I miss the precocious, mischievous, darkly cunning, and troubled characters Gary Oldman once portrayed so beautifully.
By Paul Dervis
Winston Churchill? Really? For heaven’s sakes, he once played Alan Bates’s ex-con lover! Winston Churchill!
Not that he was bad. He was great. Gary Oldman is one of the finest film actors alive. But the young Oldman (he is now 59) was loud and trashy and big and small and clearly the heir apparent to the likes of Albert Finney, Terrence Stamp, Rita Tushingham … and Bates himself. Winston Churchill? He should be playing Archie Rice, John Osborne’s maniacal and feral middle-aged performer in The Entertainer, not Churchill…. But in the Darkest Hour (screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Boston Common 19) the performer has gone the way of Malcolm McDowell!!
Let’s take a look at Oldman’s career. Let’s focus on the first half. Oldman took up the Malcolm McDowell mantle after the latter was moved away from edgy theater roles (Inadmissible Evidence, Look Back in Anger) as well as Lindsey Anderson vehicles (If, O Lucky Man! – my personal favorite film of all time – and Britannia Hospital), not to mention his turn as the antagonist/protagonist Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. McDowell became one of tinseltown’s leading big budget ‘bad guys’ (God Damn! He even did a Law & Order!)
In 1986, Oldman began to fill McDowell’s shoes. With little but British TV shows on his thin, thin resume, he lands the part of Sid Vicious in the gritty story about punk and death in Sid and Nancy and gave a superbly anarchistic performance. An angry young star was born.
At first, it seems that nothing would stop Oldman’s rise to counter-culture stardom. He followed up Sid and Nancy with a screen adaptation of John Lahr’s biography of the life and death of the provocative ’60’s playwright Joe Orton, Prick up Your Ears (double entendre very much intended). It is a compelling flick that delves into the seedy side of life during London’s ‘swinging sixties.’ Oldman was magnificent. And what did he follow that up with? Why, with a small but penetrating piece called We Think the World of You. Here he plays an aimless drifter who is released from prison and searches out his old lover (Alan Bates) who has his dog. HIS DOG! In another splendid role, he played a stranger in Track 29 who may or may not be the son a middle-aged woman who gave her baby away during her misspent youth.
But, with the turn of the millennium, his artistic fortune turned. Not that he isn’t making a great living appearing in roles in megabuck franchise series, such as Harry Potter and Batman. I wouldn’t know how his performances stack up in these films….I have not seen a Batman film since Bruce Wayne was portrayed by the late Adam West. As far as Harry Potter is concerned, I did see the series at the behest of my youngest daughter … they were opportunities to get some afternoon shut eye.
Oldman’s latest venture into respectability is set on the run-up to World War II. Great Britain must decide: will it will fight for democracy or placate Hitler and his threatening war machine? The Royal Family is in a dither, and that places Prime Minister Churchill between a diplomatic rock and a bloody hard place. Not a particularly popular politician before this fateful conflict, he has been handed a dilemma that, depending on what he decides, will change the course of world history. Wonder how it will turn out?
Although the film suffers from the soft-hued, ‘stiff upper lip’ approach that mark so many dutiful British historical dramas, Oldman does himself proud. He is a complex actor portraying a multi-layered character, and he is very much up to the task…but that is hardly a surprise. There are enough flickers of his earlier unruly energy to cut against the script’s weakness for martial posturing. Oldman resists playing the heroic bulldog — and will probably win an Oscar for his troubles.
But I miss the precocious, mischievous, darkly cunning, and troubled characters Oldman once portrayed so beautifully. No doubt some of these disreputable creatures made it into their late fifties.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years.