Can I Get A Witness? The Case for Gary Oldman

This is Part I of a two-part series [Part II HERE] examining the enigmatic career and embattled personal life of one of the greatest actors of all time, Gary Oldman.

There has been a lot of Oscar buzz over Gary Oldman’s performance as espionage veteran George Smiley in his latest film, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. However, at 53 years old and despite over 40 films to his credit, Oldman is still an enigma to many. His career as a film actor is often difficult to define. As Oldman’s manager, Douglas Urbanski, puts it: “The studios are never sure if he’s an arthouse actor or a movie star.”

His brilliance as an actor, however, has always bubbled just beneath the surface of the recognition it merits. The quality of his body of work can only be compared to a small handful of actors. He brings an intensity to his roles that rivals early Brando and Pacino. Of his generation, only two-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn can be mentioned in the same breath as Oldman. His “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” co-star, Colin Firth, an Academy Award winner himself, described Oldman as "a candidate for the title of 'greatest living actor'”. Yet Gary Oldman has never won an Academy Award. Moreover, he has never even been nominated for an Academy Award. Surprised?

Well then, this should really surprise you - the list of actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award, none of whom should ever be compared to Mr. Oldman: Ryan O’Neal, Sylvester Stallone, Dudley Moore, Tom Hulce, Sam Waterston, Kevin Costner, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Randy Quaid, Mickey Rooney, Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Sam Shepard, Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita(!), Robert Loggia, Tom Berenger, Danny Aiello, Pete Postlethwaite, Chazz Palminteri, Ethan Hawke, John C. Reilly, Alan Alda, Clive Owen, and Eddie Murphy.

Want more? The following actors, none of whom are even in the same universe as Oldman, have actually won Academy Awards: Louis Gossett, Jr., Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, Tim Robbins, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (you heard right).

An injustice, yes?

Of course, there’s more to Gary Oldman than the egregious lack of recognition he’s received by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Mirroring Oldman’s enigmatic career as an actor has been his beleaguered personal life. Several failed marriages, ugly custody battles for his children, accusations of drug use, a long-standing battle with alcoholism and his subsequent rehabilitation.

But if we go back even further, we’ll find that both the source of Gary Oldman’s brooding intensity as an actor as well as his personal demons go back to his early childhood in Hatcham Park Road, one of south London's rougher areas, where he was born Gary Leonard Oldman on March 21, 1958.

Gary Oldman

Early Life

His mother was a singer who would often sing to entertain soldiers during WW II. His father, a former sailor who worked as a welder, was an abusive alcoholic. When Oldman was only seven years old, his father left them for a younger woman. “When my dad left us we did not have two halfpennies to rub together” recalls Oldman. “My mum got us through, she was heroic.”

Oldman, who years later in therapy would confess that he blamed himself for his father’s departure, was left to be raised by his “mum” and two older sisters. “My world was movies and television” says Oldman. “I saw Malcolm McDowell in a movie called ‘Raging Moon’ (aka ‘Long Ago Tomorrow’, 1970) and that was it. It was like a moment of clarity. That was the lightning bolt.”

Uninspired by school, he dropped out at 15 years old and signed on to the Greenwich Young People's Theatre. He won a scholarship to the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent after being told by the folks at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), one of the most renowned drama schools in the world, to “think about doing something else for a living” after auditioning for them. He graduated from Rose Buford in 1979 with a BA in Theatre Arts.

Oldman then embarked on a successful career in the theater making his debut playing the role of Puss in in "Dick Whittington And His Wonderful Cat" at the York Theatre Royal. His stage success led to several stints with the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Company, the most famous classical theatre company in the world.

Gary Oldman in

Film Work

Oldman soon began taking small roles in films like “Rememberance” [1982] and Mike Leigh’s bittersweet drama “Meantime” [1983] where he plays a quirky skinhead named Coxy alongside another rising young actor named Tim Roth. His onscreen intensity gained the attention of director Alex Cox, who had just finished the cult-classic “Repo Man”. Cox cast Oldman as the drug-addicted bassist for the legendary punk outfit the Sex Pistols in “Sid and Nancy” [1986]. Oldman’s mesmerizing portrayal as the troubled Sid Vicious went on to be ranked #62 in Premiere magazine's "100 Greatest Performances of All Time". The role also made Oldman a cult star here in the US.

During the filming of “Sid and Nancy”, Oldman reconnected with the father he had had little contact with since the age of seven. They began exchanging letters and had even arranged a meeting. Unfortunately, the reconciliation would never occur as Oldman’s father, a life-long alcoholic, would pass away at the age of 62. “I did miss him”, revealed Oldman. “I think there are things I would have liked to have done with him.”

Oldman would go on to earn a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination playing the precocious British playwright Joe Orton in Stephen Frears’ “Prick Up Your Ears” [1987]. He would also marry successful stage actress Lesley Manville who bore him a son named Alfred. Budding stardom, a heavy workload, and the pain of the lost opportunity to reconcile with his father doomed the marriage only two years after his son was born.

Gary Oldman and Sean Penn

The States

After delivering yet another strong performance in Nicolas Roeg’s hallucinatory drama “Track 29” [1988], Oldman was off to the US to star in Martin Campbell’s half-baked thriller "Criminal Law". Oldman’s performance as a hotshot Boston defense lawyer drew praise from critics. His performance as a mentally ill Korean War vet in 1989’s “Chattahoochee” was also hailed by critics. The American accent, long since the undoing of many a British actor transitioning to American roles, proved no problem for Oldman. In what would become one of his trademarks, Oldman could master any accent.

He then starred alongside Sean Penn, perhaps the best young actor on our side of the ocean, in the stylish gangster drama “State of Grace”. In the film, Oldman plays Jackie Flannery, a tragic small-time hood in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.

Roger Ebert stated in his film review: “What's best about 'State of Grace' is what's unique to it - the twisted vision of the Oldman character, who lives in a world of evil and betrayal and has somehow thought himself around to the notion that he is doing the right thing.”

Janet Maslin of the New York Times: "Mr. Oldman gives an electrifying performance that both establishes a tragic, terrifying character and explains why that character's world is such a perilous place.”

When asked by an interviewer how he managed to affect his New York accent, Oldman replied, “I spent many hours in Irish bars doing the other thing I liked, which is drinking.” Like his father, Oldman had begun to develop a dependence on alcohol. "It's like a blueprint, a genetic one. Even though he left when I was very young and I didn't see him or know him, in my adult life, it's like I'm walking in his shoes and making all the same mistakes."

During the filming of “State of Grace”, Oldman would meet a young Uma Thurman, who was dating the film’s director Phil Joanou at the time. Oldman and Thurman (12 years his junior) hit it off so well that by the next year they would be married. Two years later, with both of their careers taking off and Oldman’s continued abuse of alcohol, they would separate.

Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker's Dracula)

Oliver Stone & Francis Ford Coppola

Oldman went on to play Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” [1991]. “Oliver saw me in 'State of Grace' and that's what convinced him to cast me as Oswald”, recalls Oldman. “He said he saw an 'intensity' and 'haunted quality' in my character and wanted Oswald to have that same sort of withdrawn, haunted quality.”

Oldman’s hypnotic performance as Oswald (passed over by the Academy in favor of Oldman’s “JFK” co-star Tommy Lee Jones) gained the attention of Francis Ford Coppola who cast Oldman as the lead in his 1992 film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

Oldman on working with Copolla: “Coppola gives you room, gives you space, leaves you alone, really. It comes back to that thing of casting well and knowing when not to say something. With Francis, you would do a take and he would say, 'Oh, I like what you did there - do another one.’ And it might be slightly different, and he would pick up on it and say, 'I like that, too. Give me another one.’ And so it would go on.”

Despite several heated exchanges between Oldman and Coppola during the four weeks of rehearsal and false rumors that he had had an affair with co-star Winona Ryder on the set, Oldman delivered a tour de force performance playing Dracula in a number of incarnations. His performance, however, was again ignored by the Academy. “My first and foremost responsibility is to the character”, said Oldman. “If I invest that with truth then at least I tried.”

It was during this time that Oldman’s personal life really began to unravel. His separation with Uma Thurman and his newfound “leading man” status led to heavier drinking and partying with Hollywood “bad boy”, Keifer Sutherland. Oldman was ultimately arrested on DUI charges in 1991 and given a 6-month ban and 89 hours of house arrest, complete with a new-fangled alarm bracelet.

“It's a very strange way of earning one's living. You have to summon up emotions, because acting is feeling.” said Oldman in a 2000 interview in Venice Magazine. “In my experience of two decades acting, I am convinced that it is not intellectual. First of all, it's concentration. And it is a sensation. It's a physical thing. You have to plug-in, or connect somewhere to stimulate the required emotion. Then at the end of the day, someone says "Cut. Wrap." and you're supposed to sort of go home and be all sort of nice and sane, and fluffy. And you've been invoking the spirit of your dead father all day, or whatever, to get to 'the place'."

Gary Oldman (Norman Stansfield)

Work, however, kept coming. Oldman had a scene-stealing turn as a Rastafarian drug-dealing pimp(!) in Tony Scott’s “True Romance”, ("a practiced movie thief", declared Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). He then played a morally bankrupt police officer (with a desperation that few actors can match) in Peter Medak’s under-appreciated “Romeo is Bleeding” which he followed with one of his most popular roles as the psychotic, fantastically corrupt pill-popping DEA agent Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s “The Professional”.

Richard Schickel of TIME magazine hailed Oldman’s performance as “divinely psychotic”, while Mark Salisbury of Empire magazine described it as “astonishingly histrionic”. Noah Walden of MSN Movies declared Oldman's portrayal of Stansfield as “the role that launched a thousand villains”.

Oldman went on to take the starring role as Beethoven in 1994’s “Immortal Beloved”. Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote: “Mr. Oldman is never far-fetched, and he captures Beethoven as a believably brilliant figure struggling with his deafness and other demons. His performance combines bitterness and eccentricity with the deep romanticism that can be heard in the music.” The performance, again, was ignored by the Academy.

Oldman, however, would settle into a relationship with his “Immortal Beloved” co-star, Isabella Rossellini, who was six years his senior and they soon became engaged. Oldman continued working taking on a supporting role as a sadistic Alcatraz warden in 1995’s “Murder In The First” and an ill-fated turn as Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in Roland Joffé’s unconvincing “The Scarlet Letter”. The film was universally panned by critics and bombed at the box office.

During the filming of "The Scarlet Letter", Oldman admitted to not being able to remember his lines due to his heavy drinking. “I started to sort of panic”, recalls Oldman. “And at the end of the day, I had to have an ear-piece put in my ear and there was someone who was reading the lines into my ear. That woke me up.”

Oldman’s excessive drinking would also doom his two-year relationship with Rossellini and send him to seek treatment for his alcoholism. “In a way I was challenged; I was forced to say, ‘I have this illness and I suffer from this.’ I don't know many people who in some ways, their lives aren't affected by "the ism" - by alcohol and drug-taking and all those other things we put under the umbrella.”

Oldman's life would soon take another turn after a chance meeting with the ex-wife of a famous film director at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Beverly Hills.

Stay tuned for Part II of my post next week...


TRAILER for "State of Grace"

"Bring me everyone." [from The Professional]

TRAILER for "Immortal Beloved"

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