It’s difficult for me to label Gary Oldman as a character actor. The man is so talented and broad, that I have a hard time believing people when they tell me they don’t know who he is. If that is the case, if Oldman honestly remains unknown to people, then he very well may be the best character actor that’s ever lived.
Everyone has seen a Gary Oldman performance. The trick is: you may not have known who you were watching. The thugged-out pimp from True Romance is also the Russian terrorist from Air Force One. The same guy that played Dracula so convincingly also (maybe) killed JFK.
My point is, Gary Oldman is the ultimate chameleon; he transforms himself (in look, style, voice, whatever) in every single role he does. Picking six best performances of Oldman’s is nearly impossible, and I’m sure his current role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will rank high among his best work. So instead of letting that film be thrown into the mix, I’m publishing this before I’ve seen Tinker Tailor.
After the first few installments of In Character, suggestions for possible actors to highlight came pouring in. Gary Oldman was always at the top of everyone’s list.
Five Essential Roles
Sid and Nancy (1986)
For his first starring role, Gary Oldman played Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in a way the biopic had never seen: as a frenzied, unapologetic madman. I’ve seen heroin addiction depicted to varying degrees of gruesomeness on film, but rarely have I seen it pushed as far as Oldman goes here. Watching Sid and Nancy is like watching an HBO documentary on the Sex Pistols; it feels that real.
Sid and Nancy isn’t a great film. For me, its flaws are noticeable and noteworthy. While it may not rank among the best biopics made, director Alex Cox took a huge risk in casting relative unknown Oldman in the lead role. And thank God he did, because without Sid Vicious, we may not have had what was to follow.
Lee Harvey Oswald
I’ve never seen the real Lee Harvey Oswald in motion. I’ve never heard him speak or proclaim his innocence. I’ve only seen a few still images of him after he was arrested for killing the 35th President of the United States. If I were to see or hear Oswald, however, I’d like to think that Gary Oldman’s incarnation of him is spot on.
In Oliver Stone’s masterpiece, Oldman plays Oswald as timid rat. A guy who has just committed our country’s greatest crime, yet chooses to act coy about it. Why? Because according to Oswald, he’s innocent. A front man for a much larger, much more complex scheme that landed JFK dead.
Equally as thrilling as Oldman’s early, mousey scenes are the flashback sequences that occur later in the film, depicting Oswald as a one of the many masterminds in the assassination. It’s a credit to Stone’s storytelling, and Oldman's reimaging, that the film’s complicated story plays out as seamlessly as it does. For instance, we flinch as we watch Oswald before the killing, almost wishing that he wasn’t dumb enough to see that the rug is about to be pulled out from under him. And boy was it ever.
True Romance (1993)
I could make a very effortless, very convincing argument that Oldman’s six minutes of screentime in True Romance represent the best acting of his career. And if I write about it much longer, that just may happen.
As the ghetto-talking, dreadlock-sporting, Chinese-eating pimp Drexl Spivey, Oldman is a foul-mouthed force of nature. He’s funny, ferocious, and completely unpredictable. By donning a leopard skin robe, gold teeth and a scarred face, it would be incredibly easy to play Drexl as a stereotypical thug. But Oldman, with help from Tony Scott’s direction and Quentin Tarantino’s writing, knows what he’s doing. He pushes the role far, but not so far as to become laughable.
In a movie filled with excellent cameo appearances, Oldman ranks highest among them. It’s the mark of a truly great character actor: get in, get out, stay remembered.
Murder in the First (1995)
Murder on the First is loosely based on the life of convict Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), who in the mid 1930s tried to escape from Alcatraz with a few other inmates. The standard punishment for trying to escape was 19 days in solitary confinement. Young, the film depicts, was left to rot in the hole for more than three years. That should be punishment enough. Should be. Enter Oldman.
As Alcatraz’s Warden, Oldman is a sadistic madman with no real motive, only vengeful lust. He treats Young as his play toy, chaining him up and beating him unconscious whenever he feels like it. As Glenn, Oldman makes Bob Gunton’s Warden in The Shawshank Redemption look like a cabbage patch kid. While shaving one day, Warden Glenn has the urge to teach Young some discipline. What follows is a convincing, detailed argument about the practicalities of rehabilitation. The conversation seems to resonate with Young, but just to be sure, Glenn slices the prisoner’s Achilles tendon with his straight razor.
Murder in the First isn’t a very good movie. It has the stamp of a seriously amateur filmmaker, and as a result, it was moved from its Oscar-friendly December release date to January purgatory. That’s a shame, because while the film isn’t particular great, Oldman (and Bacon) are great in it.
Oldman’s Warden Glenn gave me months worth of nightmares, buckets worth of cold sweats, and a lifetime of appreciation. Sadistic though he may be, this is truly great acting.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Lt. Jim Gordon
And it is this mentality that makes Lt. Jim Gordon such a memorable character. Oldman wasn’t given much to do in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman retelling, it was later in The Dark Knight that Gordon was given his fair due.
Oldman plays Gordon as an incorruptible, grounded man, a perfect juxtaposition from the other manic cast of characters in Nolan’s Batman films. Let me put it this way: it’s pretty rare for a movie theater audience to cheer aloud during a super hero film at something that has nothing to do with the super hero. But when Gordon (who is assumed dead) rips off his SWAT mask after pinning The Joker on the asphalt, that’s about all we can do.
The Best of the Best
The Contender (2000)
After the Vice President dies, Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) proposes that Democratic Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) takes the job. Before that can happen, she must meet the approval of a committee led by Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon. Problem is, Runyon doesn’t like Hansen. He doesn’t like her liberal politics, her no-meat eating habits, her cool demeanor, and so on. So basically, Runyon stops at nothing to discredit Hanson, revealing a spineless snake of a man interested in nothing more than a little political gain. He’s like Daniel Plainview, but instead of oil, Runyon’s thirst for greed lies in politics.
If you’ve seen The Contender, you know some of the things Runyon does to attack Hanson, both publically and privately. You know about the lies he starts, the rumors he spreads and the relationships he rips apart. And you also know that he does this with gleeful joy. And that’s where the beauty of Oldman’s performance lies. Runyon is fully aware of what he is doing (the man is obviously extremely intelligent), and he only seems prouder in himself for doing it so well.
The Contender was grossly underrated and save Oscar nominations for Allen and Bridges, it was inadequately received among critics and audiences. It’s a shame that Oldman got into a bit of a pissing match with director Rod Lurie and the studio (Oldman wanted to be campaigned for Best Actor, the studio pushed for Supporting, Oldman received nothing), because Shelly Runyon would’ve been the perfect performance to boast as Oldman’s first Oscar nomination. The fact that he has yet to receive one is simply mind boggling.
There’s a scene late in the film in which President Evans publicly calls Runyon out in front of hundreds of people. As Evans does this, Runyon slowly stands up and begins to slither out of the room. Slithering in that perfect way that only Gary Oldman seems capable of doing.
Other Notable Roles
Leon: The Professional (1994)
Immortal Beloved (1994)
The Fifth Element (1997)
Air Force One (1997)
Batman Begins (2005)