Now that Leonardo DiCaprio has won his Academy Award, maybe we could start this grassroots Internet meme campaign for the greatness that is Gary Oldman. Today, Oldman turns 58-years old, and his career is filled to the brim with wonderful, wild, energetic, powerful performances. Whether he is a supporting player, a villain, a hero, or the central figure in his films, Gary Oldman brings the goods. He is a chameleon on par with Sir Ben Kingsley, able to slip in and out of ethnicities and manic personalities with truth and dedication.
With 70 plus film credits to his name (and a whole slew of work on the horizon), let’s take a look back at his 10 finest work, performances of all shapes and sizes, roles that managed to dominate the film in which they appeared, no matter how much screen time may have been involved.
10. Jack Grimaldi, Romeo is Bleeding – Oldman’s early career was loaded with seedy, sweaty characters whose moral compass failed them years prior. His performance in Romero is Bleeding as Grimaldi, a corrupt cop in over his head with a mysterious new woman in his life, wallows gleefully in the depraved underworld of evil cops and killers. The young Oldman had a masterful penchant for chewing scenery, and this role is a sort of pregame show for what he was going to deliver one year later in Luc Besson’s The Professional.
9. Zorg, The Fifth Element – As campy and flamboyant as Luc Besson’s sci-fi circus may be, Gary Oldman’s quirky villain Zerg is the peak of the zany mountain. Zorg is part politician, part brutal killer, searching for “the stones” and trying to get his hands on Lee-Loo, the perfect human. With his strange Hitler haircut riff, the plastic plate, and a strange underbite, Oldman is having just as much fun as all the other colorful characters in the picture.
8. Jim Gordon, The Dark Knight Trilogy – Okay, so the construction of his character in The Dark Knight Rises was a little strange – he’s really going to send ALL the police into the sewer? – but Oldman gave more depth and emotion to Jim Gordon in the Batman universe than the character had ever had before on film. Many of the Batman stories paid close attention to the family and work life of Jim Gordon throughout the years, and casting Oldman in the role was a master stroke from Chris Nolan and Co.
7. Shelly Runyon, The Contender – In the incredibly underrated political thriller The Contender, Oldman embodies a different sort of evil: an arrogant, simple-minded Republican. Shelly Runyon is the blockade to the Vice-Presidential appointment for Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), whose sexual trysts are brought to light during the confirmation process. Runyon is creepy in his obsession regarding Hanson’s college years, and his slimy arrogance and hypocritical outlook on women’s rights makes this one of the most despicable and compelling of his career.
6. Stansfield, Leon: The Professional – Here is arguably the most overacted role in Gary Oldman’s career. His wicked cop Stansfield is a drug chewing, scenery chewing murderer who “hasn’t got time for this Mickey Mouse bullshit!” It is Oldman going over the top, then finding the top again and going over it once more, but it’s still fascinating and hypnotizing at times. Stansfield is a volcano of anger and hate, with seemingly no redeeming qualities anywhere inside his black soul. Oldman owns the overacting, and his dedication makes it all work beautifully.
5. Drexl, True Romance – “He said that his mama was an Apache,” Alabama tells us, “but I suspect that he’s lyin’.” That sums up Drexl Spivey, a lowlife pimp and murderer who kickstarts the central plot of True Romance, one of the greatest American crime thrillers of all time. That’s right, of all time. In a film loaded with cameos and small performances building an entire, complete masterwork from Tony Scott (with an assist from screenwriter Quentin Tarantino), it is Oldman’s murderous pimp who steals every scene in which he’s involved.
4. Sid Vicious, Sid and Nancy – One of his earliest roles had Gary Oldman embodying the self-destructive Godfather of the punk movement in the early 80s who may or may not have killed his loving bride in a drug-fueled murder suicide. With all the corrupt souls in his catalogue, Sid and Nancy was a true-life precursor to the fictional madmen he would define in the following years. Not only does Oldman shine as the troubled singer, his young, thin frame and sickly hue of a man in the throes of crippling heroin addiction resembles Sid Vicious with stunning clarity.
3. Sirius Black, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban – Before he was Jim Gordon, Oldman had another challenge of playing a beloved character with a throng of fans who had their mind made up regarding the falsely-accused Sirius Black in the Harry Potter mythology. That’s a slippery slope for any actor, and Oldman nailed the role; he absolutely became Sirius Black. There is nobody who could better transition from murderous villain to a man wrongly convicted of crimes in the same film. Sirius Black popped up again in the Harry Potter films, but The Prisoner of Azkaban was his finest achievement for the character.
2. Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula – For all the unhinged insanity that derailed Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, the flamboyant Opera theatrics and the camera’s idiosyncrasies, Gary Oldman’s performance as the Prince of Darkness is the one true constant of greatness running from start to finish. Oldman is one of the greatest chameleons in film history, and here he is allowed to transform himself time and time again in the same role. No matter what the final result may have been, the appearance of Dracula as an old man is still a captivating moment in horror cinema.
1. George Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Sometimes a celebrated actor’s Oscar-nominated roles aren’t his most indelible, they are observed more so because of the way the actor changes perception. As Gorge Smiley, a semi-retired agent forced back into action to try and uncover a Soviet spy in British Intelligence, Oldman manages to deliver on both fronts; it is a wonderfully restrained and very un-Gary Olmdan performance, while also being the greatest and most nuanced role in his career. He was nominated for Best Actor – the first and only one of his career – and time has told us perhaps he was the most deserving of the nominee pool that year.