Why is Jude Law the Quintessential Cinematic “Author” Character?

Game of ShadowsIf you’ve seen Wes Anderson’s new super-meta comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, you know that, in typical Anderson style, it involves several layers of a narrative onion, which the writer/director peels back perhaps more efficiently than ever before. (If you haven’t seen the movie, I promise you this ruins nothing.) In it, Jude Law plays a younger version of a character called “Young Writer,” who at the start of the film is also briefly played by Tom Wilkinson. Law provides one of the voiceover framings of the film, and much of the machinations play out in a charmingly pseudo-novelistic way. (Anderson has cited slightly obscure Austrian author Stefan Zweig as an inspiration for this film, which is fascinating stuff in its own right.) However, the selection of Jude Law as the actor to portray what is almost a cinematic parody of a writer is not unique to The Grand Budapest Hotel: Jude Law has played “the writer” a few times before.

Way back in 2004, Jude Law starred in the film Closer, an adaptation of the play of the same name by Patrick Marber. His character in Closer is Dan Woolf, a writer who is struggling with his first book. Several 20th-century writer clichés are attributed to Dan Woolf, including, but not limited to: self-obsession, sexual addiction, infidelity, and general dishonesty. To hammer home these character traits and their link with his occupation, a pivotal scene toward the end of the movie finds Clive Owen’s character Larry Gray dismissing Dan and his profession by saying “You liar! You writer!

That same year, Law also played the voice of another fictional writer—Lemony Snicket—in the big-screen adaption of the super-literary whip-smart children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events. And while the film is generally considered to be an unsuccessful adaption of those wonderful books, Law’s voiceover as Snicket does work fairly well. In the film and series, the author himself is a character in the stories, and speaks both authoritatively and deceptively about the events he’s chronicling. Law’s simultaneously sneering and soothing voice provided a perfect Snicket; a fictional author both charming and not to be trusted.

Jumping forward to 2009, Jude Law again played a famous fictional author, possibly the most famous fictional author in the whole of western literature: Dr. John Watson. In two of the steampunk-y modern Sherlock Holmes films—Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of ShadowsWatson makes a few references to the fact that he’s writing down everything that happens to him and Holmes. As famous first-person fictional narrators go, Watson is one of the best and most complex, because he manages to be both totally biased and reasonably objective at the same time. By definition of his telling the original Conan Doyle stories (only two stories are NOT narrated by the good Doctor) Watson becomes the de facto straight man to Holmes. This dynamic, more than anything, is probably to blame for the erroneous notion, reinforced in less-than-faithful Holmes adaptations, that Watson is something of a stooge.

But why has Jude Law popped up as a simulacrum author this many times? One guess has to do with his ability to embody some of the “jerky” characteristics often ascribed to a somewhat outdated stereotype of male authors. In his excellent New York Times piece “Celebrities Behaving Well,” Teddy Wayne outlines a previous zeitgeist standard for bad boy authors that seems to be eroding lately. In the piece, Wayne talks about Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and the fading acceptance of this kind of misogynistic, selfish author persona. I’m not saying Jude Law’s author character in A Series of Unfortunate Events or Sherlock Holmes is sexist or a jerk, but he certainly plays all of these writers with an air of pretension. In fact, if asked to cast someone in a movie version of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I’d probably choose Jude Law, or someone with a similar air. And part of that has to do with the dual nature of Law’s performances: he manages to be both compelling and a little irritating at the same time.

As characters on the big screen, writers tend to get flattened and distorted quite a bit, relying on age-old tropes to help viewers recognize them. Even when writing himself as a writer character in 2002’s Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman’s “Charlie Kaufman” certainly comes across as more of a caricature. I’ll not even bother to mention the fictional writers who populate Woody Allen movies. (Who, shockingly, are never played by Jude Law, WHAT?)

And, while there are far fewer portrayals of female writers in movies, we have had a few “nice guy” male writer characters in recent films: real-life Nick Flynn was portrayed affectionately and well by Paul Dano in 2012’s Being Flynn, and, though the movie was a mixed bag, Toby McGuire pulled off a fairly decent and even-handed Nick Carraway in last year’s The Great Gatsby. But the cinematic version of a male writer seems often, if not unlikeable, at the very least too pretentious.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the flatness of Law’s Young Writer in The Grand Budapest Hotel, because in part, that was the point. Like Watson, or Snicket, he was a vessel for a greater story going on around him. But I couldn’t help feeling he was reinforcing a collective stereotype. Nothing against Jude Law, but, despite what cinema keeps trying to tell us, all male writers are not Jude Law!

Then again, if many of them see themselves that way, that’s something to consider. As Kurt Vonnegut put it: “Be careful as to what you pretend to be, because that’s what you are.” Fellow writers, let’s try not to pretend we’re Jude Law.

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