Gary Oldman, recently described as ‘a candidate for the title of greatest living actor’ by awards darling Colin Firth, has never won an Oscar. Why? Because he has never been nominated. That extraordinary-seeming oversight could be corrected in 2012, when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the John Le Carre novel starring Oldman as George Smiley, is expected to sweep the Academy off its feet. ‘Now is the time,’ intones Smiley in the film’s teaser trailer, and he may be right. But why has it taken so long for Gary Oldman to come in from the cold?
‘I’m not in the race,’ Oldman has said of his thirty-year career, ‘I’m not chasing the Oscar.’ It’s easy to believe him; we all know that the Academy Awards have more to do with the modishness of showbiz and politics than the recognition of art, and Oldman has never played the game. But Oscar’s snub feels like only half the story. If Gary Oldman is one of the greats where has he been for the past ten years? We’ve seen him intermittently, popping up in the crowded fantasy worlds of Harry Potter and Batman, one starry face among a hundred, but he hasn’t carried a big movie in nearly a decade.
Oldman has often spoken of his frustration at being typecast by unimaginative directors and studio executives. It’s true that following a few pyrotechnic displays of villainy in the mid-nineties – most notably as the pill-popping psycho-cop Norman Stansfield in Leon (1995) – the actor has been lumbered with the long-running role of Hollywood’s classiest bad guy, or ‘psycho deluxe’ as Empire magazine dubbed him in 1997. It seems he was just too good at being bad.
There is much to enjoy in the resulting rogues’ gallery, especially on those occasions when it’s clear Oldman is having some fun. ‘I got to go to work every day and beat up Indiana Jones!’ he said of Air Force One (1997), the action thriller starring Harrison Ford as a kick-ass US president. Oldman’s scenery-guzzling turn as Soviet terrorist Ivan Korshonuv is the best thing in the film, and this is true of his post-apocalyptic gangster-mayor in The Book of Eli (2010), his werewolf hunter in Red Riding Hood (2011) and Zorg the loopy arms-dealer in The Fifth Element (1997).
And surely the only reason anyone would sit through Lost in Space (1998) is to hear Oldman’s fruity space saboteur Dr Zachary Smith swap bitchy insults with a robot.
Watching Oldman channel his astonishing charisma and gift for mutability into this parade of cartoon baddies is at once entertaining and depressing. It’s a criminal waste of talent. During press junkets for Lost in Space, Oldman told journalists that he had resigned himself to the pigeonhole marked Panto Villain. He said his love of acting had waned, that the ‘fire had gone out’. This at the age of forty, when he
should have been at the height of his ferocious powers.
Even when the actor did attempt to paint his characters with light and shade, and invest them with the ambiguity that would turn them from stereotypes into human beings, he seemed to be fighting a losing battle with his own image. In 2001 he told Premiere magazine that he was furious with Rod Lurie, the director of that year’s White House drama The Contender, for wrecking his performance as Republican
senator Shelley Runyon in post-production. ‘Every time Runyon appears there’s this dark, sinister music,’ he complained, accusing Lurie of reducing his character to the neocon boogeyman in a pro-Democrat morality play. ‘The movie I set out to make allowed the audience to make up its own mind.’
A bitter dispute erupted in which Lurie claimed Oldman was in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome. ‘An actor doesn’t have to suffer from a psychotic disorder to be good,’ the star responded when the press got hold of the story. By this time Oldman had played so many psychopaths, bastards and nutjobs that he seemed to have built the reputation of being himself deranged, a kind of inverse of the myth surrounding Tom Hanks, Hollywood’s classiest good guy.
Maybe it’s unfortunate that so many of Oldman’s greatest performances have been powered by the same dark electricity that makes his popcorn villains so memorable.
The darkness can dazzle and distract. Also, there’s his fondness for wigs, tics and accents: whether he’s playing Zorg or Runyon, his hair is often impossible to take seriously (he once described acting as ‘dressing up, like Halloween’). In his finest moments, however, he’s one of those rare actors who can transcend the ludicrous.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) he does for the vampire count what Boris Karloff did for Frankenstein’s creature back in 1931. Yes, he licks razor blades and feeds babies to his bloodthirsty handmaidens, but beneath the hysterical horror-operatics of Francis Ford Coppola’s production Oldman finds the beating heart of a lovelorn freak. He allows us to pity the monster even as he behaves monstrously, a trick the actor repeats in Immortal Beloved (1994), Bernard Rose’s underrated drama about the volatile genius of Luwig Van Beethoven (more ridiculous hair). In both of these films Oldman plays not the villain but the romantic lead.
Before Christopher Nolan had the insight to cast him as the heroic James Gordon in Batman Begins (2005), the movies in which Oldman played entirely sympathetic characters were obscure. But if you look hard enough you’ll find them. There’s Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), which remains charming chiefly for the chance it affords to watch Oldman and Tim Roth bumbling around as an Elizabethan version of Laurel and Hardy. Oldman’s Rosencrantz is the Stan of the pair; he pratfalls and moons about, delivering Stoppard’s clever-clever dialogue with a fey South London twang that is perhaps the closest the actor has come to using his
own voice in a role.
Nobody’s Baby (2001) and Tiptoes (2003) were Oldman’s later attempts at comedy, but neither film made it into UK cinemas. This may have been a blessing in the case of Tiptoes, a staggeringly misjudged romcom in which the actor plays the dwarf
brother of Matthew McConaughey (don’t ask). Brave as ever, Oldman gives his all to this uniquely challenging role, but the whole thing seems to have been conceived as a bizarre vehicle for the digital technology used to shrink Elijah Wood’s Frodo
Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. The film is so strange and awful it must surely be destined for the cult circuit.
More recently Oldman has been able to play around with his reputation as cinema’s Big Bad Wolf. In Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture version of A Christmas Carol (2010) he plays both Marley’s Ghost and Tiny Tim. Of the pair it’s the terrifying, melancholy spectre that sticks in the mind, but Oldman sneaks in a heartbreaking little turn as Bob Cratchit’s son, the ultimate innocent. Judging by the trailer for
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the actor will bring a similar duality to Smiley, a complex character described by Le Carre as having ‘the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin’. In Smiley’s world, a Cold War England haunted by grey shades and paranoia, nothing is what it seems. There are no good guys and bad guys. It sounds like Gary Oldman is going to love it there.