The spellbinding versatility of Gary Oldman is a wonder to behold. The British actor first stormed into cinema in the early 1980s. By the beginning of the 1990s, he was established as a promising actor in Hollywood as well.

Revered for his ‘chameleonic,’ transformative performances, Gary Oldman effortlessly juggled between different accents and different styles of acting. Mr. Oldman has exhibited a penchant for playing real-life figures throughout his career. From Sid Vicious and Joe Orton to Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven, and Winston Churchill, the actor has powerfully embodied prominent real-life people.

Like every other great actor, Gary Oldman can elevate even a mediocre film through the sheer brilliance of his performances. He is a veritable scene-stealer and can make an impact even if his screen presence is limited. A generation of young movie-goers knows Gary Oldman as the mysterious Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise.

The man’s name is spoken in hushed tones, and Harry is warned that he is a mass murderer and a despicable betrayer. Though Sirius Black is talked about a lot in Prisoner of Azkaban, the character doesn’t get much screen time.

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Yet, the moment Gary Oldman makes his appearance, we can instantly feel for the tortured soul of Black and firmly believe that Harry and we, the viewers, have been led astray. Such is the power of Oldman’s emotionally committed performances (the book lovers, though, disagree with Oldman’s casting as Sirius Black).

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Gary Leonard Oldman was born in London, UK, on March 21, 1958. He received a scholarship to attend Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent and received his BA in theatre arts in 1979. He also made his professional stage debut in the same year. In 1982, Gary Oldman made his film debut in Colin Gregg’s Remembrance.

His role as a troubled youngster in Mike Leigh’s TV movie Meantime (1983) garnered much attention. However, it was his performance as Sid Vicious, bassist of the English punk rock band ‘Sex Pistols,’ that offered Gary Oldman a big breakthrough. From then on, he was blessed with projects that brought out his extraordinary acting abilities.

Gary Oldman has hinted at retirement quite a few times. The passionate actor is an avid photographer and is very much interested in the craft of wet-plate photography. But let’s hope he gets a juicier role that keeps him invested in acting. Now, let’s take a look at Gary Oldman’s 15 best performances. Choosing the ‘best’ from such a prolific four-decade acting career is tricky. Yet, I feel these films reflect Mr. Oldman’s remarkable talent. Here we go:

15. Air Force One (1997)

Gary Oldman Performances

Wolfgang Peterson’s Air Force One cooked up the fantasy of turning the American President into a badass action hero. The film had a veritable star – Harrison Ford – to make a fine popcorn entertainment out of that fantasy. But it also needed a compelling villain to build an atmosphere of palpable fear and tension.

Of course, who else can be scary and bring authenticity to the villainy if not for Gary Oldman? Let’s not forget that Oldman’s Ivan Korushnov is written by imbuing all the familiar stereotypes of a Russian radical.

Though Air Force One is not as brilliant as Die Hard (1988), Oldman’s merciless Presidential aircraft hijacker gives a chilling performance like Alan Rickman. In fact, despite anticipating the smug portrayal of the so-called American exceptionalism, I was rooting for Oldman’s character. When Gary Oldman is this intense, and when Ford single-handedly dispatches several terrorists, who care how nonsensical the premise of Air Force One is?!

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14. True Romance (1993)

Drexl_True Romance

Tony Scott’s True Romance was based on Quentin Tarantino’s script, which he wrote before making his debut with Reservoir Dogs (1992). Though Tony Scott might have made changes to the screenplay, the final product still bears some of Tarantino’s trademarks: from pop-cultural references to the effortless mix of humor and graphic violence and an ensemble cast playing small yet juicy parts. The last of this Tarantino element is felt in the intriguing performances of Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, and Brad Pitt.

Oldman, in particular, is in the film for a few minutes. Yet the impact of his transformative performance is absolutely electrifying. He plays a reprehensible and racially confused white pimp, Drexl, who fearfully intimidates the central characters, played by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette.

What’s so great about Oldman’s Drexl is that he quite simply becomes the man, unbelievably losing his natural cockney accent. Apart from the menacing aura, there’s a perverse hilarity in the way he delivers the dialogue. Stanislavski said, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” The truth of these words can be felt in Gary Oldman’s indelible screen presence as Drexl.

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13. Sid and Nancy (1986)

Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious

Gary Oldman plays English punk rock band Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s harrowing biopic. This was Oldman’s first big role. He debuted in Remembrance in 1982 and offered a captivating performance as the volatile and violent skinhead in Mike Leigh’s 1983 TV movie Meantime.

But Oldman’s chameleonic acting abilities became the focus in Sid and Nancy. The narrative dramatizes the tumultuous relationship between Sid Vicious and his American girlfriend, Nancy Spugen (Chloe Webb).

The relationship turned destructive due to substance and alcohol abuse. Nancy was allegedly stabbed to death by Sid, and he died a few months later of a heroin overdose at the age of 21. Cox’s portrayal didn’t follow the conventional formulas of a musician biopic. Yet the film had its share of detractors, including Gary Oldman himself, who expressed disdain for his performance.

Of course, it wasn’t the only time Oldman felt distaste over his performance. Nevertheless, Oldman and Webb’s powerful performance made this mutually self-destructive relationship darkly fascinating. Apart from that, another undeniable greatness of the film is Roger Deakins’ cinematography.

12. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

Gary Oldman Performances

When I first saw Gary Oldman playing Commissioner James Gordon in Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t playing a villain. In fact, there are talks that Oldman was originally approached to play a bad guy. But the actor was bored of playing villains at that time.

Nevertheless, in hindsight, I feel Oldman gave such a subdued performance as the grizzled and honest cop. Jim Gordon is as much a protector of Gotham as the masked superhero. Besides, both Bale’s Batman and Oldman’s Gordon seem to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

The actor bestows layers of pathos and dignity on Gordon that we can identify with his deeds and conflicts. Within the larger conflict, Nolan offers some space for Oldman’s character to deal with different emotions – for instance, Gordon fears for his boy’s life towards the end of The Dark Knight (2008). Gary Oldman has often expressed self-deprecating comments about his performances. But Commissioner Gordon was one of the roles he very much appreciated playing.

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11. State of Grace (1990)

Sean Penn & Gary Oldman - State of Grace (1990)

Phil Joanou’s State of Grace is a mobster drama set in New York’s Irish-American neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. It was a decent and somber crime-drama, which had the misfortune of releasing a few days before Scorsese’s gangland epic, Goodfellas.

Yet State of Grace found its audience in the later years, and particularly Gary Oldman’s magnificent performance as the impulsive Jackie Flannery was admired. The narrative revolves around Sean Penn’s Terry Noonan, a cop with a mission to infiltrate the gang in his old New York neighborhood.

Oldman’s Jackie is Terry’s childhood pal, who also happens to be the younger brother of a crime boss named Frank (Ed Harris). Though Penn is the protagonist, Gary Oldman clearly dominates with his wildly charismatic screen presence.

Despite all the terrifying displays of rage, Oldman’s Jackie feels like a child who is stuck with the misguided devotion to his ruthless brother. And at moments, Oldman allows his character’s tough exterior to show a little bit of his vulnerability and humanity.

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10. Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Joe Orton - Prick Up Yours Ears (1987)

Stephen Frears made the pleasurable queer love story My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985. He followed it up with an unbearably sad tale, which chronicled the many cultural and social pressures on queer men in 1960s England (only in 1967 did the UK decriminalize homosexuality).

What’s more shattering about Prick Up Your Ears is that it’s based on a true story. The film dramatizes the gradually disintegrating relationship between the successful and cheeky playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) and his mentor/lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina).

Gary Oldman, as usual, prepared a lot for the role: from getting right Orton’s mannerisms and voice to embodying his rebellious spirit. Oldman is perfect as the charming and promiscuous Orton, who is different in many ways from his intelligent yet paranoid partner, Halliwell.

Oldman’s Orton is also self-aware of the effects of his charm and good looks on people. Watching him and Molina on-screen makes us completely believe in their relationship.

9. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Gary Oldman Performances

By the late 1980s, Gary Oldman had started acting in Hollywood movies. But the actor got his first true Hollywood breakthrough when he was cast as the menacing titular character in Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Of course, prior to the film, Oldman played the infamous role of Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy’s assassin) in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Nevertheless, it was a very limited role. As Dracula, however, Gary Oldman showed his shape-shifting abilities, which reached a larger audience.

Though Coppola’s version of the classic horror story received mixed reactions from the critics, almost everyone lauded Oldman’s committed performance.

The most impressive aspect of Coppola’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the make-up and practical effects. Gary Oldman particularly had to sport a wide range of looks to portray Count Dracula’s forms as a human and a beast.

The quirks and villainy he bestows upon the aged version of his character – that meets Keanu Reeves’ central character – are so enjoyable to watch. As a proponent of method acting, Oldman is said to have isolated himself from the cast while shooting the movie.

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8. The Contender (2000)

Gary Oldman as Shelley Runyon

Rod Lurie’s The Contender is a fairly good political drama with a brilliant ensemble cast. The narrative reflected the era’s malfeasance and cover-ups in the Washington DC political corridors. Jeff Bridges plays a Clinton-like President who, after his Vice President’s death, appoints Senator Laine Hanson (Jeff Bridges) as the new Vice-President.

But the right-wing Republican Representative Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman) vociferously opposes Hanson’s appointment and begins his political maneuvering. While The Contender unfolds as a balanced look at the double standards of Washington politicians, the final act makes a sharp, unconvincing turn. It reduces the central conflict into a simple good versus evil.

Hence, despite Gary Oldman’s outstanding performance, Runyon was strictly turned into a loathsome villain. The actor’s portrayal of the corrupt, smug, and balding Runyon brought more depth to the character than what the writing offered. Naturally, Gary Oldman was not satisfied with the film’s final output. The resulting controversial comments and accusations are said to have robbed Oldman of his first Oscar nomination (though he was nominated for a SAG award).

7. Immortal Beloved (1994)

Gary Oldman Performances

Gary Oldman delivers one of his passionate yet under-appreciated performances as the legendary Ludwig van Beethoven in Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved. This unconventional biopic of the troubled genius unfolds like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). The narrative opens with Beethoven’s death in 1827.

His assistant Schindler tries to identify the mysterious woman, who is referred to as ‘Immortal Beloved’ in Beethoven’s series of love letters. This context offers an opportunity to explore Beethoven’s complex and flawed nature.

The film is not without its shortcomings. However, it’s largely memorable for Gary Oldman’s illustrious performance. Oldman practiced piano six hours daily to prepare for the role and immersed himself in Beethoven’s music. Though the orchestra recorded the film’s final soundtrack, Oldman performed Beethoven’s piano pieces during the shooting.

But apart from embodying Beethoven through his music, the actor also brilliantly captures the despair and loneliness that plagued the legends’ life. I was especially moved by the amazing range of emotions Mr. Oldman displays during Beethoven’s Vienna Premiere of the ninth (and final) symphony.

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6. Darkest Hour (2017)

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill

Gary Oldman has often buried himself under make-up and prosthetics in his long acting career and yet delivered impactful performances. His performances as the eponymous character in Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and as the disfigured, paralyzed victim of Hannibal Lecter in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film serve as important examples.

But in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Mr. Oldman had to practically disappear into the role of a controversial real-life historical figure: Winston Churchill. And to the thespian’s credit, he overcomes the physical and psychological hurdles to offer an incredibly powerful performance.

Gary Oldman’s transformation was made possible by sculptor and make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji (Hellboy, Curious Case of Benjamin Button). In fact, when Mr. Oldman decided to play Churchill, he immediately contacted Tsuji to do makeup, who had retired from movies by this time.

Oldman’s towering performance got him his first Academy Award, while Tsuji also received an Oscar. Darkest Hour is set in May and June 1940 as Prime Minister Churchill made a few important and bold decisions despite the looming threat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

5. Mank (2020)

Gary Oldman Performances

Mank was a passion project for David Fincher, which was developed from his father, Jack Fincher’s script. Shot in glorious black-and-white, the narrative takes us to the Hollywood Golden age. It focuses on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s tortured process of writing the script for Orson Welles’ celebrated classic Citizen Kane (1941).

Without an actor of Gary Oldman’s caliber, Mank could have simply come across as a grumpy, unlikeable drunk. Indeed, Gary Oldman deeply delves into the genius writers’ multiple issues, including self-loathing and alcoholism. The writing also doesn’t romanticize the writer’s personal demons.

Therefore, Gary Oldman effortlessly provides us with a glimpse into Mank’s mindscape. The charming and brutally honest one-liners also add strength to the performance. The actor himself was a functioning alcoholic for a couple of decades in his adult life (he has been sober for more than twenty-five years now).

Unlike Darkest Hour, Fincher didn’t want Oldman to disappear into elaborate prosthetics and make-up. Yet there’s a visible transformation from within. Moreover, Fincher’s notorious perfectionism didn’t bother Oldman, who himself is as meticulous and indefatigable.

4. Slow Horses (TV Series 2022- )

Gary Oldman in Slow Horses

British author Mick Herron is lionized as the heir to the master of espionage novels, John le Carre. Herron’s best-selling Slough House series is said to be inspired by Carre’s somber approach in the George Smiley series. Herron’s perspective of MI5 agents also differs from Carre’s in interesting ways.

Slow Horses is set around a group of disgraced agents exiled from MI5 HQ and sent to a bleak and boring place to do the least glamorous tasks. The notorious and foul-mouthed Jackson Lamb is the boss of these screw-ups.

Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb is as smart and intuitive as the old-school spy George Smiley. Yet they are entirely different personalities. Smiley would really despise the irritable and confrontational Lamb. Oldman’s performance shows that he seems to be having fun playing an unrestrained role with an acerbic sense of humor.

At the same time, this is also a tale of redemption. Hence, despite his slovenly nature, the curmudgeonly Lamb is likable. Perhaps, only a veteran like Gary Oldman could strike the balance which stops us from dismissing the character. Two seasons (19 episodes) of Slow Horses have been released on Apple TV+, and the series has been renewed for two more seasons.

3. The Firm (1989)

Gary Oldman Performances

Alan Clarke is one of the under-appreciated British filmmakers with quite a few cult classics to his name. One such lesser-known work of Mr. Clarke (and his last film) was the 70-minute Gary Oldman starrer The Firm. It’s a no-holds-barred drama on the gangs of football hooligans.

Oldman plays Clive Bissel, aka Bex, who leads an Inter City Crew (ICC) gang. Bex works as a real estate agent, and he is a married man with a little son. Bex wants to bring together rival gangs to take on the larger European hooligan groups, who are all coming together for an international football tournament in Germany.

However, Bex’s penchant for violence leads him down the self-destructive path. The Firm is a hard-hitting study of macho aggression borne out of social maladjustment. As Bex, Gary Oldman brilliantly brings out the pathetic as well as the scary nature of a hooligan.

The actor also makes us feel sad for Bex, as he is aware of how his obsession with one-upmanship through violence is impacting his family. Moreover, Oldman’s Bex buys into his invincibility that he feels there are no repercussions to his actions. The look of disbelief and surprise on Gary Oldman’s face in the film’s final moments is totally unforgettable.

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2. Leon (1994)

Norman Stansfield - Leon (1994)

Make no mistake, Gary Oldman can effortlessly turn in a nuanced and subtle performance. But I love quirky, over-the-top Oldman. Perhaps, the most unhinged and wild on-screen avatar of the actor is his role as corrupt and psychopathic DEA agent Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional.

From the first moment, we see this Beethoven-obsessed killer, we can feel a volatile energy field around him that could reach its crescendo anytime. Gary Oldman was the perfect actor to carry Besson’s excesses in direction and writing. To the actor’s credit, Stansfield comes across as a truly intimidating baddie despite the cartoonish tone.

He delivers a casually menacing monologue in his introduction scene. The threat of violence, the tension in his subordinates’ faces, and Oldman’s unique ferocity almost bring a darkly comic tone to the proceedings.

Like most of the iconic roles Gary Oldman has played in his career, Norman Stansfield doesn’t have a great amount of screen time in the film. Yet, he turns a caricaturish role into something eminent. I hope E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E will agree on that!

1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Gary Oldman Performances

John le Carre’s world of espionage was far removed from the glamour and glitz of Bond films and was something akin to Shakespeare. The novelist showed how Intelligence agents are caught in the murky moral landscape of Cold War politics. The obscure and crafty English spymaster George Smiley was perhaps Carre’s greatest creation.

Gary Oldman naturally had a huge challenge in front of him when he was brought in to play Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The legendary Alec Guinness already played the iconic character in the 1970s BBC mini-series. Yet Oldman blasts all the hurdles or challenges with one of his most restrained performances.

Gary Oldman’s Smiley looks like a meek gentleman but can be a ruthless adversary. Oldman’s Smiley maintains a poker face, and yet even through small gestures or little pauses, he can disclose the depth of subterranean emotions. The actor was initially reluctant to take up the role. Even after accepting the role, Oldman was swept by feelings of anxiety. Nevertheless, the subdued performance got him his first Oscar nomination.

Gary Oldman Links: IMDb, Wikipedia

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