Oldman, Take A Look At My Life: A Salute To My Hero
With the upcoming likelihood of an Oscar for Darkest Hour, we look back at Gary Oldman's over three decade long memorable career.
I’ll level with you, I’m not a football guy. I can appreciate why other people might enjoy The Beautiful Game and I can enjoy a decent match as much as the next man, but I have no real dog in that fight; never supported a team. Whenever I see someone decked out from head-to-toe in their club’s colours and insignias, their car windows plastered with stickers professing undying fealty to this club or that club, I can scarcely begin to relate.
But suddenly I remember that I have been supporting my own ‘club’ for nearly 30 years. My club is made up of artists, psychotics, senators, composers, vampires, playwrights, bent cops, assassins and spymasters, and if all of them look like the same guy, that’s because my team only has one player. As the chant goes, “There’s only one…Gary Oldman!”
I have followed his career with the same eager anticipation of a Leicester City fan, watching their team suffering highs and lows, cruel losses and emphatic victories. Tomorrow, my “team” is going to win the acting equivalent of the FA Cup. Denied a statue with his first nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, his astonishing performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour has made him the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Actor. Finally, my team is going to lift the cup.
Oldman: The Man of A Thousand Faces
Mention of Tinker Tailor is apt since Oldman replaced Alec Guinness in the role of MI6 mole-hunter George Smiley. Like Guinness, Oldman’s great skill is in disappearing into his characters with a chameleon-like completeness. More impressive was the fact that many of these characters were real life portrayals (Joe Orton, Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald and now Churchill). In each case Oldman’s metamorphosis resulted not in an impersonation but the creation of a flesh and blood, curiously familiar human.
By the time I first encountered Oldman in 1990’s State of Grace – an unfairly forgotten New York gangster film with Oldman taking his feral, unhinged maniac routine out for a dry run – he had already been making waves as one of the 1980’s most vital and charismatic young British actors. Like many of the working class actors who dominated the screen in the 1960s (Caine, Finney, Courtney), Oldman wasn’t classically handsome in the Rock Hudson tradition, but he was one of those rare actors who could generate lightening underneath his skin. He came alive onscreen; he was a movie star.
This made him a magnetic actor with whom to identify and emulate. Unlike the far-too-pretty-boys like Jason Priestley or Brad Pitt, Oldman’s face was a mask that anyone could project an idealised version of themselves onto. The raves he was garnering for State of Grace (he steals the movie from under Sean Penn’s feet) were made more impressive by the fact that this dynamic Irish-New York, Hell’s Kitchen lowlife was so convincingly played by a Brit. One of ours! Years before the exporting of British actors to Hollywood via a couple of sessions with an accent-coach, Oldman was already there and owning it. To me, it was like watching The Beatles land at JFK.
“I Have Crossed Oceans of Time To Find You”
A touch of the bad-boy image, plus an injection of glamour via his (brief) marriage to Uma Thurman made Gary Oldman the ideal hero figure for a fifteen year old movie obsessive to idolise. He was a primal, force-of-nature-actor, his skills seemed less ‘learned’ than ‘harnessed’ by sympathetic directors like Oliver Stone, Nic Roeg, Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh. In 1992, he beat out a roster of handsome leading men like Armand Assante, Gabriel Byrne and Antonio Banderas to bag the title role in in his biggest film to date, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Director Francis Coppola said “Gary just seemed to be the most far-out. I was like, ‘My God, what’s he going to be like?’”
Dracula put Oldman’s name above the title, made him an international star and proved his worth as a romantic lead, a categorisation Oldman swiftly torpedoed by embracing the old adage that the devil has all the best tunes. He spent the rest of the 1990s inhabiting some of the darkest corners of the big screen and gaining a reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest villains.
Many of these antagonists were pure gold. Surrounded by one of the most impressive casts of the decade, his psycho pseudo-rasta pimp Drexyl Spivey in True Romance still proved a highlight. His Beethoven-loving, pill-popping Detective Stansfield in Léon was one of the highest summits of cinematic badassery and showed that with Gary Oldman, there was no such thing as ‘too much.’
“I’m a Mystery To You…”
There was a creeping feeling, however, that this diabolical rogues gallery (The Fifth Element, Murder in The First, Lost in Space, Air Force One etc. etc.) was just Gary Oldman coasting on autopilot. The occasional non-villainous roles, like Demi Moore’s lover in The Scarlet Letter or as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, never made the same impact as his increasingly pantomimic excesses.
There was a corrective for those of us who thought that we’d lost our hero to the lure of the paycheck, when he came back to Blighty in 1997 and made his directing debut in the harrowingly honest, unsentimental Nil By Mouth, a semi-autobiographical masterpiece which unflinchingly depicted his working class upbringing in London. Giving unforgettable roles to Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke, and skilfully balancing out the violence and abuse with warmth and understanding, it remains one of the most astonishing British films of the past 50 years.
Oldman never made a full-length film again. Perhaps it took too much out of him, but it coincided with a marked slowdown in his output. The bigger, better offers seemed to be few and far between. It was hard to know if this was a deliberate attempt to rein himself in (and deal with some of the personal demons that plagued him, mostly the ones that came in a bottle), but watching his extraordinary talents being squandered in second-rate filler like Nobody’s Baby was like watching Pelé playing for….a not very good football team (I told you this wasn’t my specialist subject). One suspected that his muse might have deserted him for good.
“Glitter Amongst The Chickenfeed…”
Succour came in 2004 when Oldman joined every other British actor with an Equity card and hopped aboard the Harry Potter bandwagon, as Sirius Black, the titular Prisoner of Azkaban. The following year, he began a three-film tenure as quiet, decent Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Both franchises introduced Gary Oldman to a new generation, who might have been astonished that two such wildly opposite characters were played by the same fellow.
A sense of due respect built up around Oldman as more prestige supporting roles presented themselves, not all of them deserving of his talents – The Unborn, for one or The Book of Eli. For those who had followed Team Oldman since the early days, there was still a feeling of frustration that audiences weren’t really aware of just how uniquely, gobsmackingly amazing he was.
All that changed in 2011 when once again, he left Hollywood and came back home. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a masterful creation from director Tomas Alfredson. It featured the most impressive cast of any British film made this century, yet there sat on top of the cake, his name above the title where it belonged, was Gary Oldman. His George Smiley, a sort of curious tortoise in a polyester suit, was a complete inversion of everything the 1990s Gary Oldman became. Stock still, penetrating and deliberate, his every tiny move made you sit forward. In an age of multi-million dollar effects sequences, he wrung more suspense out of his deployment of an Extra Strong Mint than anything the Alien series has put our way since 1992.
Crucially, it was a British film (intrinsically, specifically British, full of washed-out colours and washed-up characters, keeping themselves propped forward by a sense of duty they struggle to comprehend). In America, Oldman was so often the jester, but back on home turf, the prodigal son returned to us, and we got to see him as the King once again.
He was nominated for practically every award under the sun but was unfortunate to have hit the jackpot at the same time as Jean Dujardin’s universally adored performance in The Artist. However, this year Oldman has his nose ahead. By this stage, coming up to 60, and 35 years after his first starring role in Meantime, Gary Oldman’s Oscar will be just as much a lifetime achievement award as recognition for getting Churchill’s mannerisms just right.
“I Enjoy Playing Characters Where The Silence is Loud.”
Oldman is the great acting ambassador of a working class crossover generation that still had a sense memory of the bomb craters of The Blitz and Angry Young Men looking back in anger, pressed into action amid the political upheavals of the 1980s, but still vital and relevant today – and contemporary enough to have a separate fanbase for his voice work on Call of Duty.
Colin Firth called Gary Oldman “a candidate for the title of Greatest Living Actor,” while the late John Hurt, “always regarded him as ‘The Best of The Bunch.’” His Oscar, though a milestone for him, will simply mark the start of a new and thrilling chapter in his career, which is why, as a proud scarf-waving supporter of my team, I still want to be Gary Oldman when I’m older.
What’s your favourite Gary Oldman role? Are you a Léon fan, screaming “EVERYONE!!!!” at passersby, or does Jim Gordon’s taciturn dependability float your boat instead? What about Romeo Is Bleeding? There are plenty to choose from so let the adulation flow?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.