Gary Oldman, The Ultimate Face of Versatility

Gary Oldman, Cinema’s most versatile actor is respected by almost every actor and filmmakers

Few performers have had such a versatile career as Gary Oldman. Children know him as the Sirius Black actor from the Harry Potter franchise, but adults are familiar with the breadth of his work, much of which has been in more mature fare. He’s a true chameleon, changing his look from role to role. Gary Oldman as Dracula in Bram stoker’s Dracula looks much different than Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey in True Romance. Sometimes, he doesn’t look like himself at all. In Hannibal, the actor is buried underneath makeup that renders him unrecognizable, while his Oscar-winning turn in Darkest Hour turns him into a doppelganger for Winston Churchill.

Aside from his admirable chameleonic quality, Oldman has gone through an interesting career shift over time. In his earliest roles, such as Sid and Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears, he was viewed as a prodigiously talented performer who had an air of danger. There was a rawness and an unpredictability about him. Years of solid performances have morphed him into a veteran whose sheer presence can help provide substance to mainstream pop culture franchises like the Planet of the Apes series or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. 

Gary Oldman, The Shapeshifter Of Hollywood

Over the past few decades, Oldman has continued to surprise and delight audiences with the boundless creativity he brings to every role he tackles. Whether you prefer the edgy young Oldman or the seasoned veteran, a closer look at his most important roles demonstrates just how extraordinary he is.

Here are 10 performances that define Oldman as the shapeshifter of Hollywood.

  1. The ‘Harry Potter’ Franchise – The Nobel unlikely ally
Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman as Sirius Black

In 2004, HP Fans were introduced to Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black, the titular detainee in “Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban.” The role was one of the actor’s several forays into the world of blockbusters, but if he did it for the paycheck, audiences couldn’t tell the difference. 

2. Darkest Hour – The transformative WWII hero

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill

After nearly four decades, Gary Oldman finally got his Oscar for Best Actor this year thanks to his performance in “Darkest Hour,” a Winston Churchill biopic that focuses on the early days of the European theatre of World War II. Oldman was so committed to getting Churchill’s look right, that he was able to persuade famed make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji to come out of retirement to help transform the actor into the prime minister’s famously jowled face. 

3. Leon The Professional – Maniac Cop

Gary Oldman as the Cop in Leojn the professional

Oldman extended his villain phase in 1994’s “Léon: The Professional” by playing Norman Stanfield, a corrupt DEA agent with a knack for bursts of insanity who runs a drug operation in New York City. To say that Oldman killed it in this role would be an understatement. For many, Norman Stanfield is one of the greatest villains of all time. Heath Ledger created his joker by studying this character and a few others.

4. The “Dark Knight” franchise

Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon.

Dark, complex, and unforgettable, “The Dark Knight” succeeds not just as an entertaining comic-book film, but as a richly thrilling crime saga – and Oldman excels as Gotham City Police Lt. James Gordon.

When Christopher Nolan gave the Batman franchise a much-needed reboot, cleansing our collective palate after the abomination that was Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin,” he cast Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. Oldman was great throughout Nolan’s trilogy, but he stood out in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” where he gave depth to a conflicted police officer looking the other way as a billionaire vigilante tries to rescue his crime-ridden city from an anarchic psycho-clown. 

5. True Romance – The Eccentric gangster

Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey

Fueled by Quentin Tarantino’s savvy screenplay and a gallery of oddball performances – including Oldman as a menacing pimp – Tony Scott’s “True Romance” is a funny and violent action jaunt in the best sense.

6. Tinker Tailor Soldier spy – The Calm and Collected genius.

Gary Oldman as George smiley

The 2011 adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fascinating anomaly in Oldman’s career. He plays George Smiley, a retired intelligence agent brought back to MI6 to help ferret out a double agent working for the Soviets. The role earned him his first Oscar nomination. 

Typically, the actor has been cast in roles that call for him to be bold, outrageous, dangerous, or any combination of those elements. Here, it’s the exact opposite. Smiley is older and kind of weary from his years in the spy business. He tends to listen and contemplate. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he does, it’s spot-on. Unsurprisingly, Oldman is phenomenal. He could not have played this part earlier in his career. His firm entrenchment as a cinematic power player informs his work, helping turn Smiley into a seasoned expert who commands the room, whether speaking or silent.

5. Sid and Nancy – A Tragic Rockstar

Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious

Fitting that Gary Oldman’s first real big break came in a biopic (you know because he just won an Oscar for one). The British actor’s performance in 1986’s “Sid and Nancy”  – he played Sid Vicious, the bassist for the legendary punk band, The Sex Pistols – is a huge reason why this movie has become a cult classic. 

6. ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ – The Doomed Playwright

Gary Oldman (left) As a Joe Orton

The life and tragic death of British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) are chronicled in this biographical film. When the young, attractive Orton meets the older, more introverted Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) at drama school, he befriends the kindred spirit and they start an affair. As Orton becomes more comfortable with his sexuality and starts to find success with his writing, Halliwell becomes increasingly alienated and jealous, ultimately tapping into a dangerous rage.

7. The Fifth Element – The maniac space villain

Gary Oldman as Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg

Several years ago, Oldman publicly disowned The Fifth Element. Many science fiction fans don’t share his dislike of the picture. Often described as a “good bad movie,” there’s so much bonkers stuff happening that it’s hard not to be entertained. It’s a film like no other.

Oldman plays the movie’s villain, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg. He has a suitably unusual look here. One side of Zorg’s head is shaved, and long hair combed over to the side covers the rest. To play such an odd bad guy, the star opted for an odd approach. SFX’s Susan Arendt put it best, writing, “Zorg could’ve been a simple cartoon, either an over-the-top force of Evil with a capital E or a sniveling underling to the real enemy of the film, Mr. Shadow. Gary Oldman makes him a bit of both and something more, a man who’s both casually ruthless and utterly terrified.”

In other words, Oldman makes this character megalomaniacal in a way that’s not obvious, choosing instead to find a more distinct way of conveying Zorg’s menace. It’s a perfect example of the creativity that has made him an in-demand performer.

8. JFK’ – The Paranoid Assassin

Gary Oldman as Harvey Lee Oswald

You may not agree with Oliver Stone’s conclusion that the military-industrial complex was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but he certainly makes a compelling argument that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have been the lone culprit. The filmmaker’s epic 1991 drama JFK casts Oldman as Oswald, who famously insisted he was just “a patsy” framed for the act.

Once the actor had his hair cut and was in costume, he bore a strong resemblance to Oswald. Most of what the public saw of this notable figure was his famous denial and the even more famous footage of nightclub owner Jack Ruby gunning him down. Oswald is not the main character in JFK – that would be Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) – but he is a vital character. Oldman invests him with a squirrelly quality that helps sell the film’s underlying idea that he wasn’t bright enough to pull off the sinister act by himself.

JFK was the actor’s first true box office hit, subsequently raising his profile to a significant degree.

9. Hannibal – The Monster

Oldman Put his makeup for Hannibal

In Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Oldman took an uncredited role as Mason Verger, the only person to have survived an attack by the notorious Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter. He now wants revenge against the psychotic shrink, and he’s got one impressively devious plan to achieve it.

Keeping his name off the picture was an intriguing move. Verger is facially disfigured because of Lecter, so Oldman is virtually unrecognizable underneath a ton of prosthetics and makeup. That creates an aura of mystery around the character. Something about him seems familiar, yet it’s hard to place who’s portraying him if you don’t already know. Oldman seemed to realize that this mystery would add something to the film. Whether you can identify him or not, the actor brings his famous intensity, creating a figure who possesses a very unique brand of maliciousness. We believe the violent Lecter might be in danger from this guy. Given the iconic stature of Hopkins-as-Hannibal, that’s a major accomplishment.

10. Bram Stoker’s Dracula – The enigmatic vampire

Gary Oldman as Count Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula came relatively early in Oldman’s career, and it established him as an actor who delves deep into character. The film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, finds him in pasty white old-age makeup, his hair in a weird heart-shaped design. That’s for the aged Dracula. Other scenes show him as a younger vampire, decked out in a black top hat and dark sunglasses to match his long dark hair. Amazingly, such wildly different versions can be played by the same guy.

Beyond that, Oldman gives audiences a different kind of Dracula. His interest isn’t so much in sucking blood, but in finding true love. Mina Harker (Winona Ryder), who resembles his late wife, is the woman he has his eye on. The actor uses his physical appearance to suggest the character’s enigmatic qualities, but he similarly uses his voice to great effect. Writing for The Washington Post, critic Hal Hinson noted, “The dexterity and snaky complexity of his line readings is both awesome and inviting.”

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