Gary Oldman’s Golden Year

2018-06-GaryOldmanThere are actors who have, it seems, only to sneeze to be deluged with awards. Others, despite being regularly named as the best in the business, are just as frequently overlooked and so it was with Gary Oldman. Despite being regularly lauded by his peers and a huge army of fans, it seemed that in the end it took a little Churchillian grit to net him the swag-bag of trophies that his huge talent had always so richly deserved.

Born in the modest South London suburb of New Cross, Gary Leonard Oldman’s beginnings scarcely screamed ‘showbiz’. His father, Leonard, had been a sailor but had given up the sea to work as a welder while his mother Kathleen, to whom Oldman is still very close, struggled to keep enough of a grip on the family finances to raise Gary and his older sisters. Despite once playing for Millwall reserves, Leonard Oldman had become an alcoholic and it was quite common for him to be violent towards his wife, an experience that Oldman later mined for his 1997 directorial debut, Nil By Mouth.

As a youngster, Gary’s interests ranged from following the fortunes of Millwall FC and his idol George Best at Manchester United, to playing the piano. His musical talent absorbed him almost completely until, in 1971, he happened to see Malcolm McDowell’s performance in The Raging Moon. Barely in his teens, he had a sudden and unexpected glimpse of his future path.

By the mid-1970s Oldman had secured a place at the Young People’s Theatre in Greenwich, which provided a solid background in acting while he took on thankless paying jobs, such as working on various assembly lines, beheading pigs in an abattoir and working as a porter in an operating theatre. After being turned down by RADA, Oldman gained a place at Rose Bruford College in Sidcup, from which he graduated with a BA in Acting in 1979.

Famously, Oldman became the first Rose Bruford alumnus in his academic year to find work in the theatre – not that his first stage appearance seemed guaranteed to elevate him to world fame. He made his professional stage debut in a production of Dick Whittington and His Cat at York’s Theatre Royal and the best thing that can be said is that he at least filled one of the titular roles although, unfortunately, it was the feline member of the cast. Still, the young Gary was nothing if not realistic and his training had taught him how to grab the attention of an audience, however modest the role. The production moved to Colchester and, later, to Glasgow’s famous Citizens Theatre, where his work ethic and legendary intensity impressed audiences.

However, it was back in his hometown of London that his career really took off after Max Stafford-Clark, then Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre, happened to spot Oldman in a Chesterfield production of Edward Bond’s Saved and, in 1984, cast him in the lead role of Scopey in another Bond play, The Pope’s Wedding. His performance was so impressive that it netted him his first awards: The Time Out Fringe Award for Best Newcomer and the Drama Theatre Award for Best Actor, although he was forced to share the latter award with Anthony Hopkins who was being rewarded for his stand-out turn in David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda.

The Pope’s Wedding had ensured some enthusiastic audiences, but applause does not necessarily amount to much unless, that is, one of the people clapping until their hands hurt happens to be a controversial movie director. Oldman’s life-changing jump from stage to screen was accomplished at a stroke when Alex Cox turned up at the Royal Court and decided that he had just found the actor destined to be his Sid Vicious. Maybe the early accolades had gone to the young actor’s head, but Oldman twice turned Cox down before finally accepting the role in Sid and Nancy.  "I wasn't really that interested in Sid Vicious and the punk movement. I'd never followed it. It wasn't something that interested me. The script I felt was banal and 'who cares' and 'why bother' and all of that. And I was a little bit sort-of with my nose in the air and sort-of thinking 'well the theatre – so much more superior' and all of that," he admitted later. However, it was Sid and Nancy that introduced mass audiences to Oldman The Chameleon. He bore no more than a glancing resemblance to the late punk bassist, but nonetheless put in a blistering performance that won praise from no less an expert than John Lydon who was close to Vicious, hated the movie but described Oldman as a “bloody good actor”.  

His ability to carry a biopic was also apparent when he was cast as the controversial playwright Joe Orton in Stephen Frears’s Prick Up Your Ears alongside Alfred Molina, who played Kenneth Halliwell, Orton’s lover, burden and – ultimately – murderer. Oldman’s portrayal of the always entertaining but frequently confrontational and difficult Orton earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor. Having viewed both Sid and Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears, respected US movie critic Roger Ebert was moved to comment, “There is no point of similarity between the two performances; like a few gifted actors, [Oldman] is able to re-invent himself for every role. On the basis of these two movies, he is the best young British actor around.”

Not that this new success meant that Oldman had turned his back on the stage. During this halcyon period of movie work he was also appearing in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife and Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money.

His acting career has thankfully always provided a stable foundation because Oldman’s private life has been, to say the least, somewhat rackety. In 1987 he married actress Lesley Manville but, as his father had done before him, walked out on his young family in 1989 when their son, Alfie was only three months old. The pair have repaired their friendship but only after some years of hostility during which Manville was quoted as saying, “He plays a small part [in Alfie’s life], with the accent on the small”. However, fast-forwarding to 2018 when Oldman and Manville both received Academy Award nominations it was Alfie who phoned Oldman to say, “Hey, Dad, you’ve got a nomination and – guess what? – so has Mum!”

As Oldman’s Hollywood career progressed so his relationships became starrier and his problems with alcohol increased. A brief marriage to Uma Thurman followed their appearance in 1990’s State of Grace but its duration was even shorter than his alliance with Lesley Manville and, mercifully, didn’t result in any more children.

In the meantime, his reputation for intensity and menace continued, so it wasn’t surprising that he was one of Oliver Stone’s first choices for the role of alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK. The nature of Oswald’s involvement in the story meant that his appearance was relatively brief but prickled with enough energy to win praise from critics.

Oldman’s profile might already have been high after JFK, but his portrayal of Count Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s retelling of Bram Stoker’s novel somehow raised it to another level altogether. Called upon to be both a crumbling old Transylvanian relic and a much younger, rather sexy Victorian gent about London town, he pulled out all the stops, his talent ensuring that a movie made for $40 million took more than $215 at the box office. The days of interesting but flawed independent films such as Track 29 and Chattahoochee seemed to be over, for the time being at least. Gary Oldman had made it into the pantheon of Hollywood players.

Another memorably menacing role was to follow in Luc Besson’s fantastically violent Léon: The Professional, playing corrupt DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) official, Norman Stansfield. The opening scenes were so graphic that many moviegoers watched through their fingers as a young Natalie Portman hiding under a bed after Stansfield has murdered her parents.

Not that this signalled an end to the eternal biopics. In Immortal Beloved Oldman was able to put his early love for the piano into practise as he played Ludwig van Beethoven, reducing one journalist who had arrived to conduct an on-location interview to helpless laughter after he cracked his fingers and growled, “I’m just off to tickle the ivories!” in a broad South London accent that entirely belied his eighteenth-century costume.

In 1995, while in an alcohol rehabilitation unit he met Donya Fiorentino who he would, despite the usual warnings about not becoming involved with fellow addicts in a rehab setting, go on to marry in 1997. When the marriage inevitably fell apart in 2001, Oldman was awarded full custody of his two sons, Gulliver and Charlie so erratic and unreliable was Fiorentino’s behaviour. She was clearly not prepared to let bygones be bygones either, alleging in the run-up to the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony that Oldman was guilty of domestic abuse, beating her with a telephone, among other infractions. This was hotly refuted by both Gulliver and Charlie who praised Oldman’s parenting skills and accused their mother of lying to the press.

The end of his marriage to Fiorentino would also mark the beginning of an unexpectedly fallow period for Oldman’s acting career. Despite some prominent appearances in the popular sitcom, Friends there was precious little call for him in Hollywood. It wasn’t until 2004, when he was invited to read for the part of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise, that he really returned to prominence. This led to another part in a successful series when he was cast as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Batman story, Batman Begins. After Oldman was recalled for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, respected movie critic Mark Kermode opted out of the argument as to whether Christian Bale as Batman or the late Heath Ledger as The Joker turned in the better performance by reporting, “The best performance in the film, by a mile, is Gary Oldman's ... it would be lovely to see him get a[n Academy Award] nomination because actually, he's the guy who gets kind of overlooked in all of this.”

Oldman would have to wait until 2011 for his first Academy Award nod, when he was nominated for his superbly restrained turn as George Smiley in Thomas Alfredson’s movie adaptation of John Le Carré’s popular spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Originally played by an elderly Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC TV series, Smiley was a quiet, grey character short on glamour and fizz, but Oldman took the role and ran off with it firmly clamped between his jaws and casting directors once again pricked up their ears and picked up their phones.

With his slight frame and mop of hair, nobody was going to award Gary Oldman any bonus points for his natural resemblance to Sir Winston Churchill, but director Joe Wright was convinced that he was the man to fill the lead role in Darkest Hour. Oldman was up for a challenge and, in a new and happy relationship with writer and art curator Gisele Schmidt after his fourth marriage to British actress and singer Alexandra Edenborough ended, he had plenty of support on the domestic front.    

History would prove that not only – with the cunning application of some state-of-the-art prosthetics – could Oldman take on the physical shape of Britain’s legendary wartime leader, he also had the attitude to capture every nuance of Churchill’s personality. His portrayal was loudly proclaimed a triumph by most movie critics and the raft of honours that Oldman’s huge army of fans considered his natural right finally drifted his way. Darkest Hour ultimately netted Oldman more than a dozen gongs, including a BAFTA and an Academy Award. Despite the fact that he had decamped some years before to the starry LA district of Los Feliz, the British tabloids sent a small battalion of photographers to capture Oldman in playful mood posing at his house with his proud mother Kathleen, his wife and his glittering array of awards.

If there was a clearer way to announce his arrival to the top-tier of Hollywood actors, it was difficult to imagine what it might be. And, after all, it had been one hell of a journey.

Gary Oldman Quotes:

“Getting sober was one of the three pivotal events in my life, along with becoming an actor and having a child. Of the three, finding my sobriety was the hardest thing.”

“You choose your friends by their character and your socks by their colour.”

“I was quiet, a loner. I was one of those children where, if you put me in a room and gave me some crayons and pencils, you wouldn't hear from me for nine straight hours. And I was always drawing racing cars and rockets and spaceships and planes, things that were very fast that would take me away.”

“I did have a knack for playing weirdos. There's still sort of this perception of me out there as being this crazy guy.”

“I grew up in Deptford in south London, and at that time I used to wear toppers, loon pants and tonic suits from shops like Take 6 and Topman. I was a bit of a soul boy, but I had a very eclectic taste in music - I was into James Brown and Bowie; and I was the only kid in the neighbourhood who would also be listening to Chopin.”

“I don't go to premieres. I don't go to parties. I don't covet the Oscar. I don't want any of that. I don't go out. I just have dinner at home every night with my kids. Being famous, that's a whole other career. And I haven't got any energy for it.”

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