Throughout this series of Best of Brit articles, there has been a relatively common theme; a lot of the people I’ve spoken about have spent some of their earlier years in one of the renowned theatrical training grounds such as the RSC, the National, or RADA. This chap is a bit different in that he applied to RADA and was turned down.
However, he was invited to apply again the following year but should give serious consideration to finding an alternative career.
Sorry RADA, you got that one more than just a tad wrong! Gary Oldman is one of the most expressive, adaptable, and believable actors of all time. He is the epitome of chameleonic character portrayal and is especially good at playing psychos on the brink of losing every last vestige of sanity.
Usually, in these short biographies I’ve written, I’ve spouted on about how most people know such and such an actor from their most popular role whereas I remember them from a role decades before. In a change from what may be becoming a tradition, I have to say that the first time I remember watching Gary Oldman was either in JFK or Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I’ve Frequently Not Been On Boats
Having said that there was a TV series in 1984 called Morgan’s Boy which featured Gary in four of the six episodes. I’ll be honest and say I definitely remember watching it with my first wife and talking about it at work the next day. However, I only found out that Mr Oldman was in it when I went through his IMDb page for this article!
It was during a period of my life that, for various reasons, I wasn’t actually visiting the cinema and I caught them on VHS. It seems strange in these days of instantaneous downloads that it was part of my regular routine to potter down to the newsagents on a Friday and pick out a film or two to watch; usually accompanied by a few tinnies and a curry.
That’s also why there’re some quite surprising gaps in my film watching experiences. There could be a series of articles in this…we watch an incredibly well-known film that for some reason we’ve never seen. Citizen Kane and The Sound Of Music would be on my list along with Sid & Nancy, True Romance, and Romeo Is Bleeding.
I Have Crossed Oceans Of Time To Find You
Over the years, I’ve caught up with most of Mr Oldman’s back catalogue. I searched out Henry And June, in which he was credited as Maurice Escargot, mainly because it also starred Maria de Medeiros. She is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful women ever to have drawn breath. I also caught up with his version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
In that, he plays Rosencrantz to Tim Roth’s Guildenstern. It is surprisingly amusing given that it is a film version of an absurdist, existential tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard and based on a couple of minor characters from Hamlet. Then again, it does star two of that, or any, generation’s most talented actors — so it should be worth a watch.
Incidentally, just as Tim Roth became something of a fixture in Quentin Tarantino’s casting sessions, so there was a time when Gary Oldman started popping up in Luc Besson’s features. In fact, the first time I actually remember seeing Gary Oldman in a film in the cinema was in Léon.
I’ll be brutally honest, Gary Oldman wasn’t one of the reasons why I went to see Léon. I went to see Léon because of Luc Besson and Jean Reno. I’d been a fan of Besson since Subway and Nikita; Nikita is still one of my ‘Desert Island Films’. Those films were also how I was introduced to Jean Reno. In Nikita he plays Victor “The Cleaner”; a ruthless operative who goes in and sorts out any mess that other agents have gotten themselves into.
Victor is a shadowy, silent figure who can eliminate anyone who gets in the way, whether they be alive or dead. He does, however, have a weakness for protecting his charges which leads to his untimely end. With M. Besson gaining more pulling power, he is given the opportunity to revisit the Victor character; in short, Léon is Victor.
I still remember the pre-release fuss. Articles in newspapers and magazines; The Guardian held a competition to win a pair of the Jean Paul Gaultier sunglasses worn by Léon. I entered regardless of the fact that I need prescription lenses and they would be no use to me. But despite all the palaver surrounding the release, I don’t remember the name of Gary Oldman being mentioned. I’m positive he must have been, it just didn’t trigger anything in my mind.
Your National Security Advisor Has Just Been Executed
So, back in February 1995, I was sitting in a darkened auditorium waiting for the latest offering from the master of Cinéma du look. And it didn’t disappoint, either as a film in its own right or as an introduction to Gary Oldman.
A little over ten minutes in and we see his first appearance…but only from the knees down! The next shot of him is full length but from behind. There’s a dispute going on between, what appears to be, members of a drug gang; the dope was 100% pure in June, now it’s July and it tests only 90% pure. The gang member talking to the guy holding the stash makes it clear that “he” shouldn’t be disturbed.
Unfortunately for the stash holder, he decides to disturb “him” and this is when we find out just how scary and threatening Gary Oldman can be. He turns, walks up to the poor guy, gets in very close…and sniffs him! That sounds pathetic, I know. But when you see him sniffing out the truth you get a definite sense of just how scary Norman Stansfield can be.
Voila! The ZF-1
This is reinforced ten minutes later when a group of scruffy looking thugs appear in the corridor where the truth sniffing took place. The last ones to appear are the ones from the previous visit. The very last one is Norman Stansfield who prepares for action in his own unique way…
He takes out what looks like an antique snuff box, rattles it next to his ear, opens it and takes out a capsule. The capsule isn’t swallowed though, he puts it between his teeth, arches his head back, spasms, and crunches the capsule between his teeth. He straightens up and says, “I like these calm little moments before the storm…it reminds me of Beethoven,” then goes on to wipe out a family.
Normally, I Have A Very Sweet Disposition As A Dog
From then on I was hooked. The next time I saw him was in another Luc Besson film, The Fifth Element. This was Besson really going big time; Bruce Willis, Ian Holm, a raft of British character actors and the Mrs Besson du jour, Milla Jovovich. Once again Oldman was marvellously evil and so far over the top he needed oxygen. But at no point did it seem wrong; it fitted in beautifully with the bright visuals and mind-boggling special effects.
The next outing was another bad guy but, this time, just a common or garden Earthborn terrorist; Ivan Korshunov in Air Force One. This has earned the soubriquet Die Hard On An Aeroplane, due to all the action taking place on the eponymous aircraft.
Incidentally, Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman are actually hitting each other during their fight scenes.
Because He’s The Hero Gotham Deserves
And while some actors get a reputation for being a pain in the arse due to their refusal to leave character throughout a shoot; Gary Oldman is just the opposite; he does not stay in character between the scenes. Wolfgang Petersen said how comedic and genial Oldman and Harrison Ford would be off-screen. He also said that Oldman could suddenly return to the menacing film persona instantly.
Ford has since named Oldman as his favourite on-screen nemesis.
The new millennium saw our Mr Oldman hitting the franchises. He was totally unrecognisable as Mason Verger in 2001’s Hannibal; a part that was originally offered to Christopher Reeve. He had a cameo in Friends as a drunk actor who measured theatrical talent by how much spit he could spray in each speech.
Then, within a year, he landed major roles in two franchises; first up was the bad guy turned good guy Sirius Black in 2004’s Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. The next year saw him reprising that role in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire as well as landing the part of Commissioner Gordon in Batman Begins; to my mind the Christopher Nolan Bat-trilogy is the stand out of an otherwise lacklustre foray into the DC cinematic arena.
Madam, All Babies Look Like Me
He appeared in four of the Harry Potter films and all of the Dark Knight trilogy. He was in the woeful 2014 reboot of Robocop; but there is a history of Paul Verhoeven remakes biting the dust. Much more successful was the reimagined Planet Of The Apes trilogy and Gary was in the 2014 Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.
2017 finally saw him winning a long overdue best actor Oscar for Darkest Hour. In this, he was transformed into Winston Churchill using ageing make-up and a fat suit. Actually, ageing is pushing it a bit as there was only five years difference between Oldman and Churchill at the time the film was set. More importantly than make-up effects was Gary Oldman’s dedication to his craft — he spent a year studying Churchill and his mannerisms before starting on the film.
He does seem to have a knack of pinning down the essential being of a person and then managing to recreate them on screen. As well as Churchill he has played Ludwig van Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dylan Thomas, Joe Orton, and Sid Vicious. It’s also been announced that he’s to play the pioneer of the moving image Eadweard Muybridge.
Still, there are some roles that he hasn’t got to play. In a manner reminiscent of Sean Connery he turned down the role of Edward Scissorhands because he didn’t “get it”. Unlike Sean Connery, though, he went to see the finished film and “got it” within the first two minutes. Roles he didn’t get or turned down include Morpheus in The Matrix, General Grievous in Star Wars III; Revenge Of The Sith, Deacon in Waterworld, the prison warden in The Longest Yard, and the title role in Darkman.
Still, it’s good to see that he is still going strong. I am currently enjoying his starring role as Jackson Lamb in the Apple TV+ series Slow Horses. Lamb is a former front line secret agent, suffering from a touch of burn out, and running a unit consisting of failed spies who know too much to sack, but are too useless to put out into the field.
Whether he is playing dangerously psychotic, quietly authoritative, or spine chillingly accurate, he is always very, very watchable.
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!