From Prick Up Your Ears (1987) to Leon: The Professional (1994), here are the best Gary Oldman movies.
Gary Leonard Oldman is easily one of the greatest actors of all time. Born March 21, 1958 in New Cross, London and son of working class parents, Gary worked in a sports shop after graduating from school. He later won a scholarship to study at a Drama college in Kent. After graduating with a B.A. in theater arts, Oldman appeared in a number of plays.
He played his first movie character in Remembrance (1982). Couple of years later he was in Mike Leigh’s Meantime. Then came his breakthrough film Sid and Nancy (1986), where he played an impulsive junkie. Soon, his extraordinary screen presence was in demand in both Britain and Hollywood. And until 2011, Oldman remained the greatest living actor without a single Oscar nomination. The mistake was rectified six years later for playing Churchill in Darkest Hour.
I once came across a hilarious comment on Reddit: “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 obviously refers to the actor’s ability to completely transform himself for each and every role he plays. At the same time, he is more than just a regular ‘look-at-me’ performer. Despite playing some campy bad guy roles, Gary Oldman can effortlessly disappear into the roles with nuance and elegance. From playing a tormented musician, a crooked politician to intimidating us as pimp and a vampire, the actor never strikes a single false note, while playing a great number of diverse roles.
Very quickly then, here are some of the best Gary Oldman movies, ranked:
14. Air Force One (1997)
Known as ‘Die-Hard-on-President’s-Plane’, Gary Oldman plays Russian baddie Ivan Korshunov in Wolfgang Peterson’s jingoistic American action flick. Harrison Ford plays the fit and sturdy President for whom you should actually root for. But I hoped the menacing villain, Mr. Oldman in his usual charmingly wicked mood, would score a victory for once.
Ivan and his gun-wielding cohorts hijack the Presidential fleet to demand the release of a grumpy Comunist General from American prison. Oldman’s Ivan character of course confirms the stereotype of ‘evil Russians’. The narrative is also neither original nor smart. However, the tense face-off between Ford’s President and Oldman’s terrorist is entertaining to watch. Oldman’s verbal and physical battles with the American characters are so powerful. The actor perfectly utilizes his fierce eyes to embody the fickle nature of his character. He even brings out something compelling out of a conventional death sequence of a villain.
13. Dracula (1992)
From F.W. Murnau’s illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story, titled Nosferatu (1922), horror cinema was boosted by vampire tales. So, it was exciting to witness Coppola’s rendition of Bram Stoker’s classic novella, which was a visually exhilarating exercise in cinematic horror. And Gary Oldman’s Vlad Dracula definitely earns a place among the pantheons 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 wouldn’t have worked if not for his performance. Gary Oldman captures Dracula’s transformation from a dashing young to a creepy old man. Since Oldman often gets deeply invested in his characters, he spent a lot of time with makeup effects specialist Greg Cannom. One day, Oldman was rushed to a hospital because of an allergic reaction to the makeup. Noteworthy – Cannom won an Academy Award for his work in Dracula.
12. True Romance (1993)
Tony Scott’s True Romance, based on a script by Quentin Tarantino, didn’t find its audience during the release. Yet with Tarantino’s ascent, the film has gradually found a legion of fans. It features an ensemble cast of great actors, each offering an entertaining performance. In fact, Gary Oldman’s viciously satisfying performance as Drexl Spivey in Tony Scott’s 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 (Christian Slater) confronts him to free his lover Alabama (Patricia Arquette). Oldman appears on screen 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 is exciting to watch. Apart from zeroing in on the Jamaican accent, Oldman also set out to design Drexl’s physical outlook. Furthermore, True Romance has an abundance of baddies and there’s a fantastic confrontation scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken.
11. State of Grace (1990)
Released five days after Scorsese’s seminal masterpiece Goodfellas, this above-average crime drama by Phil Joanou didn’t get much attention. The film is inspired by the real-life gang from the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. 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. He plays the wild brother of the aforementioned crime boss.
Oldman’s Jackie isn’t a psychotic villain. He’s more or less, a disheveled, rebellious character misguided by his devotion to brother. At the same time, he is deeply loyal to his friends. 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. However, the scenes between these two actors (in their prime) are still a marvel to watch.
10. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
If you have read the books, you might have felt that Gary Oldman was miscast as Sirius Black. That’s largely because the Sirius Black we had in our mind was a little different, and Oldman was actually too old to play a character that was in his thirties. Moreover, the screen version of the character didn’t seem as rebellious or eccentric as the one in books. Yet after a few scenes in this third Harry Potter film, Gary Oldman truly impresses us with his performance. The actor brings a warm-hearted quality to the character which makes his rapport with Potter more endearing.
Sirius Black aka The Prisoner of Azkaban is the man initially feared by the Wizarding World and compared to evil Voldemort himself. Black is also said to have been involved in the killing of Harry Potter’s parents. But gradually we learn the truth of how Black was framed and wrongfully imprisoned. What eventually happens to Oldman’s Sirius Black breaks your heart.
9. The Contender (2000)
The chameleonic actor astoundingly transformed himself to play the lean and bespectacled Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon in Rod Lurie’s The Contender. Runyon, a man who relishes political power games, investigates a sex scandal concerning Vice-Presidential nominee Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). The Washington politics showcased in the film is neither black nor white. Oldman mesmerizingly crafts this supremely intelligent and intimidating character which is very different from the usual DC politician stereotype. Runyon isn’t an antagonist, but a man who firmly believes that Hanson is unfit for the high office.
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 more years to get one (for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
8. Slow Horses (2022 – )
John le Carre’s spy thriller novels and particularly his character George Smiley explored the real and unglamorous aspects of espionage. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman brilliantly embodied the role of Smiley and showcased the moral ambiguity of the Cold War era’s spymasters. Gary Oldman once again played a deeply cynical spy in Apple TV’s series Slow Horses. While Smiley always stays at the top of his game, Lamb is a smart yet disgraced spy. He is assigned as the leader of a sidelined spy team whose shabby office is called Slough House.
Gary Oldman bestows different layers to the character of Lamb. On the outset, he is a foul-mouthed, world-weary guy. At the same time, Oldman’s Lamb has a moral compass and surprises you by being the smartest man in the room. Slow Horses is based on a series of post-Cold War espionage novels by Mick Herron. Gary Oldman will continue to play Jackson Lamb in the upcoming seasons.
7. 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. Oldman’s Smiley exudes power without ever being aggressive.
On many occasions, Oldman even manages to eclipse Alec Guiness’ portrayal of Smiley (from the 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.
6. 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. Cox brings out the full personality of the players of the 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 didn’t like his performance either.
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 live performances, including vocals. Chloe Webb who played Nancy perfectly supports Oldman’s ferocious acting. His portrayal of Sid is as much an intriguing glimpse into dysfunctionality 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.
5. Darkest Hour (2017)
Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour has scored huge acclaim among film fans and awards voters. Joe Wright’s biopic 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. The film portrays Churchill as the determined political figure who persuades the hesitant political class of Britain to fight against Adolf Hitler despite the insurmountable odds.
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 while incorporating nuanced mannerisms. It’s a character that’s been previously portrayed by Michael Gambon and Brian Cox. However, Oldman’s rendition is undeniably brilliant. The actor won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for this performance.
4. Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Stephen Frears’ overlooked queer classic chronicles the doomed life of British gay playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman). An immensely talented writer with an anarchic spirit of the 60s, Orton had a close romantic and creative relationship with Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina). 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 draws a lot of material from Orton’s diaries, and provides equal acting weight to Gary Oldman 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. Oldman plays Orton as a happy-go-lucky person who withholds layers of anxiety and despair beneath the surface. Joe Orton is also so different from his breakthrough part in Sid and Nancy. It truly showcased the actor’s ability to transform and completely disappear into the character.
3. Mank (2020)
Three years after his Oscar-winning role in The Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman once again got the chance to play a meaty role. This time it was the notorious and genius screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank was one of David Fincher’s passion projects. He takes us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood as Oldman’s Mank struggles to write the script for Citizen Kane (1941). Mank was based on an original script written by David Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher. The black-and-white film unfolds as a sharply focused character piece about the alcoholic, self-loathing writer.
David Fincher is infamous for making his actors do a lot of takes. Oldman, however, wasn’t bothered by the director’s perfectionist approach, and unlike many actors he is unfazed by the prospect of trying again and again. In Mank, the phenomenal actor offers a remarkable stripped-down performance. He did his own research of the screenwriter and his milieu. Gary Oldman received his third Oscar nomination for his performance.
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 Citizen Kane-esque 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 a few women through his relationship with them.
While the flashback narrative has its own shortcomings, there’s nothing flawed about Oldman’s performance. The actor brings great complexity to the nature of Beethoven, 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 a day) practicing piano.
1. Leon: The Professional (1994)
Gary Oldman’s over-the-top performance as the 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 the cartoonish villain archetype of the old gangster films. It’s also a part, which in the hands of a lesser actor, could have been reduced to a caricature.
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!”
Gary Oldman plays the role of former American President Harry S. Truman in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming biopic on the American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Apart from that the actor would be busy playing Jackson Lamb in the subsequent seasons of Slow Horses. He’s mentioned that he’d love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Paolo Sorrentino. The 64-year old actor has been working in the film industry for four decades now and he’d hopefully offer us more diverse roles in the rest of his career.
What are your three most favorite Gary Oldman performances? Let’s talk in the comments below.
This list didn’t include “Tip Toes”?