Today, March 21, is Gary Oldman’s birthday and he’s truly one of my favorite actors. I figured while working on my next review I’d pause a moment and list my ten favorite Gary Oldman performances, in chronological order.
- Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (1986)
Sid Vicious may have contributed next to nothing to the Sex Pistol’s sound, but Gary Oldman’s breakout performance cemented the ill-fated ’70s punk star as the embodiment of the punk anti-hero. Combined with Chloe Webb’s performance as Nancy, Oldman’s performance made this (mostly) true story of punk love gone bad a modern day Romeo and Juliet… with heroin.
- Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
Speaking of Shakespeare (sort of), this film, based on Tom Stoppard’s retelling of Hamlet from the persepctive of two minor and hapless characters, highligts Oldman’s acting chops and potential for comedy. Richard Dreyfus was supposed to be the star in the role of the Player, but Oldman’s presence not only distinguishes him from Dreyfus, but also seperates him from Tim Roth’s Guildenstern, charcters written by Stoppard to be interchangeable.
- Count Dracula in Brahm Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
In a film full of bad performances (Keanu Reeves as a Victorian gentleman? Whoa.) Oldman’s portrayal of Dracula makes the film watchable. He manages to accomplish what few others to inhabit the role have, to be both terrifying and seductive. The same dark sexuality that inhabited his performance as Sid Vicious mades him the perfect tortured undead villain. This film is worth watching for the raw emotion Oldman displays in the opening sequence where Count Vlad turns his back on the cross after his beloved dies. Breathtaking.
- Drexl Spivey in True Romance (1993)
After the previous three turns as the title character, Oldman is almost unrecognizable in dreadlocks in this small supporting role as an abusive pimp and drug dealer in this film penned by Quentin Tarantino. His character isn’t much more than a vehicle to move the story along, but no one could inhabit it the way he does. The fact that he’s both willing and able to take such a role and give an otherwise formulaic scene such depth speaks to his acting ability.
- Norman Stansfield in Leon: The Professional (1994)
In a film where Natalie Portman is introduced as an acting force, Oldman’s turn as the bad cop who murders her family and then tries to kill her is often overlooked. Not every actor can play so terrible a villain and keep us watching, but Oldman’s slow unraveling throughout the film ties the plot together as much as the relationship between Portman and Jean Reno. As with Spivey and Dracula, Oldman once again proved that he does bad oh so good.
- Ludwig von Beethoven in Immortal Beloved (1994)
This film was not as compelling as I had hoped it would be, but Oldman’s performance again carries it. Depicting the sheer tragedy of the world’s most famous composer’s life, it wasn’t the ill-fated love affair that grabbed me, but Oldman’s portrayal of Beethoven slowly losing his hearing. The performance is heart wrenching. The culminating scene, so brilliantly directed by Bernard Rose shows Oldman as Beethoven directing his 9th Symphony “Ode to Joy” despite being unable to hear it. In that moment, tragedy is turned to bittersweet triumph, and Oldman’s emotional vulnerability makes it possible.
- Richard Crosby in Friends “The One with Monica and Chandler’s Wedding” (2001)
What do you do when you’ve become known as a super serious actor? Make fun of yourself, of course. In this emmy nominated guest appearance on the popular American Sit-com, Oldman portrays a respected British actor starring in a movie with Joey who teaches Joey to spit for dramatic effect while saying his lines. Later, his drunkenness on set causes Joey to almost miss Monica and Chandler’s wedding. The two combine for one of the better guest appearances on the long running show and a brutal send up of “serious” British actors.
- Sirius Black in Harry Potter Series (2004, 2005, 2007, 2011)
What do you do when you’ve cultivated a career playing bad guys? You take a role where everyone thinks you’re a bad guy but surprise them by turning out to be good. It’s like his entire career was setting him up to play this role. The ease with which Oldman inhabit’s the role as Harry’s wrongfully accused godfather makes the character come to life. But his third turn as this character, in The Order of the Phoenix, is true brilliance, as he captures the character’s conflation of Harry with his long deceased father out of guilt and desire so seemlessly you almost miss it.
- James Gordon in Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012)
For the role of Batman’s trusted partner within the Gotham police force, a now middle-aged Gary Oldman may have seemed like an odd choice. Director Christopher Nolan knew what he was doing as no one plays world weary as well as Oldman. Through his character we expeience both the seemingly hopeless commitment to truth and justice, as well as the cautious optimism that comes with the introduction of the Dark Knight. The choice of glasses for this character says it all.
- George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
While writing this article I was surprised to learn that Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley in this adaptation of John le Carre’s classic cold war spy novel is the only role for which Oldman has received an Academy Award nomination. Based on this list he may in fact be too good of an actor, blending into the story and disappearing into the character in such a way that he’s often forgotten about. However, if this film is any indication, it may simply be that he is improving with age. With any luck, a part is on the horizon that will earn him the recognition he deserves.
So those are my favorites, what are yours? Happy Birthday, Gary Oldman. Thank you for your commitment to your craft.