I’ve always really liked Gary Oldman. But his career is a puzzle to me. He is most frequently cast as the “bad guy” in movies, but I think what makes him truly special, apart from the much-touted acting chops, is his sense of humor: Oldman, on True Romance, (1993): “I hadn’t read the script, and knew nothing about it. Tony (Scott) and I had tea at the Four Seasons and he said, ‘Look, I can’t really explain the plot. But Drexl’s a pimp who’s white but thinks he’s black’. That was all I needed to hear. I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’.” The guy always brings a funny little twist, not just an accent, to his roles. One of my all-time favorite Oldman performances, and probably the first time I saw him, is as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy. He is obnoxious and tragic and eerily like the Sex Pistols’ doomed bassist. But he is also funny as hell.
Oldman can do anything—biopics (Prick Up Your Ears), period good (Immortal Beloved) and not-so-good (The Scarlet Letter), crime (The Professional). He has used so many different accents in his movies that I’m not really sure what his real voice sounds like. So why is he so often called in to do the same sort of role, over and over—the crazy bad guy? Case in point. I watched The Book of Eli the other day. It’s not a great film, but it was definitely absorbing. It’s a little bit western, a little bit Thunderdome, a little bit classic Twilight Zone-with-a-twist sci-fi. It’s mainly a showcase for Denzel Washington, which is always a good thing. I got a huge kick watching Denzel be the coolest badass post-apocalyptic superhero samurai that ever walked the West.
And The Book of Eli had Gary Oldman as the villain Carnegie. There is a nice scene in the movie where Oldman washes his lover’s hair. It’s unexpected and adds a nice shade to his character. And then the script and the rest of the movie forgets about it and it’s stock villain dialogue for the rest of the film. It’s a shame, because the man could have made the character much more interesting, if he’d been given anything to work with.
As I watched Oldman in this movie, I kept getting echoes of a far cheesier, but much more fun performance in The Fifth Element. It’s the same set-up, with Oldman as the tyrannical bad guy in charge of the outpost—in this case outer space. But his villain is so much more fun here. Maybe I just love him best when he’s over-the-top. The Fifth Element, one of the best under-rated-science-fiction-starring-Bruce-Willis-pictures ever (also with an amazing and colorful performance by Chris Tucker), is just plain silly a lot of the time, but you just won’t care, because it’s so visually enticing and damn fun to watch.
Thinking about Oldman and over-the-top performances, I can’t help but mention one of the most OTT movies of all time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s got tons wrong with it (miscast Winona and Keanu and Anthony Hopkins in his usual cheesetastic mode), but also tons of wonderful effects and images, Gustav Klimt costumery, and Oldman, who throws himself wholeheartedly into the role of the original vampire. No sparkly teen fangsters here, thank you very much. Oldman manages to make all of his incarnations of Dracula—the bewigged Nosferatu, the Transylvanian warrior, the 19th-century dapper gentleman prince—appealing in some way. He loves his character and so do we, so we know by the end of the movie that Winona’s Mina is in for a very dull future without him. Oldman said about his performance in the film, “I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s not Dracula crying, it’s Gary Oldman, but using the technique of the character. The emotion is mine, because I don’t know what it’s like to be undead and live 300 years.”
It’s interesting that one of his best-known recent roles, as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies, may also be the best combination of Oldman’s talents. It’s too bad, by the very nature of the overstuffed films, that his time on screen is so fleeting. But in The Prisoner of Azkaban he was able to go from being introduced as the usual crazy-as-a-bedbug villain to the misunderstood outsider, to the warm and funny uncle. It’s the power of Oldman that I always think that he’s in this movie and The Order of the Phoenix more than he actually is. His persona makes that kind of an impact.
Oldman has said, “I don’t think Hollywood knows what to do with me. I would imagine that when it comes to romantic comedies, my name would be pretty low down on the list.” I know just what he means. His Dracula is a romantic hero. And a monster. And, and, and. But Oldman would be terrific in a romantic comedy, as long as his leading lady was up to his caliber.
In the meantime, he’s got lots of interesting things on the horizon. Guns, Girls and Gambling sounds like it just might be a comedy. Here’s hoping. I’m looking forward to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Red Riding Hood, as well as another Batman, which is in the works. There’s always something interesting to expect from Gary Oldman.