Gary Oldman Biography
When the producers of The Prisoner Of Azkaban, the third in the massively popular Harry Potter series, were casting for their main villain, they had a major problem. The man who would be Sirius Black needed the requisite pedigree to stand alongside the weighty likes of Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. He needed sufficient charisma to carry off the movie’s final revelation. And, of course, as the titular prisoner, possible killer of Harry’s parents, possibly now after Harry himself, he needed to project a frightening phantom menace from the shadows. Let’s consider this for a moment. British . . . stage actor . . . impressive CV . . . charismatic . . . terrifying. It simply had to be Gary Oldman.
Having “arrived” in the mid-Eighties as part of a Brit Pack including Tim Roth and Daniel Day-Lewis, it was Oldman who led the way, mastering American accents and starring in American films. Like Streep and De Niro, he was known as an actors’ actor. He didn’t limit himself to “serious” roles, yet no matter how fantastic the movie’s premise, he would always bring something serious, something real, something intelligent to the party. He was always watchable.
And what performances he delivered – as Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Beethoven, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, the vicious Alcatraz warden in Murder In The First, the lunatic pimp in True Romance, the endlessly corrupt copper in Leon. Once seen, never forgotten. This is always the way with Gary Oldman.
He was born Leonard Gary Oldman on the 21st of March, 1958, his family living in Hatcham Park Road, close to New Cross Gate station in one of south London’s rougher areas. His mother was an Irishwoman named Kathleen, his father was Len, a former sailor who’d toiled in the engine-room (and was later a welder and pipe-fitter), the couple having met in Cardiff during World War 2.
Gary had two sisters, much older than himself. They would help Kathleen in raising the boy, and also provide him with a far wider education than is usual. When he was 5, one of them, at the time a teenage mod, would take him to the Sombrero Club and have him perform for her friends. “What have cowboys got?”, she would ask. He would cry, not wishing to give the required answer, but the question would be repeated until he blurted out “Big bollocks!” and the in-crowd fell about laughing.
This could still be described as fun. But the fun did not last for long. When Gary was seven, Len left Kathleen for a younger woman and it hit the young boy hard. Though he didn’t know it then, therapy years later would reveal that he blamed himself for his father’s departure and missed the man terribly. Now he’d be raised solely by women and, as both his sisters would marry shady geezers and move out, he’d spend long hours alone and lonely.
Much like Robin Williams, another great mimic, he was rescued by his imagination, dressing-up, play-acting, inventing characters, inhabiting worlds far less harsh than New Cross. He recalls making a Batman utility belt from empty cigarette packets, and also, in a spooky foretelling, entering a Butlins fancy dress competition as Dracula.
He did not enjoy school, did not appreciate the attitude or the rules. He remembers being constantly told “Oldman, you’re stupid, you’re thick, you’ll never amount to anything”. It was no surprise when the place was shut down soon after his departure.
He wasn’t thick, just uninspired. When he found an interest, his enthusiasm was unbridled. Having been taken to see A Hard Day’s Night by one of his sisters, he obsessed over the Beatles and treasured a guitar featuring the Fab Four’s faces. At 13, he’d find a Liberace album in the attic, Liberace playing classics, and he dumped pop music, now obsessing over Chopin. He took up the piano, teaching himself to play. Then the famous confrontations between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier led him to take up boxing. There was football, too. Oldman’s take on all this is fascinating. He believes, with hindsight, that he was only interested in these subjects on an acting level. At the piano, in the gym and on the pitch he looked great, was utterly convincing in his roles even though he was actually not very good. Without realising it, he was trying to master the appearance of musicians and sportsmen, rather than their crafts. He was already acting.
Having left school at 15 with next to no qualifications, Oldman took a job in a sports shop. Acting as a profession had not crossed his mind. But then came a moment, or rather two moments of revelation when, on TV, he saw the movies If… and The Raging Moon. Both starred Malcolm McDowell, the first as a schoolboy defying then machine-gunning the Establishment, the second as a young man trapped in a wheelchair and screaming against his lot.
And both appealed to Oldman enormously. McDowell was expressing Gary’s own feelings of loss, anger, alienation and imprisonment, and turning the whole mess into something positive. Here, at last, was something that made sense.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be easy to escape. Gary signed on at the Greenwich Young People’s Theatre, but was soon drawn back into his former life. He did not enjoy the social life of south London, the pub culture, the bragging, the put-downs, the racism and violence. But his peers pulled him in and he acted his way through, even acting his way into a gang. For money, throughout these early years, he would work on assembly lines, as a porter in an operating theatre, selling shoes, beheading pigs in an abbatoir and, naturally, stealing things. But acting was still in his mind and, encouraged by drama teacher Roger Williams, he applied to RADA. They advised him to do something else, but he persisted and won a scholarship to the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent. One lecturer told him that, with his tenor voice, he would only ever play Puck, nevertheless he graduated in 1979 with a BA in Theatre Arts. He was on his way.
Experience was what he needed, and he went into rep, first at York’s Theatre Royal, then in Colchester, then with Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre. He’d study mime, the commedia dell’arte, everything. 1980 alone would see him appear in Massacre At Paris, Chinchilla, Desperado Corner and A Waste Of Time.
And he loved it, loved acting all day, loved the collaboration, the notion of a group of supportive individuals working towards the same goal. He could re-route all the anger, tension and confusion of his youth into his parts, and quickly gained a reputation for intensity. Indeed, he was so wired up that, he later recalled, a 6-month West End run of Summit Conference in 1982, opposite Glenda Jackson, “nearly killed me”.
With his theatre stock rising, in 1983 he turned down the chance of a screen debut in a film to be called Mutiny and moved on to Chesterfield to play the lead in Joe Orton’s 1964 masterpiece Entertaining Mr Sloane. It was a perfect role for Gary, himself a New Cross interloper in the comfy world of theatre. He moved on to Westcliffe and Edward Bond’s 1965 effort Saved, another well-chosen work as it was an emotionally draining representation of the effects of cultural deprivation. Indeed, it had once been banned by the Lord Chamberlain due to a scene where a gang of bored kids stone a baby.
Saved actually proved a landmark performance for Gary. He’d written to Max Stafford-Clark, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, and asked that he come see the show. Stafford-Clark received many letters from young actors, but Oldman’s had something different – most notably a set of good reasons why he should be taken on at the Royal Court. So he went, and was impressed, both by Oldman’s efforts and the fact that 30 members of the audience walked out.
This was the kind of confrontational work for which the Royal Court had long been famous. Indeed, it was the Royal Court that had first performed Edward Bond’s plays. And, as they were about to revive Bond’s debut, The Pope’s Wedding, Oldman seemed an ideal choice for the main role of the frustrated Scopey.
This would be a major breakthrough for Gary. For one thing it would lead to a run of work with the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Company, performing Rat In the Skull, , The Desert Air, Abel And Cain, The Danton Affair and all three of Bond’s War Plays. In 1986 would come Women Beware Women and Real Dreams, the next year The Country Wife and Serious Money.
The Pope’s Wedding also saw him accepted as British theatre’s latest enfant terrible, sharing the British Theatre Association’s Drama magazine award for Best Actor with Anthony Hopkins. Perhaps even more importantly, his performance was seen by director Alex Cox and producer Eric Fellner, then in the process of casting for an upcoming project, Sid And Nancy.
Due to his concentration on theatre, Oldman’s film career had been slow to take off. 1982 had seen him take a small part alongside Timothy Spall and John Altman (later EastEnders’ Nasty Nick Cotton) in Remembrance, directed by Colin Gregg and written by Hugh Stoddart. This had followed the drunken, violent and hugely emotional last night of a gang of Royal Navy recruits about to leave on a 6-month NATO exercise. It was 1984, the same year as The Pope’s Wedding, that we really had a taste of what was to come.
This came with Mike Leigh’s Meantime, which took Gary back into London’s council estates, made ever more hopeless by the heavy hand of Margaret Thatcher. This would see Tim Roth as the shy and simple Colin, brother to a wide but lazy Phil Daniels, as they underwent family battles and a daily round of frustration and humiliation. Oldman would make a striking appearance as Coxy, a racist skinhead, a bully, a coward and incredibly dumb. He had clearly seen all this before.
1984 would also see him in an episode of Dramarama, a series of imaginative TV plays for kids, and the miniseries Morgan’s Boy, the hugely depressing but critically acclaimed tale of a Welsh hill farmer (played by Gareth Thomas – Blake in Blake’s 7) struggling against modernisation and spiralling towards suicide. The next year would see a solitary screen appearance, in Honest, Decent And True, where he’d work alongside Adrian Edmonson and Derrick O’Connor in a London ad agency where the proto-yuppie staff are trying to launch a new brand of lager. The film would also mark the debut of Richard E Grant, later to pop up in two of Gary’s projects – Henry And June and Dracula.
Now, Gary’s stage work would give him a mighty boost. After The Pope’s Wedding, Alex Cox, then on a high after Repo Man, cast him in the lead role of Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy. This would follow Sid’s path into The Sex Pistols and on to worldwide infamy as the face and spirit of punk, concentrating on his relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen – a love affair that ended in drug overdoses and bloody death.
Once again, Oldman was superb as Vicious – stoned and confused, lost and self-loathing, but furious with the world and fighting madly to live up to his reputation. For research, Gary would interview Sid’s mother and she would lend him Sid’s own chain necklace. It would serve Gary well. In order to achieve the requisite skinniness, he also dieted, so drastically that he wound up in hospital.
Gary’s next screen outing would be equally prestigious and successful, earning him a BAFTA nomination. In Prick Up Your Ears, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Alan Bennett, he returned to Joe Orton, this time playing the playwright himself. It was another excellent role, Oldman bringing to life the cocky, precocious, careless young writer as he set alight the theatre world with Loot and What The Butler Saw and revelled in his illegal search for rough trade on the streets of London and the beaches of Morocco, before being beaten to death by his ignored lover, played by Gary’s former Meantime co-star Alfred Molina.
Molina would also appear onstage with Gary that same year, 1987. This would be in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, another attack on British values staged at the Royal Court. It would be more invaluable experience for Gary, and would also introduce him to his first wife, co-star Lesley Manville. Manville, two years Oldman’s senior, had appeared in Emmerdale Farm between 1974 and 1976 then gone on to a successful stage career.
1985 had seen her onscreen in Dance With A Stranger and 1988 would see her in High Hopes, beginning a four-film run with Mike Leigh. She and Gary would quickly marry and she’d bear him a son, Alfred (known as Alfie) in 1988. Sadly, with film stardom beckoning and Gary’s workload and notorious intensity increasing, they would find their marriage untenable. By 1990 it would all be over, Manville gaining custody of Alfie and enjoying a long relationship with actor Bernard Hill.
There was something else, aside from his workload, stage success and the cult stardom he’d found in the US that was making Gary hard to live with. Since the age of 7 he’d had no real contact with his father, but finally they had begun to exchange letters, and were close to arranging a meeting. Gary had even prepared his monologue. Unfortunately, during the filming of Sid And Nancy, Len, a long-time alcoholic, died at the age of 62. Gary was to find no closure in reconciliation, his anger would remain with him, bubbling away.
In the meantime, Gary’s profile was rising fast. Nicolas Roeg’s Track 29, written by Dennis Potter, saw Theresa Russell in an unhappy marriage with obsessive, unfaithful Christopher Lloyd. Stuck at home, she drinks hard and dreams of sex and the past, drifting through her life until – bang – Gary arrives. He may be her child from a rape years before, back for his birthright. He looks like the rapist in her dreams. Whatever, he proceeds to insinuate his way into her life, teasing, taunting, flirting and manipulating, smirking at her pain and confusion, a frighteningly knowing and malevolent Oedipus. Another killer role.
After Track 29, Dennis Potter, as usual, had something interesting to say: “Gary’s a formidable actor, but he’s a delinquent actor as well. He’s very much on the edge of things; he makes you feel nervous watching him. He’s the stranger outside who’s also inside your head. He’s part of your mind when you’re worried and not quite going to sleep, but not sure whether you’re awake or not”. Stephen Frears, though, was unsure of Gary’s rebellious image. He claimed that Oldman was actually very mild but, as the best British drama of the time was angry and anti-Thatcher, he had aligned himself with that. The main thing about Gary, said Frears, was that he hated to be bored.
Gary followed Track 29 with his first foray into US cinema – Criminal Law. Many British actors have tried to make it in mainstream American films, but their failure to deliver a convincing accent has been their downfall. Oldman, a quite superb mimic, has never had that problem. Criminal Law saw him as a hotshot Boston lawyer who successfully defends rich kid Kevin Bacon from a murder charge. This, naturally, makes him even smugger. But then Bacon turns out to have been guilty. In fact, he’s still hacking up and burning women who’ve had an abortion. And he wants to be Gary’s friend. And so Oldman’s smug grin turns to panic as he recognises his own part in this judicial debacle and tries to get Bacon to incriminate himself.
Criminal Law would take some time to make it to cinemas. Meanwhile, Gary was very, very busy. When The Face magazine covered the new Brit Pack of upcoming actors – including Gary, Tim Roth, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth, Bruce Payne and Spencer Leigh – Gary was the only one too tied up to attend the interviews. Next, We Think The World Of You reunited him with Colin Gregg and Hugh Stoddart, Gary playing a restless and confused sailor (he wore the same badges as his father had in the Navy) who’s married to Frances Barber but engaged in an affair with Alan Bates. With Oldman in jail, Bates tries to help Barber but then transfers his best intentions to Gary’s dog, all the while aware that discovery of the affair will destroy his civil service career – the movie concerning British society’s need and desire to cover up any unpalatable truths.
He now moved on to an even tougher social drama with Alan Clarke’s The Firm. This saw him as Bex, leader of an East London football hooligan crew. During the week they all hold down good jobs, they have wives and kids, but for fun they like to engage in vicious confrontations with rival crews – local enemies being the Crystal Palace mob run by Phil Davis’s Yeti. Bex knows he shouldn’t do this but insists he needs the buzz (“So buy a bloody bee ‘ive!” complains long-suffering wife Sue, played by Lesley Manville) so the unpleasantness continues through painful initiations and horrible accidents (Bex’s young kid trying to eat his Stanley blades). But Bex is no ordinary thug. He dreams of a truce with Yeti’s crew and Oboe’s Birmingham mob and a combined firm of marauders to take to the European Championships. And, of course, it all ends in rivers of blood and lager.
Showing the terrible peer pressure, the loyalties, the vendettas, the buzz itself, The Firm was an anthropological triumph. It was an indictment, sure, but Oldman was so charismatic, so witty, so clear in his understanding of his divided life that the movie became a must-see for football hooligans everywhere.
Returning to America, Gary completed the Eighties with Chattahoochee where he played yet another of his “socially imprisoned” heroes. Here he was Emmett Foley, a Korean War vet from backwoods Florida now unemployed and so depressed he starts a shoot-out with the cops, hoping they’ll kill him so wife Frances McDormand can collect the insurance.
But he’s not killed, he’s caught and sent to a prison for the mentally ill, a prison characterised by filth, cockroaches, illness and beatings. Aided by fellow maverick Dennis Hopper, Foley begins writing to the outside authorities, first officially then in secret – like Geoffrey Rush in Quills, but without the depraved intent. Can he survive to change the system?
Continuing to switch between US movies and lower-key Brit efforts, Gary now starred in Tom Stoppard’s film adaptation of his hit 1966 play Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. He and Tim Roth would play the anti-heroes of the title, two minor characters in Hamlet who wander around, not knowing quite who they are, occasionally stumbling onto the play’s main action but never guesing that they are not the main protagonists in the drama. Many critics felt the play did not translate too well to screen, but both leads scored points for their comic performances.
Though his star was rising fast, Gary’s home life was now very messy. With his marriage to Manville in trouble, he took off for New York with Sean Penn and director Phil Joanou to scout locations for their next picture, State Of Grace. A good time was had, with Penn and Oldman, America and England’s finest young actors, testing each other out, a process ending with Oldman singing Like A Virgin directly into Penn’s face.
As the famously volatile Penn had just endured a painful split from Madonna, this was perhaps not the wisest of moves, but Penn laughed it off and the pair would form a scorching working patrnership. More importantly, Joanou would introduce Oldman to his young girlfriend, Uma Thurman, 12 years Oldman’s junior, and the couple hit it off immediately, so well in fact that Joanou gallantly stepped aside. This was the summer of 1989. By 1990 they would be married.
State Of Grace turned out to be one of Gary’s finest. Here he was Jackie Flannery, younger brother of Ed Harris’s Irish-American gang boss in Hell’s Kitchen. Sean Penn is an old mate, back in town and rekindling his friendship with Jackie and his romance with Jackie’s sister, played by Robin Wright (later to be Penn’s real-life wife). But, now working for the cops, Penn is secretly trying to bring them all down. Naturally, huge conflicts arise.
As Jackie, a drug dealer, arsonist, thug and borderline psycho, Oldman was superb, dealing brilliantly with his character’s drunkenness, loyalty and powerful belief that his crimes were maintaining the neighbourhood by keeping the yuppies out. Like Gary, Jackie was hugely restless, seeking the craic. When burning a building he liked to pour the petrol between himself and the door. Shambling but street-lyrical, Gary found himself compared to Robert De Niro.
He next popped up in a cameo in Thurman’s latest, Henry And June, a tale of the affair between writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin, Thurman playing Miller’s bewitching wife. He then took the courageous step of playing one of America’s most hated criminals, Lee Harvey Oswald, in Oliver Stone’s sprawling, fascinating JFK, where Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison dug deep and dangerously to discover the real assassins of the president.
It was another brilliant showing, and an awfully difficult job. Who or what Oswald really was remains unanswered but, after questioning Oswald’s widow Marina and talking to many a conspiracy theorist, Gary came as close as you can. And it was painful for him. Stone insisted he stay in character at all times, so he had no real contact with others. He missed Thurman (the pair were always working) and was very, very lonely.
But still the work kept coming. Oldman slipped back to Blighty to appear in David Hare’s Heading Home, set in post-WW2 London, where he played a crooked property developer caught in a love triangle with Joely Richardson and poet Stephen Dillane. But, despite his love of classy British drama, he was being pulled into Hollywood, and now stepped up for his first major lead, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Though far from ably supported by much of the cast, Oldman here produced a real tour de force, playing Dracula as a young lover and warrior, a 400-year-old creep, a sophisticated man about town and various horrible monsters. True to his nature, he took the role wholly seriously. He was in anguish when his lover Elizabeta died, in tortured stasis for centuries, vibrant and undeniable when she returns, then finally torn when realising that to possess her he must make her suffer the endless torments of the undead. And you think you’ve got problems.
These problems stretched into Oldman’s real life, too. Not only had he endured screaming rows with Francis Ford Coppola over his approach to rehearsals, the separations from Thurman had taken their toll. The couple had tried to get together on a biopic of Dylan Thomas but, due to Oldman’s “nervous exhaustion”, the shoot had fallen through. Soon they would be estranged and, by 1992, divorced. None of it was made easier by false rumours that Gary had had an affair with Winona Ryder on the set of Dracula.
Gary resorted to partying and hard work. Out roistering with his friend Kiefer Sutherland, he was caught drink-driving and given a 6-month ban and 89 hours house arrest, complete with a new-fangled alarm bracelet. On the work front, he stormed into a quite extraordinary run of roles. First came a cameo in Tony Scott’s True Romance, Gary getting right into the Tarantino spirit as Drexl Spivey, the psychotic, drug-dealing pimp who won’t let Patricia Arquette leave with Christian Slater.
Despite excellent work by Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper and Brad Pitt, this was the stand-out performance, Oldman getting the make-up guy from Dracula to create him a milky eye, then providing his own scar, gold teeth and dreadlocks. The bizarre jargon of the white man keen to be black he knew very well from his London days.
Next came the superior oddity, Romeo Is Bleeding, where Oldman played a crooked cop selling witness protection secrets to the Mob. He’s cheating on wife Annabella Sciorra with a pervy Juliette Lewis but then becomes obsessed with assassin Lena Olin who soon becomes a target of the Mob, leaving Oldman to – increasingly desperately – play the police, Mob and women all off against one another. He made a fine anti-hero – weak, greedy and far less smart than he thought he was.
Following this came another cult success with Luc Besson’s Leon, where Gary took his psycho characterisations to the very limit. As Norman Stansfield, he was a bent DEA agent who takes it upon himself to wipe out a drug dealer’s entire family. Young daughter Natalie Portman, though, escapes into the apartment of simple assassin Jean Reno and begins to plot revenge, beginning both a very disturbing relationship and a cycle of frenetic violence. She wanted Stansfield’s head and, by God, did he want hers.
So crazed and obsessive was Gary as Stansfield that his next role, as Beethoven, seemed a lighter option. As it was, Immortal Beloved was a brilliant piece of cinema – intriguing, beautiful to look at and emotionally challenging. The story began with Beethoven’s death and the discovery of a note addressed to his “Immortal Beloved”. Through a series of flashbacks, we go seeking the identity of this mysterious love. And now we see Gary at full force, obsessed with women (Valeria Golina, Isabella Rossellini etc), his own compositions and the future of a nephew he hopes to turn into a musical prodigy.
He’s powerful and relentless, then touchingly broken as deafness encroaches and his plans fall apart. Unfortunately, tradition dictates that only one historical drama can be honoured at the Oscars and that year it was The Madness Of King George. It was a terrible shame. Nigel Hawthorne and his movie were good, but Oldman and Immortal Beloved were better.
After the Thurman fiasco, Gary now settled into a more settled relationship with Isabella Rossellini, six years his senior. They would reportedly become engaged in July, 1994, but would then separate two years later. There was talk of much drinking on Gary’s part and he later recalled having an exceptionally high tolerance, sometimes downing two bottles of vodka and still being able to hold a conversation.
A lot of his drinking would be at home, as he wasn’t the most social of beasts. Having thought long and hard about his father’s problems and his own, he would come to agree with the description of alcoholics as “egomaniacs with low self-esteem”. Oddly, the drinking would also bring him a new love when, in October 1996 at a Beverly Hills AA meeting, he encountered model and photographer Donya Fiorentino, ex-wife of director David Fincher. They’d marry in February the next year, but sadly their initial happiness would lead to the most appalling strife.
Gary moved on to another cracker, reuniting for another series of confrontations with Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater in Murder In The First, playing an intolerably severe prison warden on Alcatraz, who’s brought to book by young lawyer Slater for crushing simple inmate Bacon both mentally and physically. He followed this with Roland Joffe’s The Scarlet Letter, where he was unfortunately hamstrung by a violent rewrite of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel.
He would have been brilliant as the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the colonial New England cleric who impregnates young wife Hester Prynne then leads the townsfolk in condemning her as a loose woman. But this was a Demi Moore star vehicle, so there was nudity and passion on a heap of dried beans, Indian attacks and an absurd happy ending that portrayed Prynne and Dimmesdale as sexual pioneers and freedom fighters. Oldman certainly deserved better, but his lifestyle and increasing family (he would have sons Gulliver Flynn and Charlie John with Fiorentino) were now causing him to take blockbuster roles for the money.
Always an art fan, Gary had begun a collection that included works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Rembrandt and Renoir. He’d also struck up a friendship with artist Julian Schnabel, and now played Schnabel himself (though named Albert Milo) in Schnabel’s own biopic of doomed graffiti artist and Andy Warhol protege Basquiat. It would be the last low-budget picture he’d appear in for some time. Aside from the family, he now had another major expense that needed covering by big-budget roles.
This was Nil By Mouth, his directorial debut and a fraught drama that took him back to the estates of London and a terrible world of drugs, drink and familial abuse. Here Ray Winstone played the drunken beater of wife Kathy Burke, who nevertheless loves him, all of it overseen by her mother Janet, a woman hardened by life’s cruelties, and her mother too. Despite the brutality Oldman ensured that love and loyalty reared their heads, to fully explore the complex problems. The film, inspired by the work of John Cassavetes, was in a direct line from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh – but it was still REALLY heavy.
Gary had written the script after his first shot at rehab, indeed it was the reason why his marriage to Isabella Rossellini was postponed. He’d been about to begin the humiliating round of meetings to seek finance when, during a lunch with his Leon director Luc Besson, Besson had volunteered to finance it.
Even so, costing $4.5 million, Nil By Mouth still required $1.4 million of Gary’s own money. Still, it was worth it. The film would win BAFTAs for Best Film and Screenplay and would be nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes. Perhaps better still, it would allow Oldman to confront his own past and find some degree of resolution. It would end with the dedication “For my father…”
There was also another family connection here. In casting for Janet, Oldman had seen some fine auditions, but no one could quite give him what he wanted – the character and spirit of his own sister. So he asked his sister, a non-actress, to do it, giving her the pseudonym Laila Morse, an anagram of “mia sorella” – Italian for “my sister”. And, with much help from Oldman and the other actors, she was a raging success, so good that she decided to take up acting full time and won a longstanding role as Mo Harris, Kat Slater’s tough-loving grandma in EastEnders.
As Oldman says, one good turn deserves another, and he now appeared in Luc Besson’s incredibly gaudy, fantastically inventive sci-fi epic The Fifth Element, at $100 million the most expensive film ever made outside Hollywood. Here a giant, flaming ball of Evil is racing towards Earth and can only be stopped by a combination of the five elements – earth, fire, water, air and Milla Jovovich (playing the essence of life itself).
Bruce Willis would star as a cab driver drawn into this interstellar conflict, Chris Tucker would be preternaturally annoying as a camp TV host and Gary would play Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, an intergalactic arms dealer who wants to harness Milla’s power, even if it means the destruction of Earth. Nice guy, and all the more dislikeable for his half-bald head, foppish behaviour and whiny Southern accent (Oldman claimed to have based his performance on US presidential candidate Ross Perot).
The Fifth Element was flawed but fun. Yet Gary was in trouble professionally. Perhaps due to the catharsis of Nil By Mouth, perhaps because of too many intense roles down the years, he felt burned out. The fire, he said, was gone. But still he had to work. He’d filmed The Fifth Element during the editing of Nil By Mouth then, during the mixing, he’d had to leave to shoot another blockbuster – Air Force One.
Here the Americans and Russians have got together to jail a Khazakstani military dictator, Jurgen Prochnow, and, in order to set him free, Gary hijacks president Harrison Ford’s jet and threatens to kill a hostage every 30 minutes till his demands are met. Luckily, the president is a Vietnam vet who’s hidden onboard and goes into action to end this terrorist nonsense. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, it was thrilling stuff, and Oldman did manage to add a touch of intellectual interest with a speech about who the real terrorists are (“Murder? You took 100,000 lives to save a nickel on the price of a gallon of gas”). All was not lost.
Such a claim could not easily be made for Gary’s next venture, a big screen adaptation of the TV series Lost In Space. Here the Earth has 20 years left to exist, so the family Robinson must be shot into hyper-space to set up a station on the one planet that will support human life, plus a hyper-gate to enable easy commuting.
It’s a good plan, but foiled when Gary’s Dr Zachary Smith sabotages the mission, firing the family out into nowhere, along with meat-head pilot Matt Le Blanc. Having foolishly got himself stuck onboard, Gary realises the ship’s sailing into the sun and must wake the crew from their suspended animation. Cue adventures with defiant robots, mechanical spiders and explosing planets.
Lost In Space wasn’t good. The leads were uninspired and the plot weak. But, as usual, Gary lifted proceedings above the norm. He took all the charisma and comic wickedness of Jonathan Harris’s original Smith and added a little malevolence and sexual menace of his own. Yet he’d had enough. He hadn’t liked Lost In Space or Air Force One and even felt that Nil By Mouth was flawed. His fire was out, and he did not act for a year.
After a quiet return as a politically sharp and manipulative Pontius Pilate in the TV movie Jesus (for which he was paid $1 million), he hit the mainstream again with The Contender. Here Jeff Bridges played a liberal president who wants to make Joan Allen his VP but is disturbed by the appearance of photos that seem to show her involved in a college gang-bang. Enter Gary as Sheldon Runyon, a sly and unprincipled political power-broker who takes an unseemly interest in the pictures and goes at the government like a hound.
It was yet another great role, with Gary seedy, sexist and gross behind owlish spectacles and under a bald pate hilariously semi-covered with scraped-over wisps. He’d also be unrecognisable in his next big picture, Hannibal. Here he would play Mason Verger, a child molester who, under the caring hand of therapist Hannibal Lecter, has been convinced to cut off his own face and feed it to dogs. Now, using Julianne Moore’s Clarice Starling as bait, he hopes to lure Lecter back from Florence and serve him up as dinner for his giant Sardinian hogs. He had no lips, no eyelids, another milky eye, he was a monster – and yet Oldman somehow made him human.
Oldman has often bemoaned the fact that his reputation seemed to disqualify him from comedies. So, in 2001, he took the matter into his own hands and played Richard Crosby, an alcoholic actor in Friends. Here he’s in a play with Matt Le Blanc’s Joey and turns up drunk, spitting all over the hapless Joey and, with constant demands for re-takes, making him late for Monica and Chandler’s wedding. Gary was spoofing himself and his reputation mercilessly and quite rightly received an Emmy nomination.
As if deliberately shying away from the blockbuster fare that had made him so unhappy, Oldman now embarked on a run of lower-budget work. He began with Nobody’s Baby, a Raising Arizona-style comedy that saw him and Skeet Ulrich as as a pair who’ve spent their lives in orphanages and jails. Finally breaking out, they’re separated and Ulrich manages to acquire a baby before Oldman, playing it up as a line-dancing, head-scratching buffoon, returns and tries to profit from the child.
The movie would show at the Sundance festival, but would never win a theatre release. Much the same would happen to Interstate 60, where a high school graduate gets hit on the head with a pot of paint and begins to see things others can’t. Enter Gary as OW Grant, a mysterious character descended from a leprechaun, who gives the kid a magic 8-ball that’ll give him a yes or no answer to any question asked. He then sends him off down a mythical Interstate 60 to deliver a peculiar package.
The film was a real oddity and featured cameos from Michael J. Fox and Gary’s former Track 29 co-star Christopher Lloyd (not co-incidentally it was written and directed by Bob Gale, who’d earlier written the Back To The Future trilogy). However, it went straight to video. Gary would reach a wider public when reuniting with Tony Scott and playing the Devil, seeking the soul of James Brown in an episode of the BMW adverts starring Clive Owen as an enigmatic chauffeur.
2003 saw more strangeness with Tiptoes where Gary played a dwarf from a dwarf family thrown into uproar when Matthew McConaughey, his normal-sized brother, makes Kate Beckinsale pregnant and must tell her what to expect. It could have been great but the movie, in trying to both entertain and inform us about the realities of dwarfism, fell between two stools. More direct was Sin, a kind of cross between Death Wish and 8mm, which saw Gary as a vicious porn producer who gang-rapes the little sister of former cop Ving Rhames and begins a cycle of brutal violence. Again, it was never released to cinemas.
Though the work was interesting, it was not as taxing as his off-screen life. His marriage to Donya Fiorentino had gone haywire and, after a 2001 divorce, wound up in court, with Fiorentino, seeking custody of the kids and more money, accusing him of beating her, hitting her in the face with a phone receiver in front of the kids, and blowing thousands on drink, drugs and prostitutes.
He’d also hit Charlie, she said, and burned him with a cigarette. Horrible accusations, which Gary utterly denied and countered by saying she’d quickly returned to drinking after their marriage, and to cocaine use, and she’d suffered an overdose in front of her daughter Phelix, Oldman finding her purple on the floor. The judge would find in favour of Oldman, who had custody, and would half Fiorentino’s visits to the children.
Not only was the case extremely painful, but it also brought up the scale of Oldman’s financial problems. He claimed to be $2.7 million in debt and his situation was not made easier when, in 2004, he was hit with a tax bill for $288,000. It seemed the blockbusters would have to continue for now.
Fortunately, there were some decent blockbusters on the horizon. First came The Prisoner Of Azkaban, the third in the Harry Potter series, where Oldman played Sirius Black, reportedly a paragon of wickedness, who’s broken out of jail and come to Hogwarts to kill Harry. It was thankfully darker than the first two instalments, which of course suited Gary well. He’s not really a Disney kind of guy.
Following this, Oldman returned to London for Dead Fish, a farcical gangster tale with Robert Carlyle, Terence Stamp and Billy Zane. Oldman would play a cold-eyed hit-man who accidentally exchanges mobiles with an artist, sending them both stumbling into a chaos of mistaken identity, double-crosses and unrequited love.
But quickly it was back to the big time with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, based on Frank Miller’s classic comic book Batman: Year One. This would follow Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) from the murder of his parents, through the psychosis that led to the creation of his crime-fighting alter-ego. Gary would play Lieutenant James Gordon (of course the young Commissioner Gordon), an up and coming cop who helps Batman out against The Scarecrow and the other super-villains persecuting Gotham City.
Whether we ever again see Gary Oldman engage with the kind of traumatic roles that made his name is open to question. For a long time he thought such acting had to be cathartic, had to ease the ongoing pain of that difficult childhood. But then he realised that it was really like a snow-shaker. All those emotions go up into the air but never escape, never fly away. They just hurt you and settle back down, waiting for the next disruption. Why would you want to go throught that? The answer is that you do it for art, you do it to create, to share, you do it because that’s what you do. And Gary Oldman, of all the actors of his generation, is an artist and a born actor. He will surely continue to blow us away.
In 2005, Oldman starred as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s commercially and critically acclaimed Batman Begins, a role he reprised in the even more successful sequel The Dark Knight (2008). Oldman co-starred with Jim Carrey in the 2009 version of A Christmas Carol in which Oldman played three roles. He had a starring role in David Goyer’s supernatural thriller The Unborn, released in 2009.
In 2010, Oldman co-starred with Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli. In this film, he spoke in a Jack Nicholson-style voice with a Southern accent. He will play a lead role in Catherine Hardwicke’s The Girl with the Red Riding Hood.
Oldman appears as George Smiley in the 2012 adaptation of the John le Carré novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson, also starring Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy.
He has also participated in the creation of The Legend of Spyro games produced by Sierra Entertainment, providing the voice to the Fire Guardian, Ignitus. He also voices Sergeant Reznov in the award-winning video game Call of Duty: World at War. He is also set to voice Reznov in Call of Duty: Black Ops.Related Information: