
Benjamin, Dominique, "Jeremy Irons," in Séquences (Paris), May-June 1994.
Kino (Warsaw), June 1995.
Filmowy Serwis Prasowy (Warsaw), June-July 1995.
* * *
With his first major role in The French Lieutenant's Woman starring opposite Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons's screen presence as an up-and-coming dramatic actor attracted an enormous amount of attention. Beginning his career on stage, Irons worked with the Bristol Old Vic repertory company and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s. Throughout his stardom, he has remained devoted to stage performances, with a major Broadway performance, The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, and a few productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1980s. In that Irons is a relatively young actor, whose film career has spanned just over two decades, it is far too early to come to any conclusive view of his accomplishment.
Irons's striking matinee idol looks and melodious voice, his classical training and devotion to the theater, have resulted in gratuitous and premature comparisons to the young Laurence Olivier. Although potentially capable of Olivier's range, Irons gives the appearance of being a much more consciously restrained actor than Olivier, one less given to the bravura turn, more concerned with the repressed elements in the characters he plays than with their tempestuous external behavior. Even his most flamboyant roles—including his tours de force in Reversal of Fortune and Dead Ringers—convey the notion that Irons defers instinctively to the subtle nuance and unarticulated silence more readily associated with his parts in works such as Pinter's Betrayal, in which characters reveal as little as possible by speaking in ellipses. ("I'm very interested in what one conveys without words because I think it's one of the ways we communicate best in films or plays," he said in 1984. "I hate acting acting, seeing the wheels turn," he once told an interviewer. "I dislike the vulgarity of excessive effort.")
The dual roles Irons plays in The French Lieutenant's Woman (a screen adaptation of John Fowles's novel by Pinter), complemented by Streep's equally powerful performance, trace the shocking similarities between the Victorian era and its modern counterpart. As Damian Cannon puts it: "A classical tale of passion, betrayal and loss is related using a mixture of Victorian costume drama and contemporary fiction." In the film and the film within the film, Irons successfully portrays two men swamped by the mysterious power of love, or, more accurately, that of obsession and descending into the spiral of ultimate despair. Marked by his looks of confused desires and an increasingly warped physique and psyche, the two characters, in different time zones, mesh into one perpetual image of loss. Irons's next major role came as the Jesuit priest in Roland Joffé's award-winning film, The Mission. Despite the highly problematic, revisionist treatment of eighteenth-century colonialism in South America, Irons and Robert De Niro (playing Father Mendoza, a former slaver) render convincing portrayals of two sides of religious faith. While De Niro relentlessly emits powerhouse forcefulness out of repentance and a hope for redemption, Irons quietly yet unblinkingly sustains an iron will for sainthood through martyrdom.
Irons's acting, however, did not get official recognition until another dual role performance in David Cronenberg's 1988 Dead Ringers. Hailed as the best actor of the year by the New York Film Critics, Irons plays Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin doctors, both gynecologists, both sexually deviant, obsessed men. One is a dashing playboy, the other inhibited and private. One becomes addicted to drugs, the other, in attempting to cure him, becomes hooked as well. One woos women, the other impersonates him in order to sleep with the women his twin has wooed and won. Both die a mutually macabre death. The ingredients of a Cronenberg horror film are present, a fact excessively trumpeted in the film's inappropriate marketing, but the literary screenplay and Irons's dazzling, contrasting performance as the twins properly emphasized the film's true focus on filial obsession and descent into madness.
The most important role for Irons to date, however, came two years later as the mysterious Dutch socialite, Claus von Bulow, in Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune in 1990. In this Oscar-winning role, Irons plays a "cold, emotionless, and calculating" (Mark R. Leeper) European aristocrat who has been found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife (played brilliantly by Glenn Close). Hiring a trial lawyer and professor of law Alan Dershowitz to defend him, von Bulow enigmatizes his entire defense team by his immaculately articulate power of speech and cultured yet ominous demeanor demonstrating absolute self-control. With or without words, Irons's performance balances the detached charm and wit of the sophisticated rake of Restoration comedy (who never takes himself too seriously) with an antithetical air of menace calculated to invite speculation that von Bulow may indeed be a man capable of unspeakable acts. It is a difficult role that requires succinctly enunciated words and gesture, speech and the "unspeakable." It is also in a role like this that one sees most clearly Irons's ability to interlace the precision of stage acting and the minute yet significant details that filmic language is best at revealing.
For many, Irons's performances in both Louis Malle's 1992 Damage and Cronenberg's 1993 M. Butterfly came as a double disappointment. The mediocrity of both films, however, seems less a shock than the cardboard villain he plays in McTiernan's 1995 Die Hard with a Vengeance. Simon—brother of the terrorist, Hans, in the first Die Hard—is played with an embarrassing combination of Hopperish delirium and Travoltarian pretentious unwit. His performance in the remake of the classic Lolita represented a great improvement, capturing with skill and subtlety the melancholy of Nabokov's tortured Humbert Humbert.
—Mark W. Estrin, updated by Guo-Juin Hong