Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Strange Career of Gary Oldman

If one makes the comparison, as many have, between cinema and another of its artistic brethren, painting, then most conventional Hollywood films would be characterized as realistic still lifes, with an emphasis on pleasing reproductions of reality. In 1986, however, the world was introduced to one of its first cinematic abstract expressionists, actor Gary Oldman. With a brooding intensity matched only by Al Pacino, Oldman slashed at his canvas with wild strokes of emotion and gesture, occasionally in drips but primarily in pools. Becoming famous in the ’90s for breathing life into a series of challenging characters (many of which are now considered the most iconic villains in cinema history), this classically trained artist has spent his illustrious career establishing an overacting chic, diverting criticism by masterfully immersing every ounce of energy and zeal into his alter egos.

Despite portraying often repulsive and terrifying individuals, Oldman’s work has made him a beloved and welcomed presence in the Hollywood landscape, with three decades worth of fans, who have come to expect from him performances that are explosive, dynamic, and, most of all, primal. While the brunt of Oldman’s polar career has been typified by his emphasis on wildness, his recent work has been redirected toward weariness, with many depictions of elder characters negotiating their way through a world that has rendered them obsolete. For the first time in his life, Oldman has begun to receive widespread critical acclaim for this new, decidedly tamer stage, including his first ever Academy Award nomination for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011). With such a varied and prolific career, the legend is only now after twenty-five years earning the recognition he so justly deserves.

Transitioning to film after a promising start as a theatrical actor, the twenty-eight year old Oldman left his first indelible mark on the screen with his sympathetic portrayal of the troubled bassist of the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious, in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986). Perhaps one of the most impactful breakthrough roles in history, Oldman’s Vicious erupted with a visceral authenticity that haunted not only critics and fans but the original members of the Sex Pistols as well. Propelled by this success, Oldman continued to blaze a unique trail, garnering more attention for his versatile work in Prick Up Your Ears (1987) (for which he received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor), and Chattahoochee (1989).

Building a reputation in the acting community as a uniquely intense individual, Oldman spent the ’90s in a series of roles that would become his hallmark, antagonistic forces of nature. Beginning with his turn as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and reaching prominence with his depiction of the titular Count in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Oldman proved an adeptness at not only tackling enigmatic figures and, perhaps more impressively, infusing them with nuance and texture. In so doing, Oldman brought individuality to these oft-imitated characters by giving them more complex personalities than other performers have.

By the mid-’90s, pigeonholed as a villainous character actor, Oldman began departing from sympathetic portrayals of outsiders and redirecting towards figures of pure evil. With his trademark sinister grin and penetrating eyes, Oldman became a one-man maelstrom, mesmerizing audiences in films like The Fifth Element (1997) and True Romance (1993), his work as the  scarred, dreadlocked pimp, Drexl Spivey in the latter being his personal favorite. The crowning achievement of this period is Oldman’s turn as the maniacal, corrupt DEA agent, Norman Stansfield in The Professional (1994), in which he inflates the typical bad cop characterization to its breaking point. Audiences will recall the most enduring moment of the epically histrionic performance, as Oldman’s shotgun-toting Stansfield gleefully murders an entire family in their apartment while dancing to classical music playing in his head.

In these roles from the beginning to the middle of the ’90s, Oldman elevated scenery chewing to the realm of art. What endeared audiences rather than repelled them was the manner in which he committed himself to his madness. To those that were transfixed by his presence, Oldman couldn’t have possibly been a mere actor but must have been some kind of madman that had stumbled onto set, or, perhaps, even into the devil himself. With an intimidating physicality, Oldman became a dangerous entity, one boasting the skills of the most classically trained method actors but with enough bravery and fearlessness to transform himself into a different creature entirely. This required a willingness by Oldman to embrace his personal darkness, a feat few actors are capable of achieving.

Despite evoking such vivid characters, Oldman was predictably eschewed during award season on an annual basis. Earning a cult icon status, Oldman was universally regarded as the most underappreciated actor in Hollywood, the anti-Daniel Day-Lewis. With few alternatives, Oldman delved deeper into mainstream Hollywood blockbusters like Lost in Space (1998) and Air Force One (1997).

Soon after Oldman’s critically acclaimed portrayal of the conniving Republican Sheldon Runyan in the political thriller, The Contender (2000), the actor unceremoniously disappeared from theaters, with rare sightings in forgettable small-scale pictures and as a recurring guest star on Friends (1994-2004). For four years, Oldman was gone.  With his bevy of fans clamoring for his return, the actor was cast in two of the most promising film franchises, with unspecified roles in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Batman Begins (2005). Despite speculation that he would return to his niche of depicting psychopaths, fans were shocked to find that he wouldn’t be playing iconic villains Voldemort or the Joker, but instead was seemingly miscast as Sirius Black and future Commissioner James Gordon, both of whom are typified by their silent suffering, their impotence, and their paternal relationships to the protagonists. When these films were released, audiences began to witness the unthinkable: Oldman was an old man. Long gone were the days of sound and fury; they were replaced now with weariness and fragility, even in rare villainous roles like his portrayal of Carnegie in The Book of Eli (2010). This has alerted audiences to what has already been evident – that the king lion has lost his fangs.

Despite departing so drastically from what brought him success earlier in his career, Oldman has begun converting skeptics into believers, due in large part to the integrity that he brings to each character, indiscriminant of budget. Strategically selecting roles that match his newfound, subdued persona, Oldman began to turn heads for his work as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Playing a retired British intelligence agent hunting a mole in the Cold War-era MI6, Oldman elevates his new acting profile to sensational heights. Highlighted by moments of devastating disillusionment, Oldman brings substance and depth to a character hiding behind a shield of stoicism and austerity. Oldman’s Smiley takes on the personality of its actor, who is exhausted from a life of attrition.

For this understated work, perhaps the first of his profession, Oldman was rewarded with his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.   Often too provocative and bestial for the “refined” Academy, Oldman’s nomination marks the culmination of a tortuous career, one befitting a great rebel of the screen. A pioneer that has become a source of inspiration to an entire generation of younger actors ranging from Tom Hardy to Brad Pitt, Oldman has built an admirable career defined by something so unique to the acting community—an uncompromising will to show, not to tell. Trading a life of muscle-strained fury for one of quiet intensity, Oldman has transformed right in front of our eyes. His recent renaissance, though belying the manner in which he rose to prominence, gives proof to the remarkable nature of his artistry.

2 comments for “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Strange Career of Gary Oldman

  1. soa
    March 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    he also played beethoven

  2. Drew
    January 7, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Where is mention of Leon?

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