Gary Leonard Oldman is easily one of my most favorite actors. I came across a hilarious comment on Reddit that goes like this: “I don’t believe Gary Oldman is real. I have seen dozens of films with the name “Gary Oldman” listed among the actors and never seen him in the movie.” The comment simply refers to the actor’s ability to completely transform himself for every role he plays. But he is much more than a regular look-at-me performer. Despite playing some campy bad guy roles, Gary can effortlessly disappear into the roles without getting repeatitive. From playing a tormented musician and a crooked politician to a pimp and a vampire, the actor never strikes a single false note.
With the 59-year-old actor’s powerful role as Winston Churchill earning him an Oscar in Darkest Hour, it’s the perfect occasion to commemorate his best performances on the screen:
11. Air Force One (1997)
Known as ‘Die-Hard-on-President’s-Plane’, Gary Oldman plays Russian baddie Ivan Korshunov in Wolfgang Peterson’s action flick. Harrison Ford plays the President for whom you should actually root for. But Mr. Oldman is in his usual charming, wicked mood that I hoped would help the villain score a victory. Oldman’s Ivan hijacks the plane to release a grumpy dictator from American prison. It’s pretty much a stereotypical rendition of ‘evil Russians’. But with those fierce eyes and fickle nature, he completely takes over the center stage.
10. Dracula (1992)
Coppola’s rendition of Bram Stoker’s classic novella was a visually exhilarating exercise in cinematic horror. And Gary Oldman’s Vlad Dracula definitely earns a place among the pantheon of screen vampires. As a sad figure doomed to unrequited love, Oldman’s interpretation of Dracula instills both pity and fear. Despite the best production design and shrewd direction, the film could have totally failed if not for his performance. The actor mesmerizes us even when iterating the famous literary lines we have heard for years. Dracula’s accent derived from Bela Lugosi evokes a sense of nostalgia.
9. State of Grace (1990)
Released five days after Scorsese masterpiece Goodfellas, this above-average crime drama didn’t get much attention. Starring Sean Penn, Robin Wright, John C Reilly, Ed Harris, the film tells the tale of an undercover officer Terry returning to his Irish-American neighborhood in NYC to nab a mob boss. Of course, the most memorable part of the film is Gary Oldman’s Jack Flannery, brother of crime boss. Oldman’s Jackie isn’t a psychotic villain. He’s more or less, a dishevelled, rebellious character misguided by his devotion to brother. The actor makes Jackie both vulnerable and terrifying. Sean Penn, also known for playing hot-headed guys, allegedly had some conflicts with Oldman during the shoot. The scenes between these two actors (in their prime) are still a marvel to watch.
8. The Contender (2000)
The acting chameleon astoundingly transformed himself to play Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon in The Contender. Runyon, a man involved with power games, investigates a sex scandal concerning Vice-Presidential nominee Laine Hanson. Oldman mesmerizingly crafts this supremely intelligent and intimidating character which is very different from the DC politician stereotype. Although the actor rose to fame with his over-the-top villainy, here he succeeds in a restrained performance. He adds a layer of awkwardness and frustration beneath the calm facade of Runyon. Despite turning in such a splendid performance, he didn’t receive his first Oscar nomination for several reasons. He had to wait 11 years to get one (for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
7. True Romance (1993)
His viciously satisfying performance as Drexl Spivey in Tony Scott’s violent, hyper-kinetic tale could serve as a testament to Mr. Stanislavski’s famous remark: “there are no small parts, only small actors”. Drexl is a white Jamaican pimp and the hero Clarence confronts him to free his lover Alabama. Oldman appears onscreen for less than 10 minutes. But with that hysterical, twisted demeanor he makes his villainy linger long after the film ends. The trademark gleam in the actor’s eyes was exciting to watch. Apart from zeroing in on the Jamaican accent, Oldman also set out to design Drexl’s physical outlook. True Romance has abundance of baddies and there’s a fantastic confrontation scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken.
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Right from the 2000s, Gary didn’t play much of those brooding, unpredictable characters. He was mellowed out by the roles of Commissioner Jim Gordon in Batman Franchise and Sirius Black in Harry Potter Franchise. But with Tomas Alfredson’s fantastic adaptation of John le Carre’s novel, we saw a glimpse of the good old remarkable Oldman. His subtle and quietly menacing turn as the glorious intelligence officer George Smiley is nothing short of magnificent. At many occasions, Oldman even manages to eclipse Alec Guiness’ portrayal of Smiley (in 1979 TV adaptation). The film crowded with great British actors — Colin Firth, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy — revolves around the delicate task of unmasking a mole at the heart of the British Intelligent Service. John le Carre is well known for his realistic and hard-hitting espionage thrillers unlike the unreal, flashy James Bond films.
5. Sid and Nancy (1986)
Alex Cox’s intense drama tells the harrowing true story of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his lover Nancy Spungen. Alex Cox brings out the full personality of the players of flagship punk rock band. The band initially runs into trouble when Sid and groupie-turned-lover Nancy plunge into the depths of drug addiction. Gary Oldman states he had no interest in playing Sid Vicious and also didn’t like his performance. Nevertheless, he committed himself thoroughly to imbue Sid’s temperamental and self-destructive attitude. He took a very restricted diet to get the look of drug-addicted Sid. He also recreated Sid’s performances, including vocals. This performance is as much an intriguing glimpse into dysfuctionality as De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Shot by the master of light and shadow Roger Deakins, the film bursts with expressionist shots.
4. Darkest Hour (2017)
Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour has scored huge acclaim among film fans and awards voters. The film chronicles Churchill’s leadership qualities and the dire World War II circumstances that instigated it. Despite wearing layers of make-up, Oldman gracefully gets under the skin of the famous political figure. More often, the actor’s roles can be either categorized as: blustering (Leon, True Romance); or subtle (Immortal Beloved, Tinker). Through this role, Oldman sways both sides of his acting spectrum, offering flamboyant speeches as well as nuanced mannerisms. The actor won an Oscar, the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for this performance.
3. Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Stephen Frears’ overlooked queer classic chronicles the doomed life of British gay playwright Joe Orton. An immensely talented writer with anarchic spirit of the 60s, Orton had a close romantic and creative relationship with Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell had his own literary ambitions which never came to fruition. Consumed by jealousy and frustration, Halliwell eventually became his lover’s killer. Alan Bennett’s excellent screenplay provides equal acting weight to Gary Oldman (as Orton) and Alfred Molina. Oldman, as usual, goes for a no-holds barred performance. He imbues the spirit of a witty guy who thrived in London’s hidden homosexual community. Joe Orton is also so different from his breakthrough part in Sid and Nancy. It truly showcased his ability to transform and totally disappear into the character.
2. Immortal Beloved (1994)
Bernard Rose’s period drama is set immediately after the death of enigmatic musical genius Beethoven. The narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks as Beethoven’s friend/assistant tries to track down the identity of his late master’s secret love, who is simply addressed as ‘Immortal Beloved’. In his last will, Beethoven has left his entire estate to this secret lover. The flashback depicts the profile of a hard-bitten individual who has alienated even the few well-wishers in his life. Despite the aloofness, Beethoven seems to have impacted the lives of few women through his relationship with them. Gary Oldman plays Beethoven with a complexity, valiantly capturing both the eccentricity and insuperable rancor. It’s an impeccable and a very layered interpretation of the maestro. Oldman, in order to prepare himself for the role, reportedly, spent more than six weeks (six hours per day) practicing piano.
1. Leon: The Professional (1994)
Gary Oldman’s casually brutal villain in Luc Besson’s action thriller elevated the actor to iconic status. Although French actor Jean Reno and young Natalie Portman play the central roles, it is Oldman’s Stansfield who steals every scene he is in. Norman Stansfield is a corrupt, psychotic DEA agent who engages himself with captivating foreplay before going on a killing rampage. It’s a character that’s derived from cartoonish villain archetype of the old gangster films. It’s also a part, which in the hands of a lesser actor, could have been caricaturized.
But Gary Oldman remains truly chilling. “I like these calm moments before the storm” muses Stansfield, popping a pill, and going on to murder a family. With a shotgun in his hands, Oldman moves with vigor like the genius composer. Then there’s another unforgettable scene (brilliantly improvised by the actor) in which he frustratingly shouts at a thug, “Everrrryyyyyoooooone!”