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Irons in the fire

Elegant British actor opines on gay marriage and boards the crazy train to Nutsville

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It's always a treat when a famous person goes off-script. But this latest example -- Jeremy Irons talking about gay marriage -- is an absolute standout. Irons' interview with Josh Zepps of Huff Post Live might have been just another piece of predictable, puffed-up celebrity shmoozing -- the 64-year-old English actor was there promoting his Showtime series The Borgias -- but once he started on the gay marriage issue, it took on a weird and wonderful life of its own.

While explaining that he doesn't have "a strong feeling either way," Irons suggests that opening marriage to same-sex couples might "debase, or change, what marriage is." If he'd stopped there, his comments would have been merely disappointing and depressingly familiar.

But wait, there's more.

"I mean tax-wise, it's an interesting one," intones Irons, sounding like the cabinet minister he played in the 1992 film Damage as he ponders some weighty issue of public policy. "Could a father not marry his son?"

Whoa. See what he does there? He seems to be making the startling suggestion that dads will start popping the question to their sons in order to avoid inheritance taxes.

Granted, there's some cultural baggage involved here. Figuring out ways to get around heavy death duties has historically been a preoccupation with wealthy Brits. It's the kind of thing Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham might fret about. But to tie it into the gay marriage question takes a breathtaking leap of lateral thinking. (Surely there are more effective methods of estate planning than walking down the aisle with your kid?)

Interviewer Zepps, who seems keen to lead Irons' loony little boat back into the safe harbour of common sense, suggests this is "a total red herring," since incest laws would also cover same-sex marriages.

But, no, Irons is having none of it. According to Irons' hazy understanding of incest, the prohibition against the practice exists merely to prevent inbreeding and therefore doesn't apply to two men.

Maybe Irons has become too immersed in the 16th-century depravity of The Borgias. He seems to be making incest into a purely practical matter rather than a taboo that arises from almost universal moral repugnance.

After this jaw-dropping exchange, Irons wraps up by wishing the best for anyone living with another person, because it's "fantastic."

"Spoken like a happily married man," says Zepps, with a kind of desperate cheeriness. "Also a man with a dog he loves," rejoins Irons, adding another level of strangeness. (One hopes his rather cavalier attitude to incest doesn't extend to bestiality.)

Wow. In terms of novelty, originality and Colbert Report spoofabilty, the Irons interview is hard to beat. First, there's the cuckoo-crazy quality of the argument itself. Religious fundamentalists who oppose gay marriage always make the point that "the Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." With his bizarre vision of death-duty-dodging fathers and sons, Irons ups the ante to "Adam and Adam, Jr."

Then there's the fact that this loopy idea is advanced with such understated elegance. The Irons incident is not like Justin Bieber talking about the "Sixteenth Chapel" in Vatican City or Snooki thinking that Europe is a country.

In the best tradition of the British thesp, the grey-haired Irons looks thoughtful and distinguished. He's all supple Shakespearean intonations and eloquent classically-trained hand gestures and meaningful Academy Award-winning pauses -- which makes his nuttiness all the more arresting.

It's also been interesting to follow reactions to the clip. Supporters of gay marriage were dismayed. Even some opponents of gay marriage seemed upset, maybe because Irons managed to trump the tiresome anti-gay marriage argument that if a man can marry a man, then it's a just a matter of time before a man marries a goat.

Irons has gone way beyond goats, whether he meant to or not.

Irons has said before that "the job of artists is to stir things up." He has made libertarian defences of smokers' rights and fox hunting (liberty for the hunters that is, not the foxes). And he's defended the rights of men to touch women's bottoms, since "any woman worth her salt" can always tell the bottom-toucher to get lost.

Responding to the Internet commotion that followed the interview, Irons attempted to "clarify" his earlier remarks with a letter posted on his official website. He felt that his remarks had been uncharitably interpreted as anti-gay, and stated that he was "clearly aware that many gay relationships are more long-term, responsible and even healthier in their role of raising children, than their hetero equivalents."

But he doubled-down on the tax-loophole idea, asserting that his argument was "mischievous" but "nonetheless valid."

It might be mischievous. But valid? Um, no.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 E3

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