Gary Oldman is both one of my personal favourite actors and an absolute champion of the craft, an adaptable master of any role thrown at him who can take words on a page and lift them to magnificent heights in his work. Intense, implosive, focused, hard working and super dynamic in front of a camera, he’s always an actor to watch and an undisputed master of his craft. I love each and every performance this man has given us so far in a brilliantly diverse career, but here are the ten characters that stand out the most for me:
10. Charlie Strom in Sin
Bear with me on this one. Like any actor, Gary has appeared in a few duds, and overall this happens to be one of them *but* his performance in it is fantastic. Ving Rhames plays a tough ex cop whose sister (Kerry Washington) is raped and brutalized on Oldman’s orders as some kind of underworld porn king. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues in which Rhames seeks revenge for the atrocity but discovers that Oldman targeted him for reasons of his own going back into both their pasts. It’s a decent script given the scrappy low budget treatment but Oldman’s tormented villain is worth sitting through for. He has a conversation with Rhames midway through the film that gets philosophical in nature and overall he just nails the haunted persona of this role.
9. O.W. Grant in Bob Gale’s Interstate 60
This is a playful role in one heinously overlooked hidden gem. Essentially an existential road trip movie with supernatural elements and enough cameos to launch a pilot, Gary plays a mysterious genie like deity who grants everyone he sees one wish by blowing green smoke from his monkey shaped pipe. He also has no reproductive organs, as a hitchhiking nymphomaniac chick hilariously discovers. It’s light, easygoing work from the actor who isn’t doing any heavy lifting with the performance yet still makes a terrific comedic impact and seems like he’s having a lot of fun.
8. George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John Le Carré’s chilly Cold War thriller sees Oldman take on the role of an MI6 lieutenant embroiled in the treacherous search for a soviet spy amongst his own ranks. Restrained and opaque, one begins to see the keen scrutiny hiding behind the character’s initially withdrawn nature. When an event causes him to almost lose that composure, he expertly shows the emotions bursting forth and the efforts to keep them within, reaching a pitch perfect note of performance that gets better and more detailed every time you revisit the film.
7. Jackie Flannery in Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace
One of the great crime dramas he has taken on, this one sees him play a volatile, unstable Irish gangster in NYC’s brutal Hell’s Kitchen, stick between his mob boss older brother (Ed Harris) and childhood friend (Sean Penn) who is now an undercover cop infiltrating their ranks. With a mop of greasy hair and the mannerisms of an untrained dog let off the leash, this is a ballistic tornado of a characterization with childlike notes, a good dose of rambunctious restlessness and primal violent nature uncaged.
6. Sirius Black in Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban
From the moment we see gaunt, haunted eyed convict Black onscreen Gary makes him a magnetic, spooky presence to be reckoned with. Even before that we see him howling out of moving wanted posters in Diagon Alley and off the front page of the Daily Prophet. Oldman makes juxtaposed genius out of his work here and the shift from scary fugitive to compassionate friend and mentor to Harry is handled beautifully. It’s also nice to see him and fellow British thespian David Thewlis collectively chewing scenery, they have palpable chemistry and I’d love to see a buddy cop thing with them one day, or something like that.
5. Jack Grimaldi in Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding
The ultimate corrupt cop, Oldman’s Jack is a loose cannon dirtbag who discovers that his ways have consequences when his life is made into a living hell by terrifying femme fatale Mona Demarkhov (Lena Olin) and ruthless mafia don Falcone (Roy Schneider). He inhabits the sweaty, desperate neo-noir palette of this great film very well, especially in sly, mournful voiceover as he literally narrates his own story as if it didn’t happen to him.
4. Dracula In Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola outdoes himself with this lavish, baroque piece of eye candy that for me is the best film version of Dracula ever made, likewise for Gary’s knockout performance as the titular vampire king. He has several incarnations here from armoured Transylvanian knight to skeletal senior citizen to dashing foreign prince to full on nine foot gorilla werewolf hell-beast thing and he rocks each one with full blooded embodiment and spectacular verve. Surrounded by solid players like Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Sadie Frost, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant and Tom Waits in an encore as the lunatic Renfield, this is a magnificent dark jewel of a film and a horror masterpiece.
3. James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises
The actor goes inward here for a fierce, gritty turn as the legendary police commissioner, giving the character all the salt of the earth integrity and brooding charisma we could hope to get. In a career full of extravagant portrayals and amidst a trilogy riddled with flamboyant villains and people who dress up in costumes, ironically he gets to play the most down to earth and level headed guy, comparatively. His Gordon is a straight arrow cop who is fallible, tactical and compassionate.
2. Drexl Spivey in Tony Scott’s True Romance
A white pimp who thinks he’s black, this has to be the single most impactful performance ever filmed that only takes up one five minute scene and another brief thirty second one. Dreadlocks, gnarly scars, a dead eye, leopard print housecoat, this guy couldn’t be more visually ridiculous but for all the flourish and swagger, it’s Gary’s mannerisms that shine through and win the day. The goal of his scene is essentially to circle and intimidate Christian Slater before pouncing on him like a pissed off coyote, and he succeeds in freaking him out plus the rest of the world watching on their screens. This film is filled with memorable moments scene after scene but his mad dog portrayal of this reprehensibly hilarious Detroit gutter-rat piece of shit stands out.
1. Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional
I’m not sure what Besson’s direction to Oldman was in playing this spectacularly corrupt DEA agent but he kind of just runs off and does his own thing to the point where other actors in the scene look scared of him for real. Casually homicidal, easily distracted, highly unstable and so intense he frequently goes red in the face, this is a villain that would frighten most others into submission. Contrasted with Jean Reno’s and Natalie Portman’s more contemplative performances he’s the wild card of this tale and fills it to the brim with madness, firepower, dark humour and that trademark white suit that you better not get blood on or he’ll shoot you after he’s already killed you in a crazed tantrum of scenery chewing that only Gary Oldman is capable of.
Thanks for reading ! Please share you favourite Gary Oldman performances as well!