An Ode to Oldman

Darkest Hour may not be a great film, but Gary Oldman’s performance is still worth celebrating.

The Academy Awards are a curious thing. Meant to celebrate the best films of the year, they are more often than not a popularity contest where the biggest campaign (and the most money) wins. Though that trend has waned in recent years (Moonlight’s surprise win last year was definitely an awakening), it hasn’t removed the sense of self-congratulatory pageantry from the Oscars. But for some of us, none of that really matters. The Academy Awards are a historical snapshot of a year in film that gives film buffs like me an excuse to champion their favorite films, argue their artistic merits or lack thereof, and treat awards season like a sports championship all culminating on Oscar Sunday — the Super Bowl of film. It’s on this day that dreams are made and broken, legacys are cemented, and infamous snubs become the rallying cry of film geeks everywhere.

Usually, the gossip around these snubs proves to be more provocative than the reality. (No, the 6,000+ member group didn’t hate your favorite movie, they just liked the free convenient screener for that more popular feel-good film better). When it comes to controversial acting winners, the list of great actors never even nominated is staggering: Donald Sutherland, Peter Lorre, Alan Rickman, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Martin Sheen, Robin Wright, John Goodman, Mia Farrow… The list goes on and on. The list of acclaimed actors that have never won a competitive Oscar is even more surprising: Ian McKellen, Ralph Fiennes, Peter O’Toole, Glenn Close, Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, Richard Harris, Sigourney Weaver, Annette Bening, and Gary Oldman. Except that Gary Oldman is at long last finally primed to win his first Academy Award. It’s about time.

For much of his varied and colorful career, Oldman was in the first group, known by many as the greatest living actor not to have a single Oscar nomination. That means nothing for his iconic transformative performances as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (his breakout role), Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, the title role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or Ludwig van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. Oldman blazed through the 80’s and 90’s with one spectacular performance after another garnering critical acclaim, the adoration of a new generation of young actors, and a legion of fans thanks to a string of quirky villain roles in more mainstream fare including True Romance, Leon: The Professional, and Air Force One.

Oldman’s work during this time was always surprising not just due to the lengths of his physical and vocal transformations (his mastery of accents is unparalleled) but because of his unpredictability. No two characters are the same in Oldman’s oeuvre, but they all teeter on the edge of a knife waiting to unleash themselves on the audience. There is always some mystery bubbling under the surface of each of his characters which lends itself to an inherent theatricality in his performances. Oldman’s bold choices could be construed as scenery-chewing if it wasn’t for his laser sharp specificity and generous give and take with other actors. Oldman may always dominate whatever scene he is in, but he’s also offering a wealth of textures for others to play off of.

So why no Oscar nomination until 2011 for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? It’s a question his fans had been asking for a long time, though it’s easy to speculate. Oldman was known as a party boy in his early career (he is now a recovering alcoholic) with a difficult temperament.* He has conservative leanings in an extremely liberal town and has not been afraid to espouse his views (he’s famously described himself as “slightly left of Genghis Khan,” and defended Mel Gibson in an incendiary 2014 Playboy interview). He’s also been vocally critical of awards establishments like the Hollywood Foreign Press and the industry as a whole on more than one occasion.

*And yes, I do have to note the domestic violence allegations from 2001. The details were murky and the charges were dismissed, but it’s impossible to ignore them as #MeToo and #TimesUp shine an overdue light on so many important stories, and just as impossible to say how it will affect this year’s race.

The closest Oldman ever flirted with an Oscar nomination was in 2000 for director Rod Lurie’s The Contender, where he played Sheldon Runyon, a conservative Republican Congressman determined to eviscerate a female Democratic Vice Presidential nominee embroiled in a sex scandal. It was a passion project of Oldman’s which he helped produce. His performance was again transformative, sporting a receding hairline and an Illinois accent, but it was also more subdued and introverted than much of his past work. Oldman was able to paint a complex portrait of a politician resorting to dirty tactics in order to fight for what he believes in without making him a vindictive villain.

After a Screen Actors Guild nomination for his work in The Contender, Oldman’s first Oscar nod seemed secured, but a minor controversy was enough to sink his campaign. Allegedly, Oldman’s famously sharp tongue got the better of him as he accused Lurie and Dreamworks Pictures of intentionally editing the film in such a way to give it a far more liberal viewpoint than was originally conceived. He also claimed that as a result his performance was tarnished into a malevolent conservative stereotype. Going after a studio run by titans Steven Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg, and David Geffen didn’t sit well with the industry at large, especially in a hyper-partisan election year that saw George W. Bush narrowly defeat Al Gore after a recount and, ultimately, a Supreme Court decision. Oldman lost the supporting actor nomination to his fellow co-star Jeff Bridges who played a more affable (and liberal) President.

Over the next decade Oldman was very much a working actor, taking roles that paid the bills even if they weren’t artistically daring or satisfying. Eventually he was able to rebuild his image thanks to being cast in two major franchises: The Dark Knight trilogy as Commissioner Gordon, and Harry Potter as Sirius Black. With these parts Oldman was able to escape his typecasting as a villain and offer up a more thoughtful heroic image. These roles were more introspective and less reliant on histrionic outbursts, but still maintained a tinge of danger lurking underneath. Oldman was able to amass a new generation of fans who would love his more cuddly persona. This goodwill also led to a softening in Hollywood as he became one of the most sought-after actors, also appearing in the Planet of the Apes and Kung-fu Panda franchises. As a result Gary Oldman has become one of Hollywood’s highest grossing performers, with his films making a combined total of over 9 billion dollars at the global box-office.

This all led to the perfect environment for Oldman to finally receive his long overdue first Oscar nomination for his performance as George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Again Oldman managed an astonishing metamorphosis, playing Smiley as a reserved, buttoned-up British agent with a lilting sing-song voice that was at once comforting and quietly menacing. Oldman was able to break away from the famous Alec Guinness television portrayal of the character and completely make it his own. It was a reminder of Oldman’s broad range, but it was also a legitimate dramatic creation that awards voters could take seriously. He would go on to lose the Oscar to Jean Dujardin for The Artist (a win that seems more baffling by the year), but he had finally broken through and it appeared to only be a matter of time before the right role would net him an incontestable win. Enter Winston Churchill.

At first glance Oldman seems a strange fit for such a legendarily legendary historical figure. He doesn’t naturally have the deep scotch-drowned baritone, imposing height, impressionable gait, or the weathered age we have come to associate with Churchill portrayals. But makeup can be remarkable movie magic, and together with artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, Oldman has crafted what many people will consider to be the definitive Churchill depiction in director Joe Wright’s elegant yet slightly stodgy Darkest Hour.

Oldman attacks the role with gusto, often hammering his big moments like a mallet against steel, completely shattering those around him. But this is no ham-fisted impersonation. Oldman digs deep here offering a kaleidoscope of range and emotions. His Churchill is not just a prideful lion of parliament, but also a wily, self-doubting man who is as temperamental as he is playful. Oldman turns his Churchill inward in some of the film’s most affecting moments, such as his uncomfortably awkward meetings with King George and his quiet confessions of uncertainty to his wife. It is this willingness to succumb to the complexities of the man that lifts Oldman’s Churchill from caricature to full-blooded embodiment. It’s the pinnacle of over four decades of metamorphic and audacious performances.

Gary Oldman has thus far steamrolled through the awards season winning a Critic’s Choice Award, Golden Globe, and SAG in the process. He will likely win a BAFTA this coming Sunday. Though Oldman has dominated the mainstream awards he has come up short with almost every critics group, mostly losing to one particular performance — Timothee Chalamet’s poignant and raw portrayal of first love in Call Me by Your Name. Chalamet is a mere 22 years old, but his emotionally naked performance is so honest in its depiction it doesn’t feel like acting. It’s the kind of breakthrough that comes along once in a generation. Think Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette, or Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

The increasingly more diverse and modern Academy could feel swayed to give the Oscar to the performance that touched them instead of awarding Oldman’s craft. Biopics like Darkest Hour have traditionally been catnip for the Academy with Eddie Redmayne, Day-Lewis, and Colin Firth all recently winning for playing real-life figures. But in the age of Moonlight winning Best Picture and with films like Lady Bird, Get Out, and The Shape of Water being frontrunners this year, voting for a biopic performance (even one as skilled as Oldman’s) feels old-fashioned. And so it is time to make a confession: Gary Oldman is my favorite actor and this might be his most accomplished performance, but I want Timothee Chalamet to win the Oscar. And I feel awful about it.

The first time I remember seeing Gary Oldman on screen was in the summer of 1997 in director Luc Besson’s madcap science fiction actioner, The Fifth Element. There he was in all his gangly glory sporting a devilish southern accent, a soul patch, a high-collared green trench coat, and a hunk of clear plastic on his head. In a film filled with alien techno opera divas, androgynous leopard print-wearing radio stars, and “perfect beings” scantily clad in candy floss, Oldman’s Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg was surprisingly the strangest thing in it. He was an outlandish cartoon, but his intensity and career-defining theatricality managed to steal the entire film out from not only the other actors, but from the very sci-fi vision Besson had spent years dreaming up. Zorg was a villain that didn’t share a single meaningful scene with any of the film’s leads (a poor writing decision) and yet the performance was unforgettable because of the fearless go-for-broke choices that remain an Oldman signature. I was hooked from the start.

In the years since I have devoured most of Gary Oldman’s filmography (as a working actor he doesn’t always make “good” films) and have always looked forward to any new performance. The moment the first production still from Darkest Hour was released over a year ago I instinctively knew this would be his defining moment. But some performances take hold of us and move us in ways we never expected, which is exactly what happened to me and many others with Timothee Chalamet. Perhaps this race will go down in Oscar history as one of those impossible situations where no matter which towering performance gets awarded no one will be happy, ala Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia losing to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Ledger in Brokeback Mountain losing to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote.

And that is why the Academy Awards are such a curious thing: no matter who wins someone truly great loses or doesn’t get nominated at all, and the chorus will always cry “They were robbed!”. Gary Oldman will likely prevail on March 4th and I will be ecstatic to see my favorite actor rewarded for a momentous performance as well as an indelible career. The vision of Oldman finally holding that Oscar is an image I and many Oscar watchers have wanted to see for a very long time. But deep down I will be holding out hope that Timothee Chalamet upsets and becomes the youngest performer to ever win Best Actor. Either way, it will be an Oscar victory to remember.   

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