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The Journey of a Remarkable Artist: The Career of Gary Oldman

Who is Gary Oldman? The actor has been described as a chameleon, but while the term accurately describes his ability to take on wildly varying appearances, traits and manners, it does not attempt to go beneath the surface and find the connective tissue between the likes of Sid Vicious and Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald and Ludwig Van Beethoven, Count Dracula and James Gordon, George Smiley and Winston Churchill. It identifies his commitment to inhabiting outsized characters without locating that common, animating spirit that makes him such a remarkable artist.

For decades, Oldman was acknowledged as one of the greatest living actors without an Oscar nomination (this was rectified only six years ago with a Best Actor nod for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”). By all appearances, he’s the frontrunner for Best Actor this year for the Winston Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour,” the kind of actor/role pairing that becomes an assumed trophy-winner sight-unseen. “Darkest Hour” is not one of Oldman’s finest performances—the script isn’t rich enough to give him much to dive into beyond Churchill’s mannerisms and an admittedly impressive physical embodiment beyond the heavy make-up—but it does have signs of what’s remained fascinating about him as a performer over the years. His Churchill is a man removed from his own party, a figure whose brusque demeanor and self-regard keep people from fully embracing him. It’s in line with his history of using overtly theatrical techniques to play figures who, by force or by habit, keep others on the outside looking in, trying to find a there there as Oldman’s characters race together toward total or moral oblivion.

Like his most acclaimed contemporary, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman got his start in British theater before taking smaller roles in films and television. He made an impression as a drunk in “Remembrance,” a moody gay artist in “Honest, Decent and True,” and, most notably, as a skinhead in Mike Leigh’s “Meantime.” As Coxy, Oldman exhibits a predictably impulsive, menacing nature, belching, towering over anyone he can intimidate and generally shooting a “I dare you to do something” look at anyone he doesn’t like. It’s a fearsome, charismatic performance that nonetheless shows unexpected grace notes with relative kindness toward Tim Roth’s withdrawn Colin, as if there’s still signs of the boy he may have been before he adopted an outsized manner and worldview in reaction to a decaying working-class England. There’s someone in there, but whether he’ll ever emerge again is not known. 

Whether there’s anything there is part of what makes his breakout role in Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” so memorably chilling. Sid Vicious was, in many ways, the ultimate punk rock figure, a sneering, rebelling-against-whatever icon. He was also a moron of extraordinarily limited talent. In “Sid and Nancy,” Oldman approximates Vicious’ wiry, stumbling demeanor and nasty charisma, but what’s most memorable is how vividly Vicious’ bone-deep stupidity and childishness come across. In his exhausting, circular arguments with Nancy (a spectacularly needy Chloe Webb), Oldman oscillates between violent, spiteful anger and a boy’s desire to be validated and loved, showing that beneath the rock star was a dumb, practically unformed child who never grew up enough to figure out who he was, what he wanted in a relationship and what he wanted to accomplish. He’s a violent creep and murderer, but Oldman finds something pitiable in him.

Conversely, Oldman plays the murder victim in “Prick Up Your Ears,” Stephen Frears’ film about playwright Joe Orton, but he’s a more formed and more intentionally malicious figure here. Critics marveled at how Oldman could switch from the inarticulate junkie Vicious to the decidedly witty Orton, but both films cover toxic relationships, with “Ears” following Orton and his less successful, less confident lover and eventual murderer Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina). Oldman is quite charming and droll accepting an award and jokingly casting himself as one of “the ones who get away with it,” raising his eyebrows and smirking with self-satisfaction. But while Orton is infinitely more intelligent than Vicious, he shares a lack of self-examination of his actions and an even greater propensity for cruelty, his gleeful smugness at how he can psychologically torture and diminish his lover suggesting he’s a little less concerned about “the innocents that get it in the neck” than his tossed-off comments suggest. Throughout, Oldman exudes a kind of exaggerated chilly remove that practically screams his character’s disinterest in and feelings of superiority towards those around him.

With the one-two punch of “Sid and Vicious” and “Prick Up Your Ears,” it was only a matter of time before Oldman made his way to more high-profile productions. Most of his other early roles are disappointing, either showing his tendency to go overboard (his lawyer in “Criminal Law” is more over-the-top than Kevin Bacon’s psychopath) or select roles in films where eagerness trying on new accents and psychological profiles seem to overshadow coherent character work (“Chattahoochee”). Still, there’s an admirable willingness to try anything in these early roles, from his malevolent drifter in Nicolas Roeg’s “Track 29” to his eccentric side-character turned protagonist in Tom Stoppard’s flop adaptation of his own “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.” 

He’s superb, however, in Alan Clarke’s TV film “The Firm,” the last in his late-‘80s run of portrayals of people on the outskirts of British society. Oldman’s Clive “Bex” Bessell is a married man with a job in real estate by day, but he wears these roles like ill-fitting clothes, looking stifled and uncomfortable even before the shouting matches start between him and his wife (real then-wife and now fellow nominee Lesley Manville). He only truly comes to life when dedicating himself fully to football hooliganism, speaking at a fast clip while trash-talking or letting his head do the talking. The film provides the visceral charge Bex gets when fighting while underlining the emptiness of every other part of his life, suggesting that for a certain segment of middle-class folks, belonging to society is less satisfying than violently eschewing its rules even while reaping its benefits. It’s also a satisfying conclusion to a loose ‘80s trilogy (along with “Meantime” and “Sid and Nancy”) of Oldman playing rebellious working-class Brits turning to destructive habits when society promises them little.

Oldman finally got an American role worthy of his talents as gangster Jackie Flannery in 1990’s “State of Grace.” Adopting a Hell’s Kitchen accent and oily long hair, Oldman initially comes off as one of the creepier figures in the film, laughing like a lunatic at  the idea of using severed hands in shootings to throw the cops off their tracks and showing little aversion to violence. What makes Oldman’s Jackie stand apart from the other gangsters (and, oddly, from many of his own roles) is that he’s among the most open-hearted characters in the film, someone whose worldview isn’t much more complicated than blind loyalty to friends and family. In the film’s best scene, he breaks down in a church while angrily vowing to avenge a dead childhood friend, going from shouting to muttering, as if he subconsciously recognizes the futility of it while committing to the only way he knows how to react. Where his brother (Ed Harris) forces himself to be cold and calculating and his best friend (Sean Penn), an undercover cop, lies to do the right thing, Jackie is something of an honest crook, someone whose lashing out is out of instinct and misplaced love. His betrayal at the hands of the two people he trusts most is both inevitable and tragic.

By the early ‘90s, as Daniel Day-Lewis became increasingly selective and stuck primarily to prestige pictures, Oldman took a different but equally ambitious track, veering back and forth between unapologetic pulp (“Romeo is Bleeding”) and the more gonzo or baroque side of Hollywood’s major productions. Case in point: Oliver Stone’s jittery epic “JFK,” which makes its most essential casting decision with the hiring of Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald. The role requires the actor to be both A) believably unsettling and dangerous, and B) sympathetic enough to cast doubt upon his guilt. Oldman excels, his droning voice, halting cadence and faraway, standoffish expression suggesting Oswald’s creepiness while also projecting a mounting feeling desperation, both over his lot in life and for being in over his head. Through the snippets Oldman is given to create a character, Oswald comes off as a truly lonely figure, a nobody who never truly connected with anyone or found a place to belong, making him a perfect assassin or fall guy. 

Oldman’s highest-profile role in the early '90s, as literature’s most famous vampire in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula,” also trades on his malleability. Introduced as a conqueror turned satanic, Oldman goes through multiple transformations throughout the film, by turns ancient and parasitic (the creepy old version who preys on poor miscast Keanu Reeves) and dashing and romantic (the handsome one wooing Winona Ryder). His exaggerated movements and pauses in early scenes give the sense of eternal evil, while his more dashing, deliberate, deferential behavior around Mina (bowed head, adoring gaze) seem genuine enough bring us in and make us forget his essentially predatory nature. Oldman makes it possible to see his Dracula as both lover and monster, slipping shades of the former in as the character seems heartsick upon seeing a photo of Mina and the latter as his eyes flash at her coming to his side. It’s easy to see how his casting as the lover-turned-persecutor in 1995’s “The Scarlet Letter” may have worked had the script not been a feel-good bastardization of its source.

Where “JFK” and “Dracula” make the difficulty of getting a bead on Oldman an asset, Bernard Rose’s unconventional Beethoven biopic “Immortal Beloved” makes it the central theme. Taking a page from “Citizen Kane” (much like “Velvet Goldmine” a few years later), the film uses Beethoven’s address of an unknown “immortal beloved” in letters as a jumping-off point to explore his nature. In flashbacks, Oldman’s Beethoven is by turns deeply sensitive and arrogant, testy and secretive (about his deafness), sometimes within the same scene. Music, even when he can’t hear it, opens him up and transports him, allowing his facial expression to become less guarded. Life is harder, particularly when it intersects with art and he demonstrates casual cruelty toward those around him (a scene in which he threatens to beat a student, who believes him to be joking, only to be stunned and deeply hurt when he does slap her, remains among the most painful in Oldman’s career). Like Charles Foster Kane before him, Beethoven’s longing to be known butts up against his need to conceal himself, making him at once a deeply emotional figure and a remote one.

By the mid-'90s, Oldman became known for taking on virtually every villainous role thrown his way. Some of the parts see him indulging a bit too much in frothing-at-the-mouth monstrousness (“Murder in the First”). Others see him walking a fine line between engagement and entertaining hamminess as he attempts to enliven a middling-to-terrible script (“Air Force One,” “Lost in Space”). The best trade off of his ability to use theatricality as a distancing effect by casting him as characters like “True Romance’s” Drexl Spivey, who obscures himself to intimidate. Oldman may seem ridiculous with his white guy dreads, leopard-pattern bathrobe and fake-deep voice, but he’s able to flip his casual demeanor (smacking his lips while chowing down on Chinese food and gesturing an offer with chopsticks) on a dime, adopting graver tones, dropping the smile and swinging a hanging lamp toward Christian Slater’s Clarence. “I’m still a mystery to you,” he intones, and while his broad adoption of stereotypical black pimp traits is no doubt partly out of real fetishization of those stereotypes, Oldman suggests the character knows the cognitive dissonance playing up that absurdity before switching to genuine menace is very effective. 

The actor goes to even greater extremes in his two collaborations with Luc Besson, 1994’s “Leon: The Professional” and 1997’s “The Fifth Element.” It’s easy to see why the performances are too much for some, with Oldman taking the opportunity to fit in every absurd gesticulation and shout that he can. At the same time, Besson is working in a cartoonish register, so Oldman’s cartoonish creations fit the oddball energy of both films rather well. In “Leon,” crooked DEA agent Stansfield’s hopped-up derangement is of a piece with Drexl, as much an effective, exaggerated factor to intimidate as it is a natural effect of the character’s drug abuse and psychosis,. The character’s unmotivated laughter and vocal dips and jumps undermine the sense that his victims know where he’s coming from or what he’s going to do. Oldman is less immediately threatening and more overtly ridiculous as Zorg in “The Fifth Element,” with his whistling lisp and goofy haircut, but it’s still an entertaining performance, one whose rapid-fire, equivocating delivery posits there’s little difference between corrupt tycoons and sleazy used care salesmen.

Oldman admitted that he wasn’t fond of some of these roles (“The Fifth Element” included) and took several of them for money to fund a passion project. That film, “Nil by Mouth,” remains his only directorial effort to date (though he’s attempted to get a biopic of film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge off the ground). It’s an important, revealing entry in his body of work. The film follows a dysfunctional, working-class London family that includes a ferociously temperamental and abusive alcoholic (Ray Winstone), his abused wife (Kathy Burke) and their thieving drug-addicted son (Charlie Creed-Miles). Oldman has spoken about his father’s alcoholism, something he too has battled (he’s also been accused by ex-wife Donya Fiorentino of domestic abuse, which he has denied). Winstone’s Raymond speaks of his own father late in the film, expounding upon the older man’s violence, distance and inability to express love and how it affected him. Oldman views this as a self-perpetuating cycle: the unloved child becomes the unloving man, eternally untrusting, jealous and violent. It’s here that Oldman seems to recognize how not allowing loved ones in or abusing their trust makes pain a recurring element in life, something that’s showed up in his work as an actor from “Sid and Nancy” to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

After spending a decade and change as one of the most acclaimed actors in the world without an Oscar nomination, Oldman came close in 2000 with Rod Lurie’s “The Contender,” which got him a Screen Actors Guild nomination that was soon overshadowed by suggestions the actor was irritated by the pro-Democrat bias in the film’s final cut (Oldman said his comments were “bastardized, kinda,” something Roger Ebert’s own reporting backed up). Regardless, “The Contender” is hokey, overwritten and phony, and Oldman’s work as Sheldon Runyon, a Republican Congressman who tries to derail the president’s (Jeff Bridges) new vice presidential nominee (Joan Allen), is bizarrely more distractingly mannered than most of the weird performances he gave as villains in the 90s. He’s not aided by a ridiculous balding/perm hairdo, but as the film goes on, Oldman lays it on too thick, talking with food in his mouth, leaning forward and purring with an exaggerated smugness that all but barks his contempt (though he does that, too). Where Oldman’s theatrics in earlier roles can catch us off guard and leave us feeling uneasy, we know, to paraphrase Drexl Spivey, exactly where Runyon’s ass is coming from.

The controversy over "The Contender" likely cost Oldman that first Oscar nod, and his career took a slight downturn for a few years. While his uncredited performance as Mason Verger in Ridley Scott’s otherwise silly “Hannibal” yields another indelibly creepy villain (one that literalizes his interest in making himself seem unknowable by “removing” his face), it also shows how much his work had started to drift toward self-obscurantism, a little too fixated on finding new voices and faces at the expense of plumbing the depths of the characters. This reached its nadir with a pair of performances in barely released indies. 2001’s painfully unfunny “Nobody’s Baby” sees Oldman saddled with an unfortunate pair of mutton chops (and a haircut similar to the one in “The Contender,” weirdly) to play an anal wart-stricken criminal hick tasked with taking care of a baby with his younger brother, Skeet Ulrich; to say that it’s a poor fit for the actor’s talents is an understatement. The cloying “Tiptoes,” meanwhile, casts Oldman as Matthew McConaughey’s dwarf brother in a performance that never rises above the level of a needless stunt (particularly when considering that Peter Dinklage also appears in the movie). Save for a pair of self-mocking cameos as a constantly expectorating ham actor in “Friends” and a straight-man version of himself on “Greg the Bunny,” the early 2000s marked the weakest period of his career. 

A pair of franchises, of all things, started to right the ship. The choice of Oldman as Sirius Black in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is one of the shrewdest bits of casting in the series, with the actor’s tendency to go big and carry an aura of mystery and unapproachability playing well with Alfonso Cuaron’s choice to show him either in the shadows or on the verge of madness. Like Lee Harvey Oswald before him, Oldman’s Sirius is both believably psychotic (with making dark jokes to himself under his breath when he’s not raving to the point of losing his breath in his first major scene) and sympathetic when the truth about him is revealed, his eyes carrying the haunted kindness of a man who hasn’t been able to express the smallest bit of warmth in years. Oldman demonstrates that, for all of his strengths in playing characters who can’t or won’t let others in, he’s equally good at dropping that for undiluted goodness when the time is right.

That quality aids him further in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, in which he’s counterintuitively cast as the most normal character in the series. As James Gordon, Oldman radiates beaten-down decency, glancing over at a crooked partner with a defeated look in his eyes or comforting young Bruce Wayne with a hand on the cheek and sincere but defeated “it’s OK.” Oldman is yet again an unapproachable figure in the odd sense that he’s one of the few honest people in the series, one who has to count on compromised figures in order to what little good he can. That honesty and decency is tested throughout the series, most memorably in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” with the actor, prostrate in desperation to save his family, slowly losing his fight, his voice softening, his face freezing in terror. That his faith in humanity is proven right at the last minute in each film doesn't undercut the tests the average man faces in this Gotham, and Oldman, that most expressive of actors, finds the subtlest but most searing ways to communicate that.

Though he’s had a few of his typical oddball ghouls (“The Book of Eli,” “Lawless”) since taking on those high-profile roles, most of Oldman’s recent work has asked him to play it relatively quiet, with tentpole films ranging from solid (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) to middling (“Robocop”) to dreadful (“The Space Between Us”) asking him to do little more than bring a sense of professionalism and sincerity to the proceedings. He pulls it off more often than not, but while one can’t begrudge an actor’s need to work, it’s been disappointing to see so few filmmakers finding those quieter roles that give him more to play. A GQ interview written in 2009 (but held until 2012) saw him referring to the work as “a job” now and that “some of that great work is behind me a little.” Oldman expressed that he rarely saw films that he wished he had been in anymore, citing only “There Will Be Blood” as an example. "I think, ’Am I done yet? Is there one of those in me? Is there a Daniel Plainview in me?’” 

There was, and the Daniel Plainview comparison is more apt than it may appear. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” sees Oldman taking on the role of spy George Smiley from Alec Guinness and dialing it even further down, speaking in a low, exhausted near-whisper throughout most of the film (to the point where his one, sudden, slight escalation in volume is genuinely startling) as he hunts for a mole in British intelligence. We get a sense early on of his absolute precision and attention to detail (a scene in which Oldman silently watches a fly that’s bugging everyone else in a car without swatting it, waiting for it to get near the window is a spectacular character moment); it’s telling that he gives as little to others around him, playing Smiley as someone who puts on a mask of civility without managing a sense of warmth, listening to Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr with folded hands but an uncomfortably neutral face.

That neutrality extends to his philandering wife as much as his colleagues, with Smiley’s unreadability being less a defense mechanism than an attempt to thinly disguise and bottle up his anger toward and contempt for those around him. This comes out in a story he tells to colleague Benedict Cumberbatch about a confrontation with Soviet counterpart Karla, with Oldman leaning forward with a sort of repulsed amusement recounting his attempt to reach the other spy, his voice mocking his own appeals to the man’s humanity (“I brought you some cigarettes,” “think of your wife”). He breaks, his hand rubbing his eyes as he lets out that he let his mask slip to Karla (“harping on about the damn wife … telling him more about me than…”), before acknowledging there’s “little worth” on either side, his voice croaking with disgust. Smiley is Oldman’s best performance, and the one that should have earned him an Oscar, because it’s a perfect synthesis of everything he’d been working on for decades: the alienated man, the contemptuous member of society, the sympathetic monster and the tested average man, all in a performance that’s as theatrically distancing as his best early work and as quietly realized as his finest recent roles. He’s the unknowable man, and the all-too-familiar one.



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