The French have an expression called jolie laide—directly translated, it means “beautiful ugly,” but as a concept it embodies the intersection between attractiveness and unconventionality that makes us relish imperfection. Jolie laide is Sarah Jessica Parker and Benicio del Toro and Jessica Paré. It’s why Solange is visually more intriguing than Beyoncé, and why Meat Loaf, however improbably, was a sex symbol for much of the 1980s.
Sofia Coppola is often cited as the female embodiment of jolie laide, but as it relates to men, there’s no more obvious example in contemporary culture than Benedict Cumberbatch. In bleached-blonde, Botox-browed Hollywood, he’s the antithesis of everything we’re supposed to find attractive.
Let’s start with his name, which sounds positively Hogwartsian. He’s purposefully Benedict, rather than the more casual Ben, which brings to mind 16 distinctly unglamorous popes, an order of monks, and eggs smothered with hollandaise. Then there’s the Cumberbatch part, which conjures up images of either a professor of potions or the antiquated silk sash men sometimes wear with tuxedos. What’s in a name? Michael Caine was once Maurice Joseph Micklewhite and Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach: In the flimsy, illusive world of film, names matter.
Or perhaps they don’t, anymore, and perhaps 37-year-old Cumberbatch is the physical manifestation of a paradigm shift in a culture that seeks out slender, sensitive Edward Cullen over sweaty Magic Mike and prefers Sherlock Holmes to Superman. Perhaps this is why Cumberbatch is everywhere. This week, he’s in the news because he’s voicing a “super-duper smooth wolf” in DreamWorks’ upcoming Penguins of Madagascar. He’s also playing Hamlet at the London Barbican. He’s playing Richard III, possibly opposite Judi Dench. He’s reading radio news scripts from D-Day on BBC Radio Four (in what seems to be a craven but successful attempt to get millennials interested in history) He’s photo-bombing U2 at the Oscars. He’s reading letters written by Kurt Vonnegut and Iggy Pop at the literary Hay Festival. He’s one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. He’s officiating at same-sex weddings. He’s crowd-funding short films made by a production company he set up, SunnyMarch Ltd. He’s starring as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. He’s replacing Brad Pitt in The Lost City of Z. He’s replacing Guy Pearce as Whitey Bulger’s brother in Black Mass. He’s on BuzzFeed surrounded by photoshopped pictures of kittens. And, yes, he’s also doing a fourth season of Sherlock, the cult British series that made detached sociopaths dreamy and Cumberbatch a household name.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to conclude that 37-year-old Cumberbatch is the biggest star in the world right now, riding an improbably perfect storm of talent, timing, sensitivity, virality, and our postmodern rejection of conformist standards of beauty—at least insofar as they relate to men. With actresses, we seem to crave homogeneity (as a fun experiment, look at a lineup featuring Kate Mara, Ashley Greene, Anna Kendrick, and Isla Fisher and see if you can say with absolute certainty which one is which). With actors, it’s more complicated. There are the schlubby, paunchy Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill types, sure, but there’s also brooding John Hawkes and goofy Michael Sheen and the quirkily off-kilter former ballerina Ansel Elgort.
Aesthetically, Cumberbatch’s appeal is almost impossible to define. He has naturally auburn hair, which he dyes for different roles, but which brings to mind Byronic literary heroes as diverse as Mr. Darcy and Christian Grey. His haughty pallor bears comparison with the vampiric charms of Robert Pattinson in Twilight, and with the young Mark Twain. His features are aristocratic in a way that used to suggest inbreeding among the upper classes—his mouth is only vaguely defined, and his jaw is slender rather than square—while his eyes are situated disproportionately far away from each other, tilting back towards his temples in a manner that makes his angular cheekbones more apparent. Physically, he’s most frequently compared to an otter. In previous roles, he sported a ginger mustache while playing a rapist in Atonement, and he suffered through a hideous makeover to play the infinitely gruesome Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate (not even Cumberbatch’s charms could make that movie a success).
Emotionally and intellectually, he is, quite simply, the perfect male celebrity for our time. The feminist blog Jezebel refers to him as “your boyfriend Benedict Cumberbatch,” an endorsement that takes into consideration his intelligence, his chivalry (he once punched a reporter who was rude about Keira Knightley, but did so “gently”), his sense of humor, his status as a straight ally for gay rights (hence the wedding he officiated), and his Buddhist regard for humanity and all the earth’s creatures. He’s an activist and an artist who donates his drawings to charity auctions. He has concerns about the fact that his legions of fans refer to themselves as Cumberbitches or Cumberbunnies because of the potentially sexist connotations; he prefers Cumberbabes. Of course he does.
If Cumberbatch is as uncomfortable with the level of attention he’s getting as he says he is, then his ascent can be seen as a cautionary tale for other reluctant idols. In some indefinable way, Cumberbatch is a walking, talking meme. When he appeared on Sesame Street he had to repeatedly remind Murray that he was actually an actor, not a detective named “Benedict Sherlock,” in a joke that was far too sophisticated to be targeted at preschoolers and was presumably intended for a YouTube audience. His presence is guaranteed to make anything go viral, whether it’s a literary festival, a TV miniseries, or one of the most frequently staged Shakespearian tragedies. In London, people are paying around $170 just to jump to the front of the line when tickets go on sale for his Hamlet. Combine photos of him looking intuitive or alluring with pictures of fuzzy kittens and it’s a wonder the Internet doesn’t implode.