Meantime (1983): Coxy. Gary Oldman was 25 when he made his debut in this early Mike Leigh film playing a Doc-Marten-clad skinhead who engages in an unlikely, slightly menacing friendship with a nerd named Colin (Tim Roth). The first of Oldman’s Punk Trilogy — the others being Sid And Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears — his performance for Leigh is the most richly comic: belching, gurning, drooling Special Brew, he canters through the shattered concrete of Thatcher’s Britain like one of Kubrick’s droogs draped over a Henry Moore.
Sid And Nancy (1986): Sid Vicious. Alex Cox’s facile movie about the Vicious-Spungen romance is over-impressed with its (negligible) gutter credentials — the actors all seem to be taking part in a Whose Line Is It Anyway sketch in which they’ve been asked to act “disgusting”— but it was the performance that broke Oldman in America and rightly so. Windmilling his bass, eyes rolled back in their sockets, Oldman unearths a princely grace to Vicious’s torpic, junkie-pale frame, and suggests a fascinating reversal: punk as aristocrat.
JFK (1991): Lee Harvey Oswald. He’s only onscreen for a short time but Oldman is so good that he almost the defeats the point of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-palooza, which aims to exonerate Oswald and cast the net of suspicion over half the Western seaboard of the United States. Oldman is having none of it. He homes in on Oswald’s patented brand of anti-charisma — the quick, birdlike movements, the flat-vowelled insolence — and delivers a perfect thumbnail portrait of damp-palmed pathology. His performance hails from another film entirely — an adaptation of Don De Lillo’s Libra.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992): Count Dracula. The acting equivalent of Pete Townsend smashing up his Rickenbackers. Oldman was so indulged by Francis Ford Coppola in this orgiastic uber-embellishment of the Dracula legend that one suspects one of those creative mind-melds between director and star that leave both unclear where the direction stops and the acting starts. Caked in thick white make-up and a Translyvanian accent you could break rocks on, Oldman performs as if in a one-man show, with moments of inspired voodoo. Shaving the neck of Keanu Reeves, he turns to the camera to lick the razor — our little secret.
Nil By Mouth (1997) – Director. It’s no accident that Oldman didn’t appear in his best film of the nineties. After a decade of playing scenery-eating villains in films like True Romance, Leon, The Fifth Element, Airforce One, roles riven with the psychic effects of full-bore alcoholism — he says he cannot remember shooting The Scarlet Letter he was so loaded — Oldman stepped behind the camera to direct this film about Sarf London thugs and their cratered family lives. The film launched the film career of Ray Winstone but Oldman is in every molecule of the film — a scalding exorcism of his family legacy and a muscular act of creative rebirth.
The Contender (2000): Shelley Runyon. In Rod Lurie’s pacy, underrated thriller about Clinton-era sexual McCarthyism, Oldman plays the vulpine Republican congressman leading the witch-hunt against Joan Allen’s VP nominee. Soft-voiced, unyielding, chewing on his steak like a vulture munching on innards, Oldman’s Runyon is a cobra readying himself to strike. He says he took the role because he believed Runyon to be the hero of the piece — a fascinating insight into great movie acting —for in Runyon’s head, an American canyonland of endless self-justification, he is.
Batman Begins (2005): James Gordon. Relatively late his career, Oldman made an important discovery: the stiller and quieter he gets, the better his performances. More particularly: the more disappointed he gets. A strange paradox for an actor who began in such brash high style. By the time of Christopher Nolan’s Batmen reboot, he had learned not to compete with the mayhem of blockbusters, but tack in the opposite direction, towards quietude. Weary and resigned, with that dusting of melancholy that comes from too many years on the force, Oldman’s Jim Gordon is the only human being in Nolan’s film who looks like he might once have solved, you know, an actual crime.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011): George Smiley. One of those moon shots where the right actor meets the right part at the right time. In Tomas Alfredson’s new adaptation of the John Le Carre thriller, Oldman takes on the role of Le Carre’s mild-mannered machiavel, a role first made famous by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t fancy any actor’s ability to outrun that legacy, and at any other point in Oldman’s career the result might have been a mere make-up trick, an acting stunt, but Smiley’s is a fertile shadowland, his sadness and duplicity so close to the actor’s own — Oldman adds his own tinder-spark of menace. Shockingly, he has never been nominated for an Oscar. Expect that to change in January.
— from my appreciation of the actor appearing in the current issue of Intelligent Life