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The 10 best Gary Oldman film performances

Known for the wide variety of roles he has played, Gary Oldman’s performances cannot be pigeonholed into a particular genre nor can one choose his best performance. Recognised for his ability to adapt to any accent as well as extensive research for his role, Oldman’s ‘anti-social image usually spills over into the films. He resorts to the good old immersion technique and does the finest job out there, involving overacting to give a larger than life side to his roles. With various awards and accolades, including an Academy Award to his name, Oldman has cemented for himself an incomparable legacy that has established him as one of the finest actors in the history of cinema. 

“I don’t go to premieres,” he once said. “I don’t go to parties. I don’t covet the Oscar. I don’t want any of that. I don’t go out. I just have dinner at home every night with my kids. Being famous, that’s a whole other career. And I haven’t got any energy for it,” he added, in what typifies his approach to the world of Hollywood and all the baggage that comes with it.

Oldman was born in London on March 21, 1958. His father was an alcoholic, and Oldman grew up to be one as well. After years of struggle, he managed to be sober: “Getting sober was one of the three pivotal events in my life,” he once explained. “Along with becoming an actor and having a child. Of the three, finding my sobriety was the hardest thing.” Oldman was arrested in his later life for drunk driving and thus embarked on a journey towards sobriety, one that has undoubtedly impacted his view on life and the art of acting. A thorough family man, he has always acknowledged the immensely important role his mother and sisters played in his life. In a heartfelt Oscar acceptance speech, Oldman, in his usual jocund manner, thanked his mother and asked her to “put the kettle on” as he was “bringing Oscar home”. 

Oldman worked various odd jobs while trying to live his dream of becoming an actor someday. Ironically, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts had rejected him, asking him to try something new. A regular face at the theatre, he owes his gruelling work ethic and intense delivery to his theatre days. While his incredible performances continued garnering high praise from critics and audience alike, he rose to prominence with three major films, namely Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. While fans of the Harry Potter franchise are familiar with Oldman due to his suave performance of Harry’s godfather, the enigmatic and charming Sirius Black, like Black, Oldman has a rebellious spirit. “What other people think of me is none of my business”, he said, “My passion and energy get mistaken for anger.”

A pioneering figure in the film industry with an unparalleled genius, Gary Oldman turns 63 years young today. To pay tribute to this legend and his immense and timeless contribution to cinema, we take a look at his ten best performances. 

The 10 best Gary Oldman films:

10. Romeo Is Bleeding (Peter Medak, 1993)

Jack Grimaldi is a homicide detective with NYPD who leads a double life where, in exchange for illegal favours for a mafia boss, he gets to lead a life of extravagance. For his latest assignment, he is asked to kill the cunning and seductive Mona Demarkov with whom he embarks on a fierce and twisted cat-and-mouse chase of psycho-sexual longing, loathing and desire. However, this might cost Jack everything that he has so meticulously built so far. 

While the film did not fare well and was criticised for being too violent in the wannabe neo-noir genre, Oldman’s performance received high acclaim from critics as Jack Grimaldi. The paranoia, guilt, lust and psychological anguish portrayed by Oldman remains unparalleled, however, that s unable to save the self-immolation the film brings to itself. 

“People think that Hell is fire and brimstone and the Devil poking you in the butt with a pitchfork, but it’s not. Hell is when you should have walked away, but you didn’t.”

9. Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001)

Based on Thomas Harris’ novel, the film is based on the eponymous protagonist Dr Hannibal Lecter, notoriously known for his cannibalistic practices. Mason Verger, an affluent child predator who was paralysed and disfigured by Lecter, seeks revenge and appoints FBI Agent Clarice Starling to catch the doctor. As the plot progresses, Starling realises that Lecter is elusive and evades arrest easily by dint of intelligence and wit. 

Starling and Lecter share a complicated relationship. Anthony Hopkins is phenomenal as Hannibal and Julianne Moore provides a perfect balance and support. Gary Oldman as the vicious mason verger is sinister and lusting for revenge, which ultimately leads to his downfall. 

“People don’t always tell you what they are thinking. They just see to it that you don’t advance in life.”

8. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)

Adapted from Bram Stoker’s legendary 1897 novel Dracula, the film focuses on Count Dracula’s life who is the well-known and most celebrated vampire in the history of literature. Vlad Dracula returns victorious to find his wife Elisabeta having committed suicide at the false news of his death. Enraged he denounces God and declares to rise from the grave to seek vengeance. He lives as an undead man and he suddenly comes across an Elisabeta lookalike in 1897 named Mina. The problem is she is engaged to a solicitor named Jonathan Harker. Dracula vows to woo back his long lost love and will embark on a blood-ridden warpath. 

The ensemble cast includes Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins and more. Coppola’s film was shot in a unique manner where the director encouraged the actors to resort to using new methods where he urged the actors to be mean to Ryder to make her show genuine emotions or Oldman to speak seductively to the actresses to bring out the raw sexuality on-screen. Oldman plays the Count and acknowledges his role for having given him “tremendous experience”. He always wanted to work with Francis Ford Coppola who he considered “one of the great American directors”. His portrayal of Count Dracula made Oldman prevail as a towering and monumental figure throughout the film and his presence was even palpable in scenes that did not concern him- a claustrophobic and vile presence of undying love. Oldman reportedly agreed to star in this classic operatic saga so that he could deliver the following line:

“I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you.” 

7. Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)

Starring Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina in prominent roles, the film earned Oldman the high praise of being one of the finest British actors in the industry. The overall atmosphere of the film is claustrophobic, the apartment is stifling. The saga of homosexual love in the times when it was considered illegal has been portrayed beautifully. 

The film is based on Joe Orton and his husband Kenneth Halliwells life whose relationship commenced at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Their age gap is further accentuated by Kenneth’s eclipsing career juxtaposed to Orton’s burgeoning one. Their marriage keeps falling apart defining their roles in the marriage. Halliwell, however, commits suicide after murdering Orton. 

“I always wanted to be an orphan. I could have if it wasn’t for my parents.”

6. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Adapted from Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins as well as Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, the film is a political thriller that deals with the events that led to John F. Kennedy’s assassination as well as how the New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison covered up the truth. Although Garrison convicted a businessman for his part in the conspiracy, the Warren Commission found Lee Harvey Oswald, a US Marine, guilty. 

In a controversial film, editorials accused the director of tweaking historical facts to fit his own narrative. Gary Oldman played Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin, who was killed by Jack Ruby. Despite the innumerable controversies it fuelled, the film is a product of Stone’s masterful genius. Nerve-wracking and intense, it is wonderfully complex and might leave the audience breathless in its sheer sensationalism and depth.  

“What are our lives worth?”

5. The Contender (Rod Lurie, 2000)

The film revolves around the mudslinging and corruption that goes on behind the scenes of political campaigns. When Democratic US President Jackson Evans chooses to smash the inherent patriarchal hierarchy by nominating Ohio Senator Laine Henson, the opposition immediately starts digging into her past, finding racy pictures from college. Avoiding engagement in political issues they keep dissecting and deconstructing her character which further breaks her morale. As Henson decides to withdraw herself from this morally demented game, Evans finds shocking evidence that might just save Henson’s public image as well as compel her to still run for president. 

The film was made in response to the tragic controversy surrounding Bill Clinton and his secretary Monica Lewinsky. Gary Oldman, who was quite angered by the scandal, played the antagonist Sheldon Runyon in the film who is not the classic villain as he realises his grave mistake in the end. While it is overly sensitive and emotional, the riveting and dramatic storyline redeems it. 

“Principles only mean something if you stick by them when they are inconvenient.”

4. Mank (David Fincher, 2020) 

When wunderkind Orson Welles is given full creative control and called upon to direct Citizen Kane, he appoints the raging alcoholic Herman J Mankiewicz as the screenwriter. Amidst the Depression and the inevitability of the Second World War, the film focuses on the story of how the screenplay was written, providing an insight into Hollywood via the monochromatic, washed-up eyes of Mankiewicz. 

Gary Oldman plays the titular role of Mankiewicz. While David Fincher originally wanted to cast Kevin Spacey in 1997, his father passed away and the project was on hold. With an incredible cast, Mank boasts of brilliant visuals and performances. The original script had been too “anti-Welles” and was changed. Fincher has distanced himself from the controversy surrounding the credits of authorship and has vehemently put across how it was “ not my interest to make a movie about a posthumous credit arbitration. I was interested in making a movie about a man who agreed not to take any credit. And who then changed his mind. That was interesting to me.” 

“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Based on John Le Carre’s expansive novel of the same name, Gary Oldman, who has been very vocal about his lack of fascination towards the beloved 007, delivers an impeccable performance as the iconic and taciturn middle-aged MI6 Agent, George Smiley, who embarks on a mission to uncover a Soviet mole at the heart of the organisation.

This film is far removed from the quintessential flashy super-agent flicks with hunky-dory capers. Instead, it is an intricate and elegant drama with a gripping narrative that boasts of a terrific ensemble including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy etc. who deliver astounding performances. Reflective of a time before the gadget-takeover, the film is not populated with intense chase sequences; instead, the old-fashioned spycraft takes precedence where it is a battle of wits and the cat-and-mouse chase is manipulated and decoded by the best of the minds. It reads into the brutal nature of bureaucracy and espionage and traces the subsequent loneliness and fractured psychology which comes as a gift.

“You survived this long because of your ability to change sides, to serve any master.”

2. Sid & Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)

This biographical film focuses on the life of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and traces his rise and fall. Sid meets a heroin-addict named Nancy and after a few hiccups, embarks on a drug-fuelled odyssey of self-destruction that not only strains his relationship with the band and his friends but also with music. Frustrated, he seeks solace in drugs that causes further downfall. 

Although Gary Oldman was hailed to be outstanding in this tragic saga of the bassist’s Romeo and Juliet-esque romance, Oldman himself thought that he did not do the job well enough. Although he rejected the role twice due t his ignorance of the punk movement and found the script “banal”, he was compelled to accept it due to the salary. He had starved himself to lose weight to play the emaciated, drug addict Sid which also found him admitted to the hospital. His brilliant portrayal of the tormented and confused Sid goes down in history as one of his finest. 

“Sidney’s more than a mere bass player. He’s a fabulous disaster. He’s a symbol, a metaphor, he embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation. He’s a fuckin’ star.”

1. Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017)

This thrilling film begins at the height of the Second World War when Hitler’s powerful Wehrmacht embarks on a horrifying rampage across Europe. After Neville Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill becomes the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In these turbulent times where his party members rally against him and he is under pressure to explore peaceful negotiations with the Nazi germans Churchill faces his darkest hour in history and must attempt to save the nation from imminent danger as well as change the course of history forever. 

Gary Oldman’s stupendous performance won him the Academy Award and he brought Churchill to life with the adeptness only an actor of his stature might possess. While the film itself had a failing narrative, Oldman’s distinguished performance as Churchill forced to be at crossroads and withstand these tumultuous times was astounding. This is, indeed, one of Oldman’s finest and is the prime reason why anyone must watch the film. 

“My poor judgement and my lying will.”

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