The Man of Many Faces: Gary Oldman’s Best Performances
In the near 40 years he’s worked in Hollywood, Gary Oldman has become one of the most prolific actors in the film industry for his ability to embody a wide variety of characters, and his next role as the highly-regarded former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour might earn him his first Oscar, with early reviews lauding it as his best performance yet. In honor of the film’s release, let’s take a look back at some of his best characters from his filmography.
Sid Vicious – Sid and Nancy
- Release: 1986
- Rotten Tomatoes: 87% “Certified Fresh” from Critics, 76% from Audiences
His name is synonymous in his work towards giving rise to the punk rock movement of the United Kingdom for his work as a bassist in the seminal band, the Sex Pistols. Sid Vicious also was renowned for his destructive behavior, drug abuse and unhealthy codependent relationship with his girlfriend, and eventual manager, Nancy Spungen. While it may seem easy to portray someone addicted to drugs and lashing out against society, it takes a skilled actor to tell the devastating story of Sid and his damaged psyche and humanity and his struggles with falling in love with Nancy and the tragic end of their relationship, in which he stabbed Nancy to death. Oldman brought the real character of Vicious to life with power and created a sympathetic and thought-provoking image of the punk rocker that both appeased fans of the band, as well as opened up new people to being fans of the late artist.
Lee Harvey Oswald – JFK
- Release: 1991
- Rotten Tomatoes: 84% “Certified Fresh” from Critics, 88% from Audiences
In what was one of the most twisting and intriguing films of its genre, Oliver Stone worked to open audiences’ minds to the conspiratorial possibilities behind the assassination of beloved President John F. Kennedy and the ensuing investigation that stemmed from it regarding the alleged cover-ups and theories related to it. While controversial both at the time and still today for potential liberties being taken with the facts in the film, it still earned praise for its direction and performances, and one of the more quiet, yet-thrilling was Oldman’s turn as alleged JFK sniper Lee Harvey Oswald. Despite only being seen in flashbacks with not nearly as much dialogue as the rest of the cast, Oldman brought Oswald to life with a cold and calculated approach that helped to further engage the audiences’ suspicions of whether he did or did not do it, as well as whether he acted alone or in a group.
Count Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Dracula
- Release: 1992
- Rotten Tomatoes: 76% “Certified Fresh” from Critics, 79% from Audiences
After years of campy and unremarkable adaptations of the Transylvanian Noble, acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola decided to deliver a more grounded and return to eerie atmosphere for the classic horror novel, and not only did he succeed with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but so did Oldman in delivering one of the most chilling yet seductive iterations of the role yet. By combining a towering persona with a very charming and sensual voice, Oldman draws audiences in along with Mina Harker to both fall in love with the Count while still fear him deep in our hearts.
Norman Stansfield – Léon: The Professional
- Release: 1994
- Rotten Tomatoes: 71% “Certified Fresh” from Critics, 95% from Audiences
In his first outing with French action director Luc Besson, Oldman delivered what was one of his most villainous, psychotic and divine performances of his career in the hypnotic thriller Léon: The Professional. Following a seasoned hitman in New York who agrees to make a 12-year old his protégée after her family is murdered by a corrupt DEA agent, the film featured some beautiful storytelling and action. But what really made the film a thrill to watch was Oldman’s deliriously-manic performance as corrupt DEA agent and drug addict Norman Stansfield. He delivers every line and kills every victim in such a cold and psychotic manner that it still to this day is one of his most powerful performances of his career.
Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg – The Fifth Element
- Release: 1997
- Rotten Tomatoes: 72% from Critics, 86% from Audiences
In his follow up with Besson just three years later, Oldman reconnected with what made his Stansfield performance such a thrill to watch and, combined with Besson’s much more humor-centric script, delivered the deliciously villainous performance of Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in the hit sci-fi cult classic, The Fifth Element. In the film, Oldman plays the industrialist Zorg, who is hired by an alien race to track down a collection of elemental stones that could be used to defeat the great evil they are working for, while also fighting against a former special forces operative-turned-taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). In a role that blends political satire, harsh villainy and a bit of subtle self-ridicule, Oldman delivers loads of laughs and a strong villain that makes it captivating to watch.
Mason Verger – Hannibal
- Release: 2001
- Rotten Tomatoes: 39% from Critics, 62% from Audiences
Despite being the poorest-received entry into the Hannibal Lecter franchise, one of the few things that earned the 2001 sequel Hannibal some praise was Oldman’s disturbed performance as wealthy child molester and surviving Hannibal victim, Mason Verger, who uses his influence to have FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling reassigned to the fugitive Lecter case in hopes of drawing him out of hiding. Totally unrecognizable under disturbing prosthetic makeup for the character’s disfigured face, lacking a nose and most of the tissue on his face, Oldman still powers through the makeup to bring the depraved and psychopathic Verger to life.
Sirius Black – The Harry Potter Franchise
- Films: 4
- Releases: 2004, 2005, 2007, 2011
He’s arguably the character that pulled at the heartstrings the most of every fan of both the book and film adaptations of the Harry Potter franchise, and Oldman was one of the driving reasons behind why the film iteration of Sirius Black was so well-loved. Growing up, Black’s closest friend was James Potter and he went on to be the best man at James and Lily’s wedding, and being named Harry’s godfather at his birth. After being murdered by Voldemort, Sirius sought out Peter Pettigrew for his betrayal leading to Harry’s parents’ death and was framed by Pettigrew for killing 12 Muggles, resulting in Black’s imprisonment. After discovering the truth about Black, he and Harry became as close as James and Sirius once were, with Sirius offering plenty of advice and comfort to harry through his trials and tribulations. Oldman did well to portray Sirius with such a warm and human approach that it wonderfully transferred the character from the pages of the books to the frames on the screen.
James Gordon – The Dark Knight Trilogy
- Films: 3
- Releases: 2005, 2008, 2012
Commissioner Jim Gordon has always been one of the strongest side characters in the Batman comic books, working tirelessly to bring down the corruption in the city and defend the decision to allow Batman to continue his vigilante justice in Gotham. While previous iterations of Gordon have never truly shown this strength, relying on his dependence on Batman personality, Oldman’s portrayal of the Commissioner (Sergeant in Batman Begins) was the first step in showing in a live-action version that Gordon could take down criminals on his own. In grounding the character as someone both faithful in Batman and skeptical of his brand of crime-fighting, Oldman helped audiences connect to Gordon very quickly and helped audiences see a new side of the character, who would later be seen as an even stronger and independent lawman in the Fox prequel series, Gotham, with Ben McKenzie in the role.
Floyd Banner – Lawless
- Release: 2012
- Rotten Tomatoes: 67% from Critics, 74% from Audiences
Despite our love for him as a hero, there’s no denying Oldman is equally as brilliant at being a villain, and his role as ruthless mobster Floyd Banner in the 2012 crime western Lawless. While only a villain for the first half of the film, Oldman was thoroughly enjoyable to watch as Banner for the entirety of the film, seeing him go from an unsympathetic and brutally-violent killer working against the lead characters to a close ally and frequent client of the protagonist bootleggers showed a strong sense of character development in not only the writing, but also Oldman’s strong performance.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)