Gary Oldman: 10 essential films

On his 60th birthday and in the year of his Oscar triumph, we celebrate the career of New Cross boy and working-class hero Gary Oldman.

21 March 2018

By Matthew Thrift

Darkest Hour (2017)

How apt that in the year the BFI launches its major season, Working Class Heroes, the Oscar for best actor should go to Millwall-supporting, New Cross boy done good, Gary Oldman. It’s testament to his rare skills as a performer that the actor who began his career taking on a series of rebellious icons would earn his first Oscar for playing Winston Churchill, an establishment totem if ever there was one.

The film in question was Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour (2017), the performance in keeping with Oldman’s never-knowingly-underplayed style of attack. He’s an actor who can disappear without something substantial to sink his teeth into (literally, in one case), but when matched with a stylistically attuned director – or one hard enough on the reins – the results prove electric.

There’s little doubting Oldman’s position as one of the finest actors of his generation, but if we’ve one hope for 2018, it’s that he finally gets his second project as director (a biopic of 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge) up and running, more than 20 years after his sensational debut.

On the occasion of his 60th birthday, we picked out 10 of the best places to sample his talent.

Meantime (1983)

Director: Mike Leigh

Meantime (1983)

If there’s a single image in Mike Leigh’s Meantime that both encapsulates the claustrophobic intensity of the film’s roiling tensions while also serving as a metaphor for working-class disenfranchisement and futility at the beginning of Thatcher’s second term, it’s that of Gary Oldman’s skinhead Coxy thrashing around inside a metal container in the street. For all its aimless, bullying rage, this first major supporting role is quintessential, an introduction to the unpredictable, uncontainable energies of both character and performance that would come to define the first two decades of Oldman’s career.

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Director: Alex Cox

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Given how young Oldman looks in Alex Cox’s punk biopic, it’s awful to think he was some seven years older than Sid Vicious when the Sex Pistol succumbed to a heroin overdose aged just 21, having allegedly stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death at the Chelsea Hotel. Pallid and emaciated, Oldman undercuts the film’s tragic romanticism with a feckless nihilism and keen sense of black wit. Taking on vocal duties himself – and playing bass about as well as Vicious – his performance of ‘My Way’ proves a barnstorming centrepiece en route to the isolating depths of addiction and ruin.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Director: Stephen Frears

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Following Sid and Nancy, Oldman took on another cultural icon in the form of playwright Joe Orton. Alan Bennett’s screenplay begins with Orton’s brutal murder at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell, before backtracking to chart his sudden rise to fame with the 1965 production of Loot. With Stephen Frears’ film, Oldman cemented his position as arguably the finest British actor of his generation, unrecognisable from previous leads, despite playing another anti-establishment rebel. Drawn from Orton’s own diaries, Prick Up Your Ears proves frank in its depictions of Orton’s sexual appetites, with Oldman and Alfred Molina remarkable as the lovers caught in a relationship of tragic codependency.

The Firm (1989)

Director: Alan Clarke

The Firm (1989)

The recently released BFI Blu-ray of Alan Clarke’s 1989 Screen Two television film is essential if you want to feel the full force of what remains probably Gary Oldman’s greatest screen performance. The included director’s cut may only add a minute or so of footage, but for a film about the thrill of violence, every reinstated blow counts. Oldman is Bex, a football hooligan trying to recruit a national firm to take to Europe for a dust-up. His wiry frame belying a tinderbox of tightly sprung furies, Oldman pursues slights real and perceived with ruthless severity. It’s all in service of ‘the buzz’, or as Patrick Murray’s Nunk has it: “We just like hitting people.” Top trump in the actor’s rogues gallery of villains.

State of Grace (1990)

Director: Phil Joanou

State of Grace (1990)

When the States came calling, Oldman answered with a ferocious, live-wire turn in this mob thrillerSean Penn is the undercover cop, recruited to infiltrate Ed Harris’s gang back in his Hell’s Kitchen hometown. Oldman is the best mate he’s not seen in years, and brother to Harris’s top dog. With his long, lank hair and easy recourse to violent outbursts, Oldman’s Jackie plays like a low-rent, gutter-dwelling version of Joe Pesci’s Tommy from the same year’s GoodFellas. Opposite Penn’s dull lead, Oldman predictably ignites proceedings, not least when waving a pair of dismembered, frozen hands in his co-star’s face.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Never an actor known for underplaying a part, Oldman saw his 1990s filled with larger-than-life performances that left no scenery unchewed. He met his match in the vast, operatic scale of Francis Ford Coppola’s sumptuous Dracula adaptation. Hardly a shot goes by that isn’t a feast for the senses, with Oldman playing the erstwhile impaler as both a centuries-old shut-in who’s seen better days (Norman Desmond?) and a younger incarnation out for fresh blood. Coppola and Oldman position their Dracula as a figure of romantic tragedy, explicitly in the London sojourn to ensnare Winona Ryder’s Mina, but most brilliantly and lasciviously in the early Transylvania scenes with a perpetually perplexed Keanu.

Immortal Beloved (1994)

Director: Bernard Rose

Immortal Beloved (1994)

You’d be forgiven for thinking this a sequel to the previous film on our list, given the opening seconds of Immortal Beloved. On his character’s deathbed, Oldman looks just like the withered Dracula, before the most famous opening bars in all of music kick in. A decade after his Sid Vicious, the actor took on another mercurial musical figure: the Immortal Beloved in question is that of Ludwig van Beethoven, her identity the central mystery of the film. Bernard Rose – a gifted, neglected image-maker – directs with passionate authority, keeping Oldman’s grandest overtures in check, while knowing just when to let him off leash.

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Director: Gary Oldman

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Gary Oldman’s career is that he has just this single directorial credit to his name. Remaining behind the camera, Oldman’s stunningly powerful slice of thinly veiled autobiography saw Kathy Burke win best actress in Cannes for her performance as the abused wife, suffering at the hands of Ray Winstone’s violent bully. Nil by Mouth was shot in Oldman’s native south London, with certain scenes in the very same boozer his own father would drink the day away in. For all the film’s pain and cruelty, it’s the tangible sense of community and family that Oldman nails so brilliantly, amplifying the tragedy of its inherited cycles of violence and lending the final rendition of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ its heartbreaking sting.

The Contender (2000)

Director: Rod Lurie

The Contender (2000)

A sensational turn from Oldman as Republican senator Shelly Runyon, but a problematic production that led to some industry fallouts over the perceived liberal bias of its ending. The Contender certainly suffers from overt moralising, but it’s a picture attuned to today’s conversations. Joan Allen is the vice-presidential candidate attacked as “a cancer of liberalism” by the viperine Runyon, who stoops low to veto her nomination by way of slanderous moral defamation. “He’s not a bad man,” says his wife. “There’s an odd sort of integrity there.” A more charitable depiction than Allen’s charge of his “ideological rape of all women”.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Oldman had some big shoes to fill in taking on the iconic role of George Smiley, a part played twice by Alec Guinness in the late 1970s and early 80s BBC television adaptations of John le Carré’s novels. As the inscrutable spymaster and weary cuckold, tasked with finding the mole in the upper echelons of the Circus, Oldman gives a sphinx-like performance of enigmatic poise, earning him his first Oscar nomination. Such stillness is a rare commodity in Oldman’s filmography, and would have made for a more worthy win than his Churchill, but what do the Academy know? Here’s hoping they have a chance to correct the error if follow-up novels, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People ever go into production.


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