For a man in such command of his craft, an actor who has shown the ability to morph into any person big or small, young or old, it's astonishing that Gary Oldman doesn't have so much as a Golden Globe or Oscar nomination, let alone a win. From the weakest pulp to the richest and most dramatic fare, Oldman sheds his skin and becomes his characters, a cinematic chameleon embodying his characters so fully that there's no widespread persona outside of his work. He is, quite simply, a mysterious man of many faces.
After bit work and television, the actor exploded onto the screen as Sid Vicious in 'Sid and Nancy.' He perfectly recreated the cocky swagger and blank look of a man in severe pain, and Oldman melted away into the famed Sex Pistols bassist. For many actors, a meaty role like this would be one-off notoriety -- the exact right fit of tone and talent that seems larger than life but really is just the fortune of timing and casting. For Oldman, however, it was just the start of boundary-free trajectory.
The actor immediately went from one struggling British icon to another, embodying playwright Joe Orton in 'Prick Up Your Ears.' Oldman fearlessly became the gay writer, starting as an aimless teen, then becoming a confidant to his lover, Kenneth, who would ultimately kill him in a murderous rage after Orton's fame-inflated ego became too much. Opposite Alfred Molina, Oldman's Orton danced perfectly between hot and cold, loving and loathing, a dance of tone that continued beyond the film's credits.
The actor then found the quirk of 'Track 29,' dramatic defense with 'Criminal Law' and two vastly different prison features with 'We Think the World of You' and 'Chattahoochee.'
Once he stepped into the '90s, however, Oldman became the mainstream, beloved character actor hopping back and forth through time. He could banter with Tim Roth in 'Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead' just as easily as he could embody Lee Harvey Oswald in 'JFK.' And just when it seemed like his best moments were bred out of mimicking real people, acting as a cinematic mirror to the past, Oldman added menacing chill to 'Dracula' and drugged danger as Drexl Spivey in 'True Romance' before pulling the menace back into desperate despair for 'Romeo Is Bleeding.'
In fact, 'Bleeding' is one of Oldman's best performances, embodying many of the attributes he's shown before and since, balancing the charisma of a simple man dancing with his wife in their backyard with the frenetic fear of a good-guy-gone-bad. The depth he gave this role surely helped Oldman earn his villainous role in 'The Professional,' but it was a year later, in 1994, that Oldman settled into his best role -- composer Ludwig van Beethoven in 'Immortal Beloved.'
Once again, the actor combined many nuances to play the maestro, but to an entirely new level. As Beethoven, his performance seeped from the screen in a way that destroyed any notion of an audience at arm's distance, ironic since the composer was an infamously belligerent and standoffish man. Nevertheless, bringing Bernard Rose's world to life was an exercise in perfectly stifled pain.
He takes two worlds highly foreign to most -- deafness and classical music -- and combines them in such a manner that one quickly begins to grasp Beethoven's life at odds -- a man desperate to reconnect with the music he can no longer hear, which makes him vastly misunderstood and loathed, while also yearning to express the notes running through his head.
When he plays "Moonlight Sonata," the first notes are harsh, like shovels flung upon the keys; it's the only way he can hear anything. But then he presses his ear to the wood and starts to play the melancholy notes. In a wide shot, it's a heart-wrenching vision of sadness. Yet as the camera moves in, Oldman reveals more than just heartache. His face show relief just as much as sadness. With his ear and cheek pressed against the piano, his being relaxes that slightest little bit, which makes the intrusion and interruption by Giulietta and her father all the more insulting. He bared his pain, his inner demons, his vulnerability and a fleeting moment of bliss as he momentarily reconnected his creation of music with the experience of it.
Heading through so many highs and lows, from searing disgust and animosity to lust-filled abandon, Oldman's version of the composer feels wonderfully organic. The actor is at home in Beethoven's skin, and knows precisely how to evoke the disconnections rife in the icon's life.
It's just a shame that he doesn't get the same opportunities to stretch his acting muscles now as he did then. Oldman followed 'Beloved' with many bounces back and forth in time, tone and talents, from space quests as Zorg and Spider Smith, to retro fare like 'The Scarlet Letter' and a turn as Pontius Pilate. This is the man who, in 2003, even played a little person in the quirky indie 'Tiptoes.' There seems to be no cinematic wall to beat when testing Oldman's range, but his current professional powers that be are lazily satisfied seeing him in typical villainous roles like 'The Book of Eli' and this week's 'Red Riding Hood.'
But even if supporting geek gigs and bad-guy jobs are his only remaining cinematic forays, we've always got the pain and pleasure of Oldman as the maestro.