Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The 5 Best: Gary Oldman

"Death is whimsical today."
-Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman)
in The Professional

The LAMB (that's the Large Association of Movie Blogs, for those not in the know) is putting together a retrospective of Gary Oldman this month. I thought this would be a good time to reflect on the great performances of this fiery actor. As always with these lists, it's tough when you're leaving something out. His repertoire is littered with juicy performances. I also loved his work as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, as well as his villainous turn as Ivan in Air Force One, Commissioner Gordon in the updated Batman franchise (a rare and refreshing good guy role) and Jackie Flanery in State of Grace. Most Oldman fans would probably single out his portrayal of Sid Vicious in the cult classic, Sid & Nancy, but I haven't seen it, nor that of his Beethoven portrayal in Immortal Beloved. I was unimpressed with Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Fifth Element and Hannibal. Those films were wastes of talent for all involved. And finally, his roles in Romeo is Bleeding and Murder In the First were admired at first sight but failed to leave any long lasting impressions.

So with all that said, without further ado, my favorite Gary Oldman performances - in no particular order.

Stansfield in The Professional (1994)
Far and away, the best and most visceral performance of his career. In Luc Besson's classic thriller that launched the careers of Jean Reno and Natalie Portman, Oldman plays DEA agent Norman Stansfield, a sleazy, live wire scumbag of a cop who murdered Portman's family in cold blood. He's also a drug addict, gladly stealing and using the evidence from his crime scenes. Oldman plays Stansfield with such feral intensity that is frightening to watch because you know precisely what he's capable of.

Shelly Runyon in The Contender (2000)
In Rod Lurie's terrific political drama, Jeff Bridges received the lion's share of the film's accolades for his fantastic portrayal of President Jackson Evans. Evans nominates Lainey Hanson (Joan Allen, also great) to be his VP before his term ends, and the nomination committee chairman Shelly Runyon (Oldman) pulls out all of the stops to make sure it doesn't happen. He's blatantly sexist, believes that a woman should not have power in high office. He's a gossip-monger and relishes the fact that he holds the evidence that just may take her down. It's a snarky, oily performance, and with his paunchy figure and curly locks, Oldman disappears into the role.

Drexl Spivey in True Romance (1993)
True Romance, one of my favorite films of all time, is littered with great actors in small, powerful performances. Walken and Hopper may have left lasting impressions, but Oldman's brief portrayal of drug dealer Drexl does not go unnoticed. He's covered in garish clothing, long and twisty dreadlocks, gold teeth, glass eye. He doesn't have to say anything and he just creeps you out. But when he does talk...you're just hanging on for dear life. "Why you trippin? We just fuckin' wit' ya!"

Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991)
Oldman uncannily looks like Oswald, doesn't he? I think his performance here as the most mysterious figure in the "conspiracy" - did he act alone or not? - singles him out as the most effective and memorable among a cast of greats. You've got Pesci, Jones, Sutherland, Lemmon, Matthau, et. al. all playing colorful and enigmatic supporting characters (and very well, mind you). But, plain and simple, Oldman is Oswald.

Emmett Foley in Chattahoochee (1989)
Chattahoochee is not a great movie but it is a well-acted one (Hopper and McDormand are terrific as well). Oldman was a relatively fresh young face when this came out, and I'll never forget this as the film I first witnessed his work as an actor. It's a live wire performance - he's a mentally unhinged war vet - and his electric intensity becomes a trademark he eventually perfects in the years to come. For me, Emmett Foley was the birth of a great, edgy actor.


PETE said...

Ah, Oldman. He blasted onto the scene as Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's 1986 biopic Sid & Nancy, but the first time I ever saw him on screen, and found him absolutely electrifying, was in Phil Joanou's underrated hell's kitchen crime saga, State Of Grace (for which you tipped the hat to Ed Harris in a past 5 Best column). Oldman's portrayal of short-fused lowlife Jackie Flannery made the movie.

Oldman's quirky baddies - The Professional may be the best example - whether painfully over-the-top (The Fifth Element) or right on the money (Air Force One) always lend an air of flare and bravado to the material, often rendering what would otherwise be bland stock characterizations into sublimely delicious performances.

And for my tastes, never was he better than as the tragic/romantic lead in Coppola's 1993 re-imagining of Bram Stoker's Dracula. No one licks blood from a straight razor with more gleeful delight. Come on, man!

Emma said...

Great choices :) It's tough to decide the 5 best as he's brilliant in every film he's in!

Anonymous said...

His turn as Sid Vicious and as Beethoven were truly inspired performances. And now as Smiley, another incredible performance and as different a character as he could possibly be. Truly an actor's actor and always engaging.

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