The Lists: Top 10 Gary Oldman performances

Posted by · 7:51 am · December 6th, 2011

Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” might seem like it’s been on the way for some time at this point in the season, considering an early-September world premiere, followed shortly by a UK theatrical release. But nearly three months later, the film is making its way to domestic theaters this weekend and everyone here will finally get a load of another Gary Oldman performance in a long line of versatile, chameleonic portrayals.

The occasion seemed an obvious one for dedicating an installment of The Lists to the actor’s work. Indeed, this was the first list I jotted down as a must when preparing the season’s coverage a few months ago; Oldman is easily one of my favorite actors, an impeccable performer who has managed to do something fresh with every new endeavor.

Roger Ebert once wrote of Oldman that “like a few gifted actors, he is able to re-invent himself for every role.” If you can believe it, that was in his May 1987 review of Stephen Frears’ “Prick Up Your Ears.” And Oldman has proved the point over and over again in the years since.

Oldman’s work has never been recognized by the Academy. It’s fair to call him one of the greatest actors to never receive an Oscar nomination, I think (which may change this year), but even if you can argue with that, you can’t really argue with the output.

The performances are varied and lived-in, rarely if ever a false note struck. He’s settled into pimps and dwarfs, rednecks and clergymen, kingpins and gangster pawns, punk rockers and classical musicians, crooked cops and noble detectives, political villains and Gothic monsters with equal aplomb. And while whittling the list down to 10 was itself a chore (an understatement), the ranking of the list was equally challenging. I think it’s the most interchangeable collective I’ve ever assembled in this space, but of course, a stand had to be taken.

With that in mind, the exclusions were heartbreaking. I wanted to find a place for Oldman’s under-seen, commanding work in films like “Chattahoochee” and “Track 29,” but the movies built around them often failed to serve the performances.

Outstanding work in good films (“Murder in the First”) and bad (“The Fifth Element”) were ultimately just too fleeting for consideration, though that’s being a bit hypocritical, considering the presence of one show-stopping cameo portrayal.

Meanwhile, much as I appreciate what he brought to the Beethoven biopic “Immortal Beloved,” and much as I love the emotional anchor he has provided Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” I couldn’t find room. And on the latter, I sense his best work on the franchise is still to come.

Nevertheless, believe me, virtually every at-bat was considered. What a fruitful and abundant career it’s been so far.

Have a look at what I settled on in our new gallery. I imagine everyone who takes in all of his work could turn up a different list. So considering as much, feel free to list your favorites in the comments section below.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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