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The Essentials: The 5 Best Gary Oldman Performances

The Essentials: The 5 Best Gary Oldman Performances

It’s been a frequently repeated fact this year, but in case you didn’t know, Gary Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar. But in a way, why should he have been? The Academy Awards specialize, for the most part, in celebrating showy, look-at-me performances, impersonations of real people, or tear-jerking portrayals of crippling disease or disability. And Oldman has never been one of those actors. Oh, sure, he’s capable of playing big and attention-grabbing — “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” say, or one of his villainous turns in the 1990s — but even in the least of those films, he’s always totally disappeared into the character with no sign of the man behind the curtain, no visible effort in the acting to be applauded. 

As such, he’s never been an awards favorite. He’s simply too good an actor, and too generous an actor, quietly taking a commanding lead when duty calls, or disappearing invisibly into an ensemble, as a true team player. And his latest performance, as George Smiley in the tremendous spy film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” is a turn that is so lived-in and so subtle that it’s already been talked of in terms of being a best run on his already impressive resume. The actor’s career has had its ups and downs, with alcohol problems during “The Scarlet Letter” reaching the extent that he once described it as: “…waking up in the morning and crawling across the floor like an 80-year-old man, when your tongue is discolored and you drink three vodkas and you vomit up the first two to keep the third one down so you just level out and feel normal.” While he sobered soon after, that film derailed his career somewhat, not helped by a public feud with DreamWorks over the final cut of “The Contender.”

But with Oldman’s comeback crowned with ‘Tinker, Tailor,’ it seems like as good a time as any to run down some of our favorite past performances by the great British actor. It was a tricky call. An argument could be made for almost any of his roles (emphasis on almost — while we’d like to see someone try for “Red Riding Hood“). But we landed on a five that seemed to demonstrate the actor’s astonishing range, which can be checked out further when “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” lands in theaters on Friday, December 9th.

Sid and Nancy” (1986)
The pairing of writer/director Alex Cox (“Repo Man”) with this Sid Vicious biopic is something of a match made in punk heaven. It’s a shame, then, that this writer finds the film to be a bit of a slog. We’d skip it altogether were it not for Mr. Oldman’s fierce performance, the kind of acting that demands your attention; not too flashy, but you can’t take your eyes off him as Vicious. While the tropes we’ve come to expect from this kind of movie are certainly present in “Sid & Nancy” (heavy drug use, band infighting, the girlfriend who comes between band members, etc.), Cox and DoP Roger Deakins give it a certain grimy grittiness that sets it apart in the genre, but it’s the bristling, full-tilt lead performance that gives the film its needed punch. Vicious was the punkest of the band who were arguably the best embodiment of the spirit of punk, and Oldman’s a snarling, brawling, force-of-nature in the role; witty, destructive and romantic, almost like a “Looney Tunes” cartoon come to life. And yet somehow, he’s never anything less than totally convincing. In many ways, he laid the groundwork for most of the work he would do: uncompromising, true and utterly captivating.

Prick Up Your Ears” (1987)
Known principally at the time for roles as skinheads and punks, Oldman wasn’t the most obvious choice to play the famously witty, gay playwright Joe Orton, a sort of Oscar Wilde of the sexual revolution, in Stephen Frears‘ “Prick Up Your Ears.” But it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it. Alan Bennett‘s script, told in flashbacks through interviews between John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and famed agent Peggy Ashcroft (a scene-stealing Vanessa Redgrave), reconstructs the destructive, Mozart/Salieri-like love affair between Orton and long-time lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), which ended in Hallliwell killing Orton, and then himself, when the writer was only 34. Straight off his breakthrough “My Beautiful Launderette,” Frears again shows a key eye for gay life, but the film doesn’t deserve to be ghettoized. It’s principally a picture of a relationship, with the frustrated Halliwell becoming increasingly overshadowed by the boy he helped educate, and heartbroken by his promiscuity and Orton’s callousness towards his lover. Performances are strong across the board, with Molina beautifully sad without ever becoming terribly sympathetic, but it’s really Oldman’s film. He’s charismatic, brilliant, witty (in part thanks to Bennett’s script), ignorant of the hurt he causes, and roughly ten million miles away from his breakthrough part in “Sid and Nancy.” If nothing else, his BAFTA-nominated turn was the first sign that Oldman would be a true chameleon.

State of Grace” (1990)
Ever wondered what it would be like to watch sparring lions Sean Penn and Gary Oldman face off in their prime? Mostly a film that time forgot – it was overshadowed by “Goodfellas” which came out the same year — 1990’s American neo-noir crime picture “State Of Grace” is mostly remembered as being director Phil Joanou’s last notable film (he directed “Three O’Clock High” before and did nothing notable afterwards, his most recent credit coming on Dwayne Johnson sports flick “Gridiron Gang“) and the fact that Penn met his future wife Robin Wright on the picture. But the film’s secret weapon is not Penn, but his character’s mercurial, irascible loose cannon childhood friend turned Irish mobster, played by Gary Oldman. All greasy, stringy hair, gnashed teeth, dirty fingernails and imbued with the deep redolent rank of day-old cigarettes, Oldman is a dangerously coiled electric wire who chews scenery like he’s just finished the world’s most unpleasant hunger strike. These days the picture itself feels like a standard gangsters, revenge and cops picture not unlike “The Departed. But a young Penn and Oldman riffing and peacocking around each other is still a marvel to watch, displaying an elaborate dance of wild boar intensity. Yes, Oldman plays it big and ferocious, but for many, especially Americans, who had just seen Oldman for the first time, it was a near-spooky performance you couldn’t forget. Mind you, this was before Oldman did his best maniacal turn in “Leon,” but it was a smoldering augur of things to come.

True Romance ” (1993)
Tony Scott’s collaboration with Quentin Tarantino is an odyssey of off-the-wall supporting characters. It’s not enough that you’d spend time with star-crossed lovers Clarence and Alabama. You’ve also got to wade through the funhouse of faces played by Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, and a possibly imaginary Elvis played by Val Kilmer. But few faces stand out quite like Drexl Spivey. Even in his brief screen-time, Oldman somehow manages to steal this entire movie not only from that murderer’s row of character actors, but also from the hyperkinetic Scott directing style, and Tarantino’s own goofball dialogue. Hip-hopping to the beat of his own drum, Oldman’s dreadlock-sporting drug dealer is like nothing else in his filmography. The unease in the air during his brief appearance is similar to the creepy standoff with Alfred Molina in “Boogie Nights,” but while he had fireworks, guns and drugs, Oldman intimidates purely by force of personality, his voice dropping to an octave we’re still surprised he has, utilizing a patois we’re not sure exists anywhere. In his single scene, Christian Slater’s Clarence confronts him, looking for a way to get Alabama free from her pimp, but at no point is it in question that Drexl is in control. Oldman’s lasting impression is both hysterical and intimidating, creating a villain who lingers long after his departure in the middle of one hyperactive movie.

Leon: The Professional” (1994)
When Luc Besson’s acclaimed hitman actioner begins, we meet Jean Reno’s taciturn killer, a loner who quietly moves in and out of the shadows, getting his gruesome job done with maximum efficiency. It only makes sense that we would eventually meet the contrasting approach, and it comes courtesy of Oldman’s crooked cop Stansfield. A chainsmoker with a foul mouth, Stansfield doesn’t know when to quit, blaring orchestral music as he stages shootouts and makes threats in cheap suits. Oldman’s had a long career playing thankless villains, but he’s never been more outsized than he is in “Leon,” a bit moodier, a bit sexier, a bit less cerebral than the average Oldman baddie, pure id in a $35 haircut. Luc Besson seems to be working not from realism but from absurd, cartoonish archetypes, so when Stansfield realizes there is a problem, he doesn’t call for everyone as much as he summons, “EEEEEEVERRRRRRRYOOOOOOOOONE.” In one of the great action pictures of the early nineties, he’s iconic, mostly because, unlike other villains, Oldman gives Stansfield an irritated 9-to-5 attitude — yes, he’s taking illegal money, and yes, he’s ordering the murder of innocents, but everything is secondary to him actually doing his job, even if it’s just listless paperwork and dealing with superiors he openly demeans. Why walk the straight and narrow, Oldman seems to argue, when you can be bad and condescending?

Honorable Mentions: It’s tempting just to write “everything else” and be done with it, but that’s not quite fair, or indeed accurate, as anyone who’s seen “The Book of Eli” will attest to. But if ‘Tinker, Tailor’ and our feature put you in the mind for more Oldman, there’s plenty of good places to dig further. He’s superb in early screen role for Mike Leigh, as the benevolent skinhead Coxy alongside pal Tim Roth in “Meantime” — watching it, you sort of hope that Oldman and Leigh find their way back to each other at some stage. Also indelible is his trilogy of TV work with Alan Clarke in “Honest, Decent and True,” “The Firm” and “Heading Home.” Oldman and Roth also reteamed to terrific effect for Tom Stoppard‘s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the pair getting to show their easy chemistry and stage training in the writer’s classic deconstruction of “Hamlet.” 

The first half of the 1990s saw performaces at very different ends of the spectrum, including one of his very best as Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK“; a nice turn in the underrated “Romeo Is Bleeding“; and operatic-sized, scenery chewing performances in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (particularly notable as the film is a mess, but Oldman’s the best thing in it by a country mile), “Immortal Beloved” and “The Fifth Element.” It’s a measure of his brilliance that the performances are all equally watchable, even if some of the latter category are worth watching only for him.

The late 1990s and early 2000s are thinner on the ground in terms of quality work, with his heavily made-up turn in “Hannibal” being perhaps the only performance really worth mentioning. But then came his blockbuster revival thanks to franchies helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan, and he’s winning in both. Oldman is tricksily ambivalent and lovingly paternal in the ‘Harry Potter‘ films, and noble and blue-collar in the “Batman” films. With both franchises wrapping up, or about to, we hope that there’ll be more to come along the lines of ‘Tinker Tailor,’ and we’re curious to see what he does in John Hillcoat‘s upcoming “The Wettest County.”

And we also hope that Oldman gets to step behind the camera again at some point, if his directorial debut “Nil By Mouth” was anything to go by — it’s arguably the best thing he’s ever been involved with, a brutal punch to the gut of an autobiography, with astonishing performances from Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke, in a film as humane as it is grim. If the rumors of Oldman planning to direct again are true, it can’t come soon enough.

— Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McLanahan and Gabe Toro.

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