The 1980s was a dazzling era for young, explosive British actors and two of the brightest fireworks in the box were Gary Oldman and
They will compete next month in a Brit-off at the Golden Globes for the best actor prize, with the rivalry likely to continue at the Oscars in March. Day-Lewis, 60, has been nominated for his absorbing portrayal of a controlling, fastidious dressmaker in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant Phantom Thread, in which he stars with Lesley Manville, Oldman’s first of five wives to date. (They were married from 1987 to 1990.)
Meanwhile, Oldman, who is 59, is the favourite to win for his grand, but cartoonish Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, where he fumes and puffs through a faceful of prosthetic padding, while the director, Joe Wright, over-eggs the pudding with pointlessly fussy effects and angles. Oldman recently declared himself “amazed, flattered and very proud” to be up for a Golden Globe, a departure from his view five years ago, when he observed that
It will be a pity if his Churchill comes to be seen as his late-career pinnacle when he has done so much else that is so much better. But time is marching on and Day-Lewis, who is retiring after Phantom Thread, already has three best actor Oscars; Darkest Hour is Oldman’s best chance of decorating his mantelpiece. He has been disarmingly honest about his career and its shortcomings: he once described his great 1980s performances as giving him “a push up to the middle, where I’ve been ever since”. With this in mind, those rooting for Oldman seem to be asking: if not now, then when?
While Day-Lewis has picked his parts carefully over the last few decades, Oldman has often vacuumed up whatever was available, happy to pay the bills instead of guarding the reputation. It wasn’t always so. In 1984, the director Stephen Frears offered Oldman the part of an ex-National Front bully boy who falls in love with a Pakistani entrepreneur in My Beautiful Laundrette.
“Well, to be really honest with you, it’s not how people talk, is it, in London?” Oldman said after reading Hanif Kureishi’s script.
“So, not interested, really?” Frears asked.
“No, not really.”
The role went to Day-Lewis and put a rocket under his career; soon, he had won his first best actor Oscar, for My Left Foot. Not that Oldman was on his uppers. After arresting work as an aimless skinhead in Mike Leigh’s Meantime, he delivered two of the most humane, indelible performances of that decade, both as doomed real-life figures: Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, one of the most searching films in all of British cinema, and the impish playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (directed by Frears and written by Alan Bennett).
With those pictures following one another straight out of the gate, audiences could marvel at his versatility as well as his talent. The pogoing, bull-in-a-china-shop Sid Vicious swagger, right next to Orton’s prowling, feline grace. How could it be the same man?
He filled out that decade with more eccentricity and fearlessness: Nicolas Roeg and Dennis Potter’s Track 29, a kind of Oedipal Looney Tune, and Alan Clarke’s The Firm, in which he was chilling as an estate agent with a nasty moustache and a nastier sideline in hooliganism.
The plum roles were his for the taking. He played Dracula for Coppola, Lee Harvey Oswald for Oliver Stone, Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. It can sometimes seem as if Gandhi and Virginia Woolf were the only major roles to have eluded him.
During this golden period, which saw him convert the integrity and intensity of his British work into cold, hard dollars (and prompted a move to the US, where he has lived since), other forces intervened. He began to live hard and drink harder; he went in and out of rehab as though his braces were caught on the door. He was drawn to the edge of the cliff on screen as well as off, with demented showboating to rival Pacino at his hammiest in Léon and Air Force One.
But these undistinguished movies served a purpose: they helped fund his searing directorial debut, Nil By Mouth. Based on his upbringing in New Cross, it picked over the lives of one family (a violent man, his black-and-blue partner, her smack-addicted brother) on an oppressive council estate, though Oldman corrected, belatedly, the misapprehension that the main character was based on his father: “[He] was never violent. He just used to come home and go to bed.” It remains his only film as a director: alert, tender, beautiful and horrifying, with not a single false note or superficial choice.
‘I went to drama school, did plays, lived in the States for a long time. But when I sat down to write it in New York, it all just came out. It’s that old thing: no matter where you go, you pack yourself in your suitcase with all your issues, all your baggage.” If one were forced to name Oldman’s greatest contribution to cinema, it would not be perverse to pick this film, in which he is vividly present without once showing his face.
If most of his fiercest screen acting work predates Nil By Mouth, that can be perhaps attributed to the personal and professional uncertainty that set in in the early part of this century. When his third marriage, to photographer Donya Fiorentino, ended in 2001, leaving him with custody of his two youngest sons, he reassessed his life. “I woke up one day and was 43 years old and I was a single dad and had these two kids. It wasn’t exactly what I’d planned, but there it was, in front of me… So I just made a decision to be at home more. It was an opportunity to do it in the way I’d always imagined doing it, albeit doing it on my own.”
Shortly before, he had also faced a difficult period in Hollywood, when perceptions surrounding his rightwing views, which
Since then, he has concentrated on doing only movies that would pay handsomely and take him away from home as little as possible, which is how he came to feature in two of the biggest blockbuster franchises in cinema history: Harry Potter (where he was Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, from the third instalment onwards) and the Dark Knight trilogy (in which he played Police Commissioner James Gordon). In 2012, he was crowned the
“Really good leading roles are few and far between,” he reasoned. “Alan Bennett isn’t writing Prick Up Your Ears every year, so there’s a quality of writing that doesn’t exist any more. I think the times are changing and you just have to cope and change with the times.”
After all he has been through and the groundbreaking work that went unrewarded at the start of his career, it would be churlish to begrudge him the opportunity represented by Darkest Hour – no matter that his Churchill is the most naked appeal for attention at the Oscars since the ceremony was invaded by a streaker.
THE OLDMAN FILE
Born Gary Leonard Oldman, London, on 21 March 1958 to Leonard, a welder, who left when his son was seven, and Kathleen, who raised Oldman and his sister, Maureen, (who starred in Nil By Mouth and EastEnders under her screen name Laila Morse).
Best of times An extraordinary early run of daring, intelligent performances in great films, among them Sid and Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears, guaranteed Oldman’s reputation remained intact when these peaks were followed inevitably by troughs. Nil By Mouth, his one film as director, proved he was just as compelling behind the camera.
Worst of times Alcoholism in the early 1990s. He appeared to defend Mel Gibson’s antisemitism in a
What he says “I think what it comes down to is that acting is an antidote to self-hatred.”
What they say “Whatever he’s done in his life, he’s brought to good service. At times, it might have been perceived as being bad for him, but it’s always benefited him and his personality and his acting. The bad times make him better.” Director Tony Scott.