When theatergoers leave screenings of “Red Riding Hood” this weekend, a great number of them will be saying, “The best thing about that movie was Gary Oldman.” This isn’t necessarily the greatest compliment that Oldman’s ever been paid – trust us, we’ve seen the movie – but it’s one that he’s heard plenty of times, and rightfully so.
On the occasion of this latest film, we thought we’d take a look back at 20 of his most notable roles, most of which are found in films far better than “Red Riding Hood.” That’s most, though, and not all. (See #10 and #13.) Still, as track records go, you’ll soon see that Oldman’s is pretty damned enviable.
1. Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy, 1986): Most would agree that it was Oldman’s performance as the late Sex Pistols bassist which really put him on the radar. Even those who criticized the accuracy of the film generally had glowing words for Gary, and that goes all the way up to Johnny Rotten himself. “The chap who played Sid, Gary Oldman, I thought was quite good,” wrote John Lydon in his autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. “Even he only played the stage persona as opposed to the real person, (but) I don’t consider that Gary Oldman’s fault because he’s a bloody good actor.” This was echoed by the Evening Standard British Film Awards, who named Oldman the year’s Most Promising Newcomer.
2. Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears, 1987): Only 34 years passed between the life and death of English playwright Joe Orton, and one might be able to successfully argue that more people know him for his connection to the Fab Four (he wrote a screenplay, “Up Against It,” which was rejected as the Beatles’ cinematic follow-up to “Help!”) than for his plays, let alone this movie, but if you’ve managed to see “Prick Up Your Ears,” then you’re already aware of the phenomenal work Oldman does alongside Alfred Molina, who plays Kenneth Halliwell, Orton’s boyfriend and – eventually – his murderer. Indeed, Oldman’s performance earned him a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actor.
3. Rosencrantz (Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead, 1990): Fans of the Bard with a sense of humor have long praised the way Tom Stoppard took two relatively insignificant characters from “Hamlet” and turned their actions – or, rather, their lack thereof – into a full-length play, but there’s not quite as much unanimity about the way the production transitioned onto the big screen. Still, the only real complaint tended to be that it probably played better when performed on a stage, which stands to reason. (After all, the play’s the thing, innit?) Granted, the humor’s a bit highbrow for the mainstream, but if you like Shakespeare, you’ll love seeing Oldman and Roth pondering their characters’ existence.
4. Jackie Flannery (State of Grace, 1990): Although Phil Joanou’s Irish-American crime drama didn’t break any box office records, possibly because the Italian-American criminal contingent had the higher profile at the time (this was right around the same time as “Goodfellas”), it sure had a hell of a cast: Oldman is teamed with Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Robin Wright, John Turturro, John C. Reilly, and Burgess Meredith. Throw in an Ennio Morricone score, and you’ve got the kind of picture that critics drool over…and rightfully so.
5. Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK, 1991): When you make a film about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, if there’s one role that you absolutely, positively must cast perfectly, it’s that of the man who (ostensibly) assassinated him. In an interview with Empire, Oldman revealed that director Oliver Stone gave him a couple of plane tickets, a list of contacts, and told him to go research the part himself. You’d think it would’ve been easier on the budget if Stone had just paid for Oldman’s cab fare to the library, but, then, the library wouldn’t have provided Oldman with a tenth of the information about the man he was portraying that he ended up getting from his meeting with Oswald’s widow, Marina.
6. Dracula (Dracula, 1992): For better or worse, Oldman’s Dracula is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Bela Lugosi’s take on fiction’s most famous vampire, but when he’s not forced to endure the old-age makeup, he’s rather spellbinding in the part. Many originally left the theater so annoyed with Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to put Keanu Reeves in the cast (“But, SUH!”) that they wrote off the film forever, but if you haven’t seen it recently, it’s well worth a re-visitation. Keanu’s still no better now than he was 19 years ago, but the look of the film is darkly gorgeous and, yes, it is all rather creepy…thanks to Oldman, of course.
7. Drexl Spivey (True Romance, 1993): As a scarred and dreadlocked pimp with an accent of indeterminate origin, Oldman takes this part and throws in everything from diddled-eyed joe to damned if I know. It’s not a lengthy part, but it’s certainly a memorable one, thanks to the script by Quentin Tarantino. In an interview with Venice Magazine, Oldman described it as “one of the few films I’ve made where you just shot what was there because the script was so good.” As for his appearance in the film, though, he was reportedly given free reign to look however he want, and as he told Detour Magazine, he took full advantage of it. “I made up the make-up, I went and got the gold teeth,” he said. “I called Tony Scott and said, ‘I want dreadlocks,’ and he sent me a message back saying, ‘Good idea.’ I had the wig made, I got the milky eye contact from Greg Cannom, the make-up man from ‘Dracula,’ who loaned it to me. I wanted a dead eye, a scar, good teeth, dreadlocks, the whole thing.”
8. Ludwig van Beethoven (Immortal Beloved, 1994): Not a lot of people can claim to have played both Sid Vicious and Beethoven…but, then, this is Gary Oldman we’re talking about. One of the greatest moments in this film comes during the meeting of the minds between Beethoven and Anton Felix Schindler, when the latter suggests that music exalts the soul and receives some serious scoffing in return. “If you hear a marching band, is your soul exalted?” sneers Beethoven. “No, you march. If you hear a waltz, you dance. If you hear a mass, you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.” This single scene may well be why, in that same interview with Venice Magazine, Oldman described the composer as being “like the Orson Welles and John Cassavetes of the music world. He wrote with passion. He wrote about feelings and emotions, and he wrote what he wanted to write.”
9. Stansfield (Leon the Professional, 1994): In which Gary Oldman hasn’t got time for this Mickey Mouse bullshit. Here beginneth a period of collaboration between Oldman and director Luc Besson, one which was arguably at its best when Oldman was directing and Besson was producing, as was the case with “Nil by Mouth.” That’s not to say that this isn’t a cracking good action film, but when Besson’s at the helm of a film, one could argue that Oldman has a tendency to deliver performances which are, if not unequivocally over the top, at least circling just below the top. But, hey, at least you don’t forget them…
10. Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (The Scarlet Letter, 1995): Regularly included in lists of Really Bad Film Adaptations of Classic Literature, Oldman found himself nominated for several Razzies as a result of tackling Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of adultery…not that it did anything to damage the value of his stock in Hollywood.
11. Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Zorg (The Fifth Element, 1997): Fast-forward two years…or a couple of hundred, if you’re talking about when the film takes place…and you’ve got Oldman’s latest Luc Besson collaboration. Here he plays a wealthy, soul-patch-rockin’ industrialist who’s in cahoots with an entity known as The Great Evil, a move which, frankly, seems like the sort of thing which can only end poorly. (Spoiler alert: it does.) But what of Oldman’s performance? Well, not terribly long after the film’s release, Oldman did an interview with Stephen Schaefer and said, “That could well be what was making me cry at Cannes: I’d just watched my performance in ‘Fifth Element.’ Anyone would [cry].” Yes, but, again, you can’t say it isn’t memorable…
12. Ivan Korshunov (Air Force One, 1997): It might not have been critically acclaimed, but there’s something awesome about seeing Harrison Ford as an ass-kicking Commander-in-Chief. Shame it’s Oldman’s ass that’s getting kicked…and out of Air Force One, no less..but at least he enjoyed working on the film, praising Wolfgang Petersen as a man who knows how to make an action movie without stressing everyone out. “He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Oldman told Salon. “He knows the genre and he doesn’t pretend it’s anything else, (like), ‘Hey guys, we’re making great art.’ He very much loves his wife, so he likes to be home on weekends. He likes to be home and have dinner. We’d come in and start shooting at 9 and finish at 6. I’ve never worked with anyone so relaxed on a set. He has a wonderful sense of humor and doesn’t take himself or it too seriously.”
13. Dr. Smith (Lost in Space, 1998): Not, I think we can all agree, the most shining moment of Mr. Oldman’s CV, though one wonders what happened during production, since Oldman seemed quite pleased with the family-related themes of the film and observed, “The film is a lot darker than I thought it would be.” Clearly, something fell apart somewhere, but at least Oldman can sleep comfortably knowing that his work as Dr. Smith had the approval of the man who originated the role on television. In an interview on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” Jonathan Harris described Oldman as “a very fine actor and a very inventive and innovative actor” and said that he was “lovely” in the part, adding, “I’m told that he’s a fan of mine. Shows remarkably good taste, seems to me…”
14. Congressman Sheldon B. Runyon (The Contender, 2000): A great underrated political thriller and one of Jeff Bridges’ favorite films (he said so during the Winter 2011 TCA Press Tour), but Oldman and his manager, Douglas Urbanski, apparently got a bit up in arms over the way the film was edited during an interview with Premiere Magazine. “If your names are Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen,” Urbanski declared, “you can’t have a film with a Republican character…who is at all sympathetic … being released on Oct. 13 (less than a month before the presidential election).” Elsewhere in the piece, Oldman asserted that when Dreamworks bought the film rights to the story, which focuses on a female presidential candidate (Joan Allen) who comes under fire when a Republican congressman (Oldman) reveals a scandalous skeleton in her closet, they forced director-writer Rod Lurie to turn “The Contender” into an unbalanced, Democrat-friendly tale. True? False? Ah, who cares, really? It’s still a great movie.
15. Pontius Pilate (Jesus, 2000): Given how many despicable characters Oldman had taken on at this point, it’s no surprise that he was able to step easily into the shoes of the man responsible for crucifying Jesus of Nazareth. “I wouldn’t call myself religious, but I would say that I was spiritual,” he said in a video interview at the time of production. “If I had met with (Jesus) personally, I’m sure there was an energy, a power that came off the man. I’m not sure that he could change water into wine or that he could walk on water. I mean, who knows? But I do believe that a great man and a powerful man was called Jesus and he walked the earth, so I imagine I would have been very moved and impressed by a man like that.”
16. Mason Verger (Hannibal, 2001): You’re forgiven for not recognizing Oldman under the grotesque make-up he was forced to wear while playing a child molester who ended up disfigured and crippled after an encounter with Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Indeed, if you saw “Hannibal” in the theater, you’ve got an even better excuse, since Oldman’s name doesn’t even appear in the credits! (It was, however, added to the home video releases of the film.) The story of how this came to pass is a bit muddled. Co-producer Martha De Laurentiis told The Guardian that Oldman originally wanted to be billed as high as Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore and left the production when his request was declined, only to eventually return and say that he didn’t want to be billed at all. Oldman, however, has said that the name thing was done with good humor, telling IGN Filmworks, “I’m unofficially the man of many faces (and) I’m playing the man with no face, so we just had a bit of fun with it.”
17. Sirius Black (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004 / Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005 / Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007): Not unlike many of the actors who found their way into the “Harry Potter” franchise, Oldman’s dad street cred jumped by several points when he took on the role of Sirius Black, but getting a shot at having his kids name him Coolest Father Ever wasn’t the reason he pursued the part. “I needed the work,” he told the Coventry Evening Telegraph during promotion for “Azkaban.” “I haven’t worked for a while, a couple of years, so I thought it would be nice to get back to work and earn some money. Pay the bills.” Honesty: what a refreshing concept.
18. Commissioner Gordon (Batman Begins, 2005 / The Dark Knight, 2008): If Superman can put on a pair of glasses and convince the world at large that he’s Clark Kent, it should come as no surprise that Oldman can slap on a ‘stache and some spectacles and transform himself into Batman’s closest confidant in the Gotham City PD. Chris Cooper had actually been selected for the role by director Christopher Nolan, who’d met with Oldman with the intent of casting him as a villain, but when Cooper bowed out of the project in order to spend more time with his family, Nolan reconsidered. “We found that he’s very unlike the characters he normally plays, so we were lucky to get him to play Gordon, who is a good man with a great sense of integrity,” said Nolan, in an interview with Variety. “He had to be very restricted and subtle in ‘Batman Begins’ and he enjoyed that challenge but at times it was like watching a Ferrari in traffic. It was fun to bring him back (in ‘The Dark Knight’) and have him tested and pushed further.”
19. Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim (A Christmas Carol, 2009): Better that we should have gotten a live-action take on the Charles Dickens classic which gave Oldman the opportunity to play three such dissimilar parts as these, as there’s surely little doubt by this point that someway, somehow he would’ve pulled it off. Speaking of which, Ryan Ochoa actually receives a credit for voicing Tiny Tim, which seems like an unnecessary expense, given Oldman’s range. By the by, the voice of Mrs. Cratchit is performed by Lesley Manville, otherwise known as the former Mrs. Oldman.
Lastly, even though it’s utterly out of chronological order, we coudn’t resist closing by shining the spotlight on Gary Oldman’s most challenging performance, wherein he plays…
20. Gary Oldman (Greg the Bunny, 2003): Would that the world had truly been blessed with a version of “Hamlet” which teamed Oldman with Warren “The Ape” DeMontague…
Tags: Air Force One, Batman Begins, Bob Cratchit, Commissioner Gordon, Dr. Smith, Dracula, Drexl Spivey, Gary Oldman, Greg the Bunny, Hannibal, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Immortal Beloved, Ivan Korshunov, Jackie Flannery, Jacob Marley, Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Zorg, Jesus, JFK, Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald, Leon, Leon the Professional, Lost in Space, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mason Verger, Pontius Pilate, Prick Up Your Ears, Red Riding Hood, Rev. Dimmesdale, Rosencrantz, Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead, Sheldon B. Runyon, Sid and Nancy, Sid Vicious, Sirius Black, State of Grace, The Contender, The Dark Knight, The Fifth Element, The Professional, The Scarlet Letter, Tiny Tim, True Romance