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The Essentials: The 5 Best Gary Oldman Performances

by The Playlist Staff
December 8, 2011 1:02 PM
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Essentials Gary Oldman

It's been a frequently repeated fact this year, but in case you didn't know, Gary Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar. But in a way, why should he have been? The Academy Awards specialize, for the most part, in celebrating showy, look-at-me performances, impersonations of real people, or tear-jerking portrayals of crippling disease or disability. And Oldman has never been one of those actors. Oh, sure, he's capable of playing big and attention-grabbing -- "Bram Stoker's Dracula," say, or one of his villainous turns in the 1990s -- but even in the least of those films, he's always totally disappeared into the character with no sign of the man behind the curtain, no visible effort in the acting to be applauded. 

As such, he's never been an awards favorite. He's simply too good an actor, and too generous an actor, quietly taking a commanding lead when duty calls, or disappearing invisibly into an ensemble, as a true team player. And his latest performance, as George Smiley in the tremendous spy film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is a turn that is so lived-in and so subtle that it's already been talked of in terms of being a best run on his already impressive resume. The actor's career has had its ups and downs, with alcohol problems during "The Scarlet Letter" reaching the extent that he once described it as: "...waking up in the morning and crawling across the floor like an 80-year-old man, when your tongue is discolored and you drink three vodkas and you vomit up the first two to keep the third one down so you just level out and feel normal." While he sobered soon after, that film derailed his career somewhat, not helped by a public feud with DreamWorks over the final cut of "The Contender."

But with Oldman's comeback crowned with 'Tinker, Tailor,' it seems like as good a time as any to run down some of our favorite past performances by the great British actor. It was a tricky call. An argument could be made for almost any of his roles (emphasis on almost -- while we'd like to see someone try for "Red Riding Hood"). But we landed on a five that seemed to demonstrate the actor's astonishing range, which can be checked out further when "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" lands in theaters on Friday, December 9th.

Sid and Nancy

"Sid and Nancy" (1986)
The pairing of writer/director Alex Cox (“Repo Man”) with this Sid Vicious biopic is something of a match made in punk heaven. It’s a shame, then, that this writer finds the film to be a bit of a slog. We’d skip it altogether were it not for Mr. Oldman’s fierce performance, the kind of acting that demands your attention; not too flashy, but you can’t take your eyes off him as Vicious. While the tropes we’ve come to expect from this kind of movie are certainly present in “Sid & Nancy” (heavy drug use, band infighting, the girlfriend who comes between band members, etc.), Cox and DoP Roger Deakins give it a certain grimy grittiness that sets it apart in the genre, but it’s the bristling, full-tilt lead performance that gives the film its needed punch. Vicious was the punkest of the band who were arguably the best embodiment of the spirit of punk, and Oldman's a snarling, brawling, force-of-nature in the role; witty, destructive and romantic, almost like a "Looney Tunes" cartoon come to life. And yet somehow, he's never anything less than totally convincing. In many ways, he laid the groundwork for most of the work he would do: uncompromising, true and utterly captivating.

Prick Up Your Ears

"Prick Up Your Ears" (1987)
Known principally at the time for roles as skinheads and punks, Oldman wasn't the most obvious choice to play the famously witty, gay playwright Joe Orton, a sort of Oscar Wilde of the sexual revolution, in Stephen Frears' "Prick Up Your Ears." But it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it. Alan Bennett's script, told in flashbacks through interviews between John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and famed agent Peggy Ashcroft (a scene-stealing Vanessa Redgrave), reconstructs the destructive, Mozart/Salieri-like love affair between Orton and long-time lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), which ended in Hallliwell killing Orton, and then himself, when the writer was only 34. Straight off his breakthrough "My Beautiful Launderette," Frears again shows a key eye for gay life, but the film doesn't deserve to be ghettoized. It's principally a picture of a relationship, with the frustrated Halliwell becoming increasingly overshadowed by the boy he helped educate, and heartbroken by his promiscuity and Orton's callousness towards his lover. Performances are strong across the board, with Molina beautifully sad without ever becoming terribly sympathetic, but it's really Oldman's film. He's charismatic, brilliant, witty (in part thanks to Bennett's script), ignorant of the hurt he causes, and roughly ten million miles away from his breakthrough part in "Sid and Nancy." If nothing else, his BAFTA-nominated turn was the first sign that Oldman would be a true chameleon.

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  • spassky | March 23, 2014 5:20 AMReply

    His turn as Drexl is the most embarrassing thing he's ever done. I feel embarrassed for him everytime I watch "True Romance". But perhaps that's the appeal?

    "You want some f*cking sushi" haha oh god it's awful

  • PatrickLA | March 22, 2014 11:38 AMReply

    I could see Oldman doing Buscemi's character Nuk, in Boardwalk Empire, even better than Steve. He would bring more intensity and reality to that Gangster-type villain but alas Gary is a Movie-star and probably not going to do a series anytime soon! But if he could of, it would of been even BETTER!

  • venus | March 22, 2014 11:06 AMReply

    Uh Gary Oldman was nominated for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy".

  • jawsnnn | March 22, 2014 11:44 AM

    You're right, but this article came out in 2011 just before that movie was released.

  • Lisa-Marie | March 24, 2012 8:12 AMReply

    I agree with Jackie being one of his best performances. State Of Grace is a fantastic movie and it is a shame not many people know of it; at least not Oldman fans anyway. I would have included Emmett Foley from Chattahoochee also, that was indeed an incredible performance.

  • Obient | March 16, 2012 1:50 AMReply

    Mike Leigh's Meantime - Coxy, A skinhead boy ..

  • Brandon DeLaurentiis | March 10, 2012 7:13 PMReply


  • yoohoo | December 9, 2011 2:37 PMReply

    certainly "Murder in the First" and "Chattahoochie" deserve honorable mention

  • Nik Grape | December 9, 2011 12:13 PMReply

    Great choices. I would definitely put "The Contender" as an honorable mention though. The man can do no wrong even in cliched shite like "Book of Eli".

    Can't wait for "Tinker" already.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | December 9, 2011 12:17 PM

    Yeah, we actually had The Contender as one of the 5 originally, until it was swapped out for something else, and I forgot to add it to the honorable mentions. Definitely a strong performance.

  • Paul | December 9, 2011 12:00 PMReply

    Saw 'Wettest County' in a pre-screening. He played the celebrity mobster role well, but was only in the movie for a few scenes, which he wasn't able to steal. Guy Pierce, as the slithering villain who comes to Indiana from Chicago, really steals the show. I'd venture to guess he borrows a few functions from Oldman's past villainous performances.

  • Bone | December 9, 2011 6:43 AMReply

    In STATE OF GRACE, Oldman is quite obviously channeling John Heard's perfomance in CUTTER'S WAY, one of Phil Joanou's favorite films. Oldman is fun to watch in SOG, but Heard is even better in CW.

  • Cirkusfolk | December 8, 2011 5:24 PMReply

    I'm so glad u included state of grace, and I will back his performance in true romance. I was so pissed that he got killed cause I wanted a whole movie about Drexel. Every line he says is great. "I know I'm pretty, but I'm not as pretty as a couple of titties. " and "you must've thought it was white boy day. " classic.

  • StephenM | December 8, 2011 4:21 PMReply

    Just gotta disagree with True Romance--I don't think that role is very memorable, and I find Walken, Hopper, and Gandolfini all to be better/more memorable/more entertaining than Oldman in that role. I know, I'm all alone, but I don't understand the worship of this silly little role.

    I do love Oldman, though. I would have chosen him in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though that movie has its problems--the play is much better.

  • david | December 9, 2011 10:31 PM

    the reason the true romance role is so revered is that most people don't even realize it's gary oldman. i have to point it out to all my friends and it blows their minds. i thought he was excellent in the fifth element, but everytime i see his character, i think to myself "that's gary oldman having a ton of fun."

  • cory | December 8, 2011 2:23 PMReply

    Yeah, still love "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and will defend it forever. It rules.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | March 22, 2014 6:18 PM

    It's probably the most underrated adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, and definitely an underrated Oldman performance. It's his fall from grace, his lost love and the twisted inversion of that love into darkness that elevates this film (that and the beautiful production design). He's not an antihero -- a villain, to be sure -- and yet there's pity for him right up until the end. As Van Helsing explained, "His love was strong enough to survive the grave." Don't we all wish for that kind of love?

  • rotch | December 8, 2011 1:46 PMReply

    While I agree that Bram Stoker's Dracula is kind of a mess, it is a glorious and triumphant mess. It is the last Coppolla film I would call worthy of watching. Te visuals are tremendous; it feels like no film before it, and no film after. And while Oldman is the best of the actors by far, let's not forget Tom Waits' great Renfield.
    Also a mess, but also worth mentioning for his performance alone is the Nicolas Roeg/Dennis Potter film Track 29. I still don't get how that pair of great minds came up with such a lackluster result, but Oldman definitely started crafting his 90's brand of psychopaths on this one.

  • MM | May 3, 2012 4:22 PM

    "kind of a mess"? The movie is a piece of art for heaven's sake!

  • Will Brandt | December 8, 2011 1:27 PMReply

    I'm glad to see Gary Oldman doing more mainstream movies now. A lot of people don’t know that some of his films ten years ago were going straight to DVD films which no one saw.
    He was good in Interstate 60 (2002) which was overlooked.
    I am looking forward to his films out next year - Guns, Girls and Gambling, Wettest Country, The Dark Knight Rises, Criminal Empire for Dummy's.

  • Merson | December 8, 2011 1:22 PMReply

    State of Grace was overshadowed by Goodfellas, Miller's Crossing and The Godfather Part III in 1990 even though I think it was better than those films.
    Gary Oldman wanted The Contender to be a politically balanced film with no clear hero or villain which it is until right at the end when it becomes a pro-Democrat, anti-Republican film and made his character out to be a clear villain.

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