Every year, the Academy for Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS), or The Academy for short, awards little statuettes to the top four actors (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress) who turned in the exemplary performances that prior year. Many actors give us amazing work yet seem to be overlooked. As the years go by, these same actors continue delivering high quality performances, yet continue to be passed over. Leonardo Dicaprio was one, Gary Oldman was another. Well, this year, Dicaprio was finally recognized and received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in The Revenant. Now that this injustice has finally been rectified, can we move on to Gary Oldman? This is an actor that has been passed up many times even though the work he has given us ranks among the best in the trade.
Oldman is not a flashy star. He doesn't make big speeches. He's just a great actor who dives into any role and gives it his all, becoming the role. If you're like most, you might say, well, I know he hasn't won an Oscar, but surely he's been nominated for all the great films he's been in, right? No. Oldman has only been nominated once in his over thirty years on screen. That was in 2012, when he was nominated for Best Actor for his role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). That's it, fin. No other Academy nominations! So, not only as he never won, but it is most significant that he has only been nominated for that one 2011 role! There's no denying his talent, so for those that might be unfamiliar with his accomplishments in film, let me count some of them out for you and state my case. I'd say it all started in 1986, with a little film called Sid & Nancy. It's a bio-drama about the life of Sid Vicious, the bassist for the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols, and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Oldman portrayed Vicious better than even Sid! He takes an extreme character and depicts him at his raw essence, embodying the anarchy that is all Sid! Former Sex Pistols member, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) remarked in his autobiography how much he detested the film, referring to it as the "lowest form," and "nonsense;" however, when referring to Oldman's performance, says, "he's a bloody good actor." This might not have been Oldman's first acting role, but it was the first one I remember seeing and it definitely put him on the map.
Then, in 1991, Oldman was cast as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's controversial conspiracy film, JFK. I wasn't alive when Kennedy was assassinated and all I remember of Oswald was video and black and white photos, but in this film Oldman became Oswald. No makeup, no special effects; Oldman morphed into the man pinned as the lone assassin. If you watch the old video clips of Oswald, or his videotaped interviews, then go back and watch Oldman in his portrayal of him, it's eerie. How long did he have to study those old film reels to capture the man so well, his mannerisms, his speech, his movements. The movie might have been discarded as fantasy masquerading as fact and Oldman's performance was forgotten, but it exists. Oldman was incredible!
The following year, Oldman co-starred in 1992's Dracula, which suffered much the same fate as JFK. It was critiqued as being a little overstated and too passionate for its own good, however I felt moved by Oldman's performance as Vlad, Count Dracula. Everyone was so caught up in criticizing Keanu Reeves' Jonathan Harker that I believe the excellent performance of Oldman was missed. This was a role that had been done many times, by many great actors, including Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, but Oldman made it his own. His portrayal is both menacing and sympathetic, intimidating yet fascinating. Though that year's Saturn Awards did recognize Oldman for his work in this film by naming him the Best Actor, the Academy gave the role a pass.
The following year, Oldman joined an ensemble cast in a supporting role when he was cast in the Quentin Tarantino-penned True Romance (1993), directed by Tony Scott. He had just a small but memorable role, that of Drexyl Spivey. Chocked with so many cameos and great performances, Oldman's Spivey is unforgettable. He's a scarred, one-eyed, gangster pimp in dreadlocks; a White guy who acts Black. This was a role that could've easily been seen as comical, but Oldman imbued the role with such substance that Spivey was perceived as menacing, psychotic, but still with a smirk and a wink. A truly unique character and a testament to Oldman's acting abilities, beyond doubt a standout role in Oldman's long career.
That same year, 1993, Oldman portrayed a crooked cop in Peter Medak's neo-noirRomeo is Bleeding. Though not as well-received as True Romance, Oldman still delivered a powerhouse performance. His New York-accented voiceovers are straight out of classic noir, as Oldman lets us in to the disturbed and deluded life of corrupt cop, Jack Grimaldi. This film came and went, now almost forgotten if not for the outstanding performance by Oldman.
Oldman continued adding to his incredible body of work when he broke with tradition and played a role that wasn't a villain, the renowned composer Ludwig van Beethoven, in 1994's Immortal Beloved. He played the character with grace, yet filled it with all the torment and passion that Oldman could bring, once again allowing the audience to feel the pain and struggle of a character. Oldman's portrayal was praised by critics and audiences alike, including Josh Winning of Total Film, who said there was no "better filmic chameleon than Oldman."
As great as Immortal Beloved may be, my favorite Oldman film of 1994 was Luc Besson's Léon: The Professional. Who doesn't remember the absolutely terrifying corrupt DEA Agent Norman Stansfield as played by Oldman. This role was so intense and sadistic that it awakened many moviegoers to the acting brilliance of Oldman as it showed his range being released the same year as Immortal Beloved. The wired, pill-popping agent was relentless and obsessed with getting what he wanted and this was exhibited in the performance; you felt it sitting in the audience. Who didn't cringe and was thankful you weren't standing in front of him when he delivered his famous line, "Bring me everyone... EVERYONE!"
Next came 1997’s Air Force One, directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Oldman’s psychotic Russian terrorist, Ivan Korshunov is the one guy with balls enough to go for the prize and hijack Air Force One, with the President on board even. He’s cold, calculated, devoted and absolutely brilliant in his performance. He comes across as utterly terrifying and unforgettable. What adds to Oldman’s performance is his ability to even make you feel something for Korshunov. Oldman humanizes the character and allows the audience into Korshunov’s rationalization for what he’s doing. Oldman's casting and performance was just as commanding as Harrison Ford’s.
Then we come to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), the one film where Oldman was finally recognized for his acting. If you ever saw any episodes of the old 1970s television series with Sir Alec Guinness portraying George Smiley, you have to admit Oldman’s depiction does Sir Alec justice. He’s just as good. His take on the older retired spy was great. His large glasses, ill-fitting coat, and unassuming manner all hid what he was able to show in his eyes, that he could be sharp and cold-blooded when he needed to be. He might have been retired, yet Smiley was still a master spy, and Oldman was able to portray both halves of Smiley’s nature perfectly. The fact that you underestimate him works in his favor. Oldman has won two dozen awards for his acting abilities and has been nominated for twice that, however, this role was the only one in which Oldman was nominated for an Academy Award. Jean Dujardin won that year for his role in The Artist. I don’t know how Oldman lost to Dujardin. Not to discount Dujardin’s performance, but I just didn’t see any real contest between the two actors.
Gary Oldman is a true thespian, an actor who immerses himself into every role and becomes the role. He’s not a screen personality, an actor who is pretty much playing themselves in every role they perform, a la John Wayne. No, whether a punk rocker, a terrorist, a spy, or a genius composer, Oldman continues to astound audiences with his versatility and acting abilities. I even loved the guy in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight movies! He was great in those too, wasn’t he? You know you loved them! Regardless of the film, Oldman is able to lose himself in each role. Even fellow actors sing his praises, as Oldman’s former co-star and Academy Award-winner Colin Firth once stated, “He is as far as I’m concerned a very strong candidate for the world’s best living actor.” (Flickering Myth, 28 March 2011)