From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
On a crisp October night, a crowd of smitten socialites flocked to Manhattan's hip Soho House for an invitation-only screening of Alfie and—for the cherry on top—a glimpse of its star. "It was like a casting call for Desperate Housewives," says Debbie Bancroft, a society columnist for Avenue magazine, who had just celebrated a special occasion. "I went up to him and said, 'You want to give me a little sugar for my birthday?' He leaned in and gave me a soft, sweet kiss on my cheek. I was in heaven." Law's costar Marisa Tomei witnessed the encounter "and arched her eyebrows at me," recalls Bancroft. "I said, 'I'm shameless, aren't I?' and she said yes." Bancroft didn't care: "I walked away covered in goose bumps."

It's all in a day's work for this year's Sexiest Man Alive, who leaves even talk show hosts tongue-tied. Kelly Ripa took a long, lusty look at Law when he appeared on Live recently and sighed, "It's alllll good." Winfrey” demanded, "Just say it, Jude. Say, 'I am dashing.'" And Ellen DeGeneres informed Law that "when men go to plastic surgeons to get their lips redone, your lips are the most requested." Then she made him sit still while she traced the outline of his mouth on a TV screen.

The good-natured Law even parodied himself on Saturday Night Live last month, singing, "I took one look in the mirror/ And I could clearly see/ That there was one perfect thing in it/ And that thing was me." "He just threw himself into it, and there was nothing off-limits," says executive producer Lome Michaels. "He has a real sense of humor about himself."

If he didn't, his head would be as big as the Garfield balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, because the compliments just keep on coming. "He's the most beautiful man who ever walked the earth—an absolutely perfect oil painting," says Naomi Watts, his costar in this fall's existential comedy I [Heart] Huckabees. "He has the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen," says Rachel Weisz, who appeared with him in 2001's Enemy at the Gates. But Law, who turns 32 on Dec. 29, has overcome the handicap of handsomeness to make his mark as a serious actor in 24 films—and garner Oscar nods for 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley and 2003's Cold Mountain. "Jude's uniqueness is that he has the talent of a character actor and the looks of a leading man," says producer Jon Avnet, who worked with Law on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, one of the actor's six films this year. Next up, Law plays a caddish lover in Closer, opposite Julia Roberts; the narrator in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events; and Errol Flynn in The Aviator. "I hope," says Law, "that people recognize and enjoy the variety rather than the bombardment."

The intense focus on his work coincided with a low point in Law's life: his divorce from British fashion designer Sadie Frost, 39, whom he had married at age 24. Unlike the lothario he plays in Alfie, "I would say that if you look at my life, I was someone who always looked for commitment," he says. "That's just in my makeup." He remains devoted to their children Rafferty, 8, Iris, 4, and Rudy, 2. "He goes to great lengths to be with them," says his good friend Gwyneth Paltrow, his costar in Sky Captain. "After he hosted Saturday Night Live, he flew all night to get to his daughter's birthday party. Every free minute he gets, he's with his kids."

The children spent a lot of time on the Alfie set, says the film's director Charles Shyer. "I think Jude's got his priorities in line. Relationships are everything to him." It was in Shyer's living room that Law first met Sienna Miller, 22, his Alfie costar and now his girlfriend. "They were very discreet," says Shyer. "They're both very solid people. They're good for each other. She's a remarkably sophisticated young woman who's very secure in who she is." That's an important asset, considering that the couple have been hounded by London tabloids that have scrutinized their relationship. "We love each other desperately," Miller told British Vogue, "and it makes me sad that the press are so cruel and negative."

Fortunately, Law has a close-knit support system. "Once you meet his parents, you get more of an insight into him," says Shyer. "They're very normal, intelligent people." Schoolteachers Maggie and Peter Law raised Jude and his sister Natasha, now 33, in southeast London. Named after both the 1895 Thomas Hardy classic Jude the Obscure and a certain Beatles hit, Jude was artistic from the beginning. He first appeared onstage in a production of St. George and the Dragon at 5 and left school at 17 for a part in the Brit soap Families. After paying his dues on the British theater scene, Law made the leap to Broadway in 1995, starring in the dark farce Indiscretions, which required him to emerge from a bath fully nude onstage. "You should have heard the little-old-lady matinees—they gasped!" recalls Kathleen Turner, Law's costar in the play. "The old ladies loved him."

Even the pacifier set starts drooling when his name comes up. "He's the most charming man you could ever hope to come across," says Paltrow, as her 6-month-old daughter babbles happily on her lap. "Apple is chiming in her approval! Jude has that effect on females of all ages."

Michelle Tauber. K.C. Baker and Amy Longsdorf in New York City, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles and Courtney Rubin in London

  • Contributors:
  • K.C. Baker,
  • Amy Longsdorf,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Courtney Rubin.