Hollywood awards season is a test of endurance for me. More of a clubby series of self-congratulatory pageants dressed in designer finery than a credible display of artistic achievement, the Oscars are perhaps the most obvious of high school popularity contests. And yet my stomach was all butterflies as I anxiously checked the list of Best Actor Oscar nominees this morning. There’s something about big-name recognition of longtime favorites that is immensely satisfying, popularity contest or not.
It was amazing – beyond amazing -to see Gary Oldman finally, at long last, get nominated for an Academy Award. Longtime friends will tell you I had a huge crush on him – or rather, on Oldman’s awesome, inspiring, occasionally terrifying talent. For all his talk of despising “the method,” he seemed to live what he acted. It was thrilling to watch him move between genres so easily, and become so unreservedly, uninhibitedly lost in a role. It still is, I’m discovering.
Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead cemented my love of language and literature. What impressed me in the film, along with Oldman and fellow Brit Pack-er Tim Roth’s comfort with that language, was their sparky natural chemistry. Taking cues from older traditions (Godot especially) and mixing them with the best of British vaudeville (Laurel and Hardy especially), Oldman and Roth are a tag team of interconnected excellence. I was enchanted by Oldman as the dimwit of the pair, whether he was tinkering with Foucault’s pendulum or watching sailboats in the bathtub. But it didn’t prepare me for JFK, where I was struck dumb by his performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. Far from being merely imitative, the slight, mushy-mouthed, supposed lone-gun-assassin suddenly becomes very human – a lonely, tortured figure, demonized by his own swirlingly persistent, painfully obvious need to belong. Oldman gets the “lone” part of “Lone Gunman” absolutely dead-on.
Oldman’s performance -those urgent blue eyes, the slumped shoulders, the quick temper -seared itself on my young mind. I found State Of Grace and again was astonished. The performance as the wild-card gangster Jackie – haunted, passionate, angry -is simply one of the most memorable ever committed to film. When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in November 1992, I was well-versed in Oldman’s canon, and had no trouble picturing the guy who’d played Sid Vicious years before becoming the sexy demonic Count. He’s a great actor – and that’s what great actors do. They’re not supposed to be pretty. Right? I didn’t like Gary because he was pretty. I liked him because he was brilliant. Barely recognizable from one role to the next, Oldman has a great, unsung habit of plumbing the depths of despair, celebrating the heights of absurdity, and living the vida loca (sometimes for real) across the cinematic universe. He is every color in the artist’s paintbox, every hue and beam and shadow on the canvas.
So while some of his choices haven’t inspired – the reductive baddies in Air Force One, Lost In Space, The Fifth Element and The Book Of Eli come to mind -he’s always been eminently watchable. As Radio Times reporter Danny Leigh so eloquently put it, “A chameleon full of indelibletics who all but disappeared inside his characters, Oldman made average films good, and good ones spectacular.” Neither the Harry Potter nor Batman re-envisionings were on my cultural radar, but late one night about a year ago, I was watching TV and saw Christian Bale’s square jaw jutting out of the famous black cowl on television, and a flood of inspired memories returned, of nights spent worshipping a choir of spectacularly realized misfits I felt I knew so well. Joe, Sid, Jackie, Rosencrantz, Lee, Ludwig, Norman, Jack, Drexel. Dracula. That guy. Then George Smiley sauntered in.
Like many, I’ve questioned why the Academy Awards -or indeed its poorer Golden cousin -haven’t recognized Oldman for his work. He said on NPR Fresh Air recently that he thinks of himself as a “character actor” more than anything, which is a huge shame. Could a character actor so beautifully personify John Le Carre’s quietly complex spy? Come now. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow-burn sort of work. Its passion is whispered, not declaimed, in the most adult kind of way. Much has been made of how “quiet” Oldman’s performance is too. Yet don’t confuse that term with “small”; his Smiley is as grand and fiery as anything else he’s ever done over the past three decades. It’s an inner sort of flame, the sort you can see running across his probing blue eyes when Smiley carefully takes his morning swim, each stroke a calculated piece of focus and concentration. We sense the innate heartbreak Oldman’s so excelled at portraying onscreen in the past, when Smiley catches his wife being unfaithful with a co-worker: the gaping mouth, the stunted breath, the wide eyes and wild blinking. We sense that fierce passion when George takes a seat in the film’s final moments, straightening his shoulders, jutting out his chin ever so slightly, the merest hint of a smile crossing his lips. You want to shriek at the perfection of it all.
As it is, I’m left, at the end of today, wanting to shriek with joy over that nomination, and yet quietly taking a few deep breaths of joy, contemplating that genius might, just might, be recognized by the popular kids. Some of us think it’s about time.
Top illustration by Matthew Brazier.