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The Essentials: The 5 Best Gary Oldman Performances

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 8, 2011 at 1:02PM

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. 
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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.

This article is related to: Gary Oldman, The Essentials, Features, Feature, Best Of


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