A few years ago, a magazine editor confided grimly that nothing was selling unless it had Ewan McGregor on the cover. That actor was an unusual example of British talent finding purchase in America without discernible compromise. Even when McGregor sold his soul to Satan - who at that time was going under the name George Lucas - he made the transaction seem blasé: he made it appear that the Star Wars series needed him more than he needed it.
This is a difficult trick to pull off - to disguise business decisions and calculated career moves, to dress up professionalism as a bit of a lark. Jude Law, the latest British actor to walk the same tightrope across the Atlantic, and a performer who is in an even more hallowed position than McGregor, was probably watching and learning.
The pair are former flatmates, and partners in the production company Natural Nylon. They have achieved success with great stealth. Neither had what could be called a single breakthrough role, at least internationally, preferring instead to permeate rather than penetrate the cultural consciousness through a steady drip of eye-catching performances. And it will be some time, if ever, before either actor can "open" a film - that is, guarantee a hit on the strength of their name alone, as Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts can.
But the position in which Law now finds himself is arguably as privileged, if not nearly as well paid, as the one occupied by those more bankable names. In his latest role, as the Confederate deserter Inman in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, Law even followed in Cruise's footsteps, landing the part after the star had turned it down. It is difficult now to imagine anyone but Law in the lead - to think of another actor of his status who would accept a role that presented so few opportunities for vanity and grandstanding.
As Inman trudges back to his beloved Ada (Nicole Kidman), he does nothing more inspirational than cling to life by his dirty fingernails; this is a tale of patience and perseverance rather than heroism. He gets to rescue a young woman from rapists, but it is she who exacts revenge on her attackers, while Inman looks on blankly.
Cruise would never have relinquished his macho duties so readily. But Law, despite the surname that is redolent of a hard-bitten new sheriff in town, hangs back in Cold Mountain, letting the camera come to him if it chooses. Not since Montgomery Clift has stardom looked so tentative, or so conflicted.
His track record until now has been in idiosyncratic secondary parts. "I felt he had somehow defined himself as a supporting actor," observed Minghella. "I sensed a reluctance to take on the weight of carrying a film. So my dialogue with Jude was not: 'Can you play this role?' Of course I knew he could. It was whether he had the will to endure what anyone playing Inman would have to endure."
Partly this endurance involves surrendering the screen to more demonstrative performers. There was no certainty that this was among his talents. In the past, Law had always been cast in odd supporting parts. He brought spark to the thankless part of the robotic stud Gigolo Joe in Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And the piety of Tom Hanks was no match for Law's craggy, creepy smile in Road to Perdition, in which he played an improbable photographer-cum-assassin. Minghella had already given Law his richest part to date in The Talented Mr Ripley as the suntanned playboy Dickie Greenleaf, for which the actor was Oscar-nominated. Law was almost too fine; once he departed halfway through the film, the audience went into a slump.
Who was to say that he could forego the temptation of these brief incandescent moments, during which, while the viewer could not tire of him, the burden of the movie could not anchor him? Well, he did. The gamble paid off. On Thursday, Law received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor - one of eight prizes for which Cold Mountain is in the running. A nod from the Academy is surely inevitable. And Law's world domination is only in its infancy.
He was born David Jude Law a few days before New Year's Eve 1972, in south-east London, to parents who were both teachers. At 12, he joined the National Youth Music Theatre, and no one who has wasted an evening watching trashy British TV will have missed the archive footage of him goofing around on stage as the Artful Dodger or some other scallywag; it's become a staple of the kind of compilation shows that routinely plug the schedules.
What's compelling is the lack of distance between that game hoofer and the dandy he would grow into, with his unusual talent for being alternately petulant and endearing.
Law edged into the mainstream at the age of 17 in the soap opera Families, and made scarcely more impact as a joyrider in the scrappy 1993 British thriller Shopping. It was on that movie that he met the actress Sadie Frost, whom he would marry in 1997.
For a long time the two weren't famous or controversial enough to attract much more from the gossip columns than a kind of bland idolatry that always seemed poised to warp into malice at the first trace of a fissure; naturally that happened when the pair divorced this year, amid unsubstantiated rumours of adultery.
Until then, they were just Jude and Sadie: a brace of hip his 'n' her dolls with matching cheekbones, an armful of infants (three by 2002, plus Frost's child from an earlier marriage) and an unfashionably flawless marriage.
They were in danger of being part of the furniture of British celebrity culture, rather than its defining architecture, until - after a stint on Broadway - Law started winning the film roles he deserved. Anyone could see that he could have played Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, Oscar Wilde's tormentor, in his sleep. The clever thing was that Law didn't fall back on the flamboyant sadism that came so easily to him. He always kept Bosie's neediness in plain sight, and never forgot that the character was fighting his own private battles.
It was lazy casting that led Clint Eastwood to hire Law as Kevin Spacey's ill-fated lover in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but you can't blame him. He was looking for someone who could play gay and spoilt, and Law has not strayed far from either characteristic in anything until Cold Mountain. It's part of what has nourished his enigma.
His suggestion of gayness is bound up in an archaic sense of British elegance that has nothing to do with actual sexuality; even playing womanisers in The Wisdom of Crocodiles or The Talented Mr Ripley, he can still introduce unexpected notes of sexual ambiguity. Little wonder that he is frequently wheeled out as a specimen of whatever the newspaper style sections are re-christening "new man" this week, be it Metrosexual or JGE (Just Gay Enough).
The only time Law's mystique has unravelled is when he has forsaken the façade. It was regrettable that he appeared alongside celebrity friends in the mockney comedy-dramas Final Cut and Love, Honour & Obey, neither of which aspired to be more than ludicrous home movies. But seeing Law as "himself", stepping out from behind the persona and projecting only normality, made you appreciate the transformative power of fiction. This is not an actor who excels at being plain on screen, no matter how sane-headed he may be, or how many times he returns to his theatrical roots (as he last did in 2002, playing Doctor Faustus at the Young Vic).
In The Talented Mr Ripley, someone says of Law's character: "The thing with Dickie is that it's like the sun shines on you, and it's glorious. And then he forgets you, and it's very, very cold. When you have his attention, you feel like you're the only person in the world. That's why everybody loves him so much." I think the same is true of Law: his best performances, with their emphasis on the privileges of class and beauty, make us feel simultaneously seduced and excluded.
Burgeoning celebrity can only increase this sense that he is untouchable, though his proclamations on the nature of fame indicate strongly that he will feel imprisoned rather than liberated by it. He has already railed against press speculation about his relationship with Nicole Kidman. (The actress successfully sued two British tabloids for claiming that she and Law had an affair.) And he has said that intrusions into his privacy - in particular the reports on his divorce - have been severe enough to make him contemplate quitting Britain for good. Perhaps then the tabloids will have the justification they need to tear into Law; a permanent move to the US might in their eyes make him too big for his boots.
In any case, his imminent ubiquity will no doubt arouse their animosity. He will shortly star as Errol Flynn, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. Then there is the futuristic thriller The World of Tomorrow opposite Gwyneth Paltrow; the new comedy from David O Russell (director of Three Kings) called I Heart Huckabee's; and - clever casting, this - the role of the gloomy Gothic narrator in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is best described as Harry Potter for deranged and adventurous young minds.
These pictures are in the can, and Law is just weeks away from beginning the film version of Patrick Marber's abrasive play Closer for Mike Nichols, after which John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) will direct him in Tulip Fever. If Law is lucky, and if he plans his days with the utmost care, he may also find time to sleep.
Before any of these films, we will see him in the US remake of Alfie, in which any hint of the equivocation he shows in Cold Mountain would be disastrous. There is no doubt that he has comprehensively charmed audiences. However, this is the moment when Law will prove beyond doubt whether or not he is, as Alfie might say, all mouth and no trousers.
Born: David Jude Law on 29 December 1972 in Lewisham, London
Family: Son of Peter and Maggie Law, both teachers. Has an older sister, Natasha. Married Sadie Frost in 1997 (now divorced). Has two sons with Frost, (Rafferty, b. 1996 and Rudy, b. 2002) and a daughter, (Iris, b. 2000)
Height: 5ft 11ins
Career highlights: As Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas in Wilde (1997); Gattaca (1997); eXistenZ (1998); Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999); Enemy at the Gates (2000); named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2000; A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001); Road to Perdition (2002); named one of Vanity Fair's 13 "Kings of Hollywood" in March 2003
Tattoos: Gothic rendition of his initials "JL" on his right arm; "She came along to turn on everyone sexy Sadie" (lyrics to Beatles song "Sexy Sadie") on his left arm
He says: "I've always thought Prince Charming in Cinderella was the most boring role; I'd rather be the Wicked Witch."
"I honestly have no interest in celebrity whatsoever. If anything, I always cringe at it, because it takes away from what I am, which is an actor who wants to be better and do better things."
They say: "Charisma on legs, somebody you could imagine men and women being attracted to." - Anthony Minghella, film directorReuse content