The Essentials: The 5 Best Gary Oldman Performances

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by The Playlist Staff
December 8, 2011 1:02 PM
21 Comments
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"State of Grace" (1990)
Ever wondered what it would be like to watch sparring lions Sean Penn and Gary Oldman face off in their prime? Mostly a film that time forgot – it was overshadowed by “Goodfellas” which came out the same year -- 1990's American neo-noir crime picture "State Of Grace" is mostly remembered as being director Phil Joanou’s last notable film (he directed “Three O’Clock High” before and did nothing notable afterwards, his most recent credit coming on Dwayne Johnson sports flick "Gridiron Gang") and the fact that Penn met his future wife Robin Wright on the picture. But the film's secret weapon is not Penn, but his character's mercurial, irascible loose cannon childhood friend turned Irish mobster, played by Gary Oldman. All greasy, stringy hair, gnashed teeth, dirty fingernails and imbued with the deep redolent rank of day-old cigarettes, Oldman is a dangerously coiled electric wire who chews scenery like he's just finished the world's most unpleasant hunger strike. These days the picture itself feels like a standard gangsters, revenge and cops picture not unlike "The Departed. But a young Penn and Oldman riffing and peacocking around each other is still a marvel to watch, displaying an elaborate dance of wild boar intensity. Yes, Oldman plays it big and ferocious, but for many, especially Americans, who had just seen Oldman for the first time, it was a near-spooky performance you couldn’t forget. Mind you, this was before Oldman did his best maniacal turn in "Leon," but it was a smoldering augur of things to come.

"True Romance " (1993)
Tony Scott’s collaboration with Quentin Tarantino is an odyssey of off-the-wall supporting characters. It’s not enough that you’d spend time with star-crossed lovers Clarence and Alabama. You’ve also got to wade through the funhouse of faces played by Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, and a possibly imaginary Elvis played by Val Kilmer. But few faces stand out quite like Drexl Spivey. Even in his brief screen-time, Oldman somehow manages to steal this entire movie not only from that murderer’s row of character actors, but also from the hyperkinetic Scott directing style, and Tarantino’s own goofball dialogue. Hip-hopping to the beat of his own drum, Oldman’s dreadlock-sporting drug dealer is like nothing else in his filmography. The unease in the air during his brief appearance is similar to the creepy standoff with Alfred Molina in “Boogie Nights,” but while he had fireworks, guns and drugs, Oldman intimidates purely by force of personality, his voice dropping to an octave we’re still surprised he has, utilizing a patois we’re not sure exists anywhere. In his single scene, Christian Slater’s Clarence confronts him, looking for a way to get Alabama free from her pimp, but at no point is it in question that Drexl is in control. Oldman’s lasting impression is both hysterical and intimidating, creating a villain who lingers long after his departure in the middle of one hyperactive movie.

"Leon: The Professional" (1994)
When Luc Besson’s acclaimed hitman actioner begins, we meet Jean Reno’s taciturn killer, a loner who quietly moves in and out of the shadows, getting his gruesome job done with maximum efficiency. It only makes sense that we would eventually meet the contrasting approach, and it comes courtesy of Oldman’s crooked cop Stansfield. A chainsmoker with a foul mouth, Stansfield doesn’t know when to quit, blaring orchestral music as he stages shootouts and makes threats in cheap suits. Oldman’s had a long career playing thankless villains, but he’s never been more outsized than he is in “Leon,” a bit moodier, a bit sexier, a bit less cerebral than the average Oldman baddie, pure id in a $35 haircut. Luc Besson seems to be working not from realism but from absurd, cartoonish archetypes, so when Stansfield realizes there is a problem, he doesn’t call for everyone as much as he summons, “EEEEEEVERRRRRRRYOOOOOOOOONE.” In one of the great action pictures of the early nineties, he’s iconic, mostly because, unlike other villains, Oldman gives Stansfield an irritated 9-to-5 attitude -- yes, he’s taking illegal money, and yes, he’s ordering the murder of innocents, but everything is secondary to him actually doing his job, even if it’s just listless paperwork and dealing with superiors he openly demeans. Why walk the straight and narrow, Oldman seems to argue, when you can be bad and condescending?

Honorable Mentions: It's tempting just to write "everything else" and be done with it, but that's not quite fair, or indeed accurate, as anyone who's seen "The Book of Eli" will attest to. But if 'Tinker, Tailor' and our feature put you in the mind for more Oldman, there's plenty of good places to dig further. He's superb in early screen role for Mike Leigh, as the benevolent skinhead Coxy alongside pal Tim Roth in "Meantime" -- watching it, you sort of hope that Oldman and Leigh find their way back to each other at some stage. Also indelible is his trilogy of TV work with Alan Clarke in "Honest, Decent and True," "The Firm" and "Heading Home." Oldman and Roth also reteamed to terrific effect for Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," the pair getting to show their easy chemistry and stage training in the writer's classic deconstruction of "Hamlet." 

The first half of the 1990s saw performaces at very different ends of the spectrum, including one of his very best as Lee Harvey Oswald in "JFK"; a nice turn in the underrated "Romeo Is Bleeding"; and operatic-sized, scenery chewing performances in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (particularly notable as the film is a mess, but Oldman's the best thing in it by a country mile), "Immortal Beloved" and "The Fifth Element." It's a measure of his brilliance that the performances are all equally watchable, even if some of the latter category are worth watching only for him.

The late 1990s and early 2000s are thinner on the ground in terms of quality work, with his heavily made-up turn in "Hannibal" being perhaps the only performance really worth mentioning. But then came his blockbuster revival thanks to franchies helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan, and he's winning in both. Oldman is tricksily ambivalent and lovingly paternal in the 'Harry Potter' films, and noble and blue-collar in the "Batman" films. With both franchises wrapping up, or about to, we hope that there'll be more to come along the lines of 'Tinker Tailor,' and we're curious to see what he does in John Hillcoat's upcoming "The Wettest County."

And we also hope that Oldman gets to step behind the camera again at some point, if his directorial debut "Nil By Mouth" was anything to go by -- it's arguably the best thing he's ever been involved with, a brutal punch to the gut of an autobiography, with astonishing performances from Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke, in a film as humane as it is grim. If the rumors of Oldman planning to direct again are true, it can't come soon enough.

-- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McLanahan and Gabe Toro.

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21 Comments

  • 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

    1. JFK- LEE HARVEY OSWALD
    2. DRACULA- VLAD THE IMPALER/DRACULA
    3. THE PROFESSIONAL- NORMAN STANSFIELD
    4. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY- GEORGE SMILEY
    5. IMMORTAL BELOVED- LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

  • 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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