Against Type: Hollywood's Strangest Casting Calls
as a professional hitman in Road to Perdition and as a party-loving, womanizing senator in Charlie Wilson’s War.
Oldman of a Thousand Faces
Imagine you're a Hollywood casting agent. The director is looking to fill a supporting role in a horror movie primarily aimed at the late teen market. The part is small, but pivotal: a learned rabbi whom the heroine (played by Odette Yustman, from Cloverfield) turns to in her darkest hour. Who you gonna call...?
If a vision of Gary Oldman immediately popped into your head, a new vocation in Lalaland surely awaits. Not Jewish, not American, not a problem; there is nothing this guy can't play. Who knows why Oldman would want to participate in The Unborn – perhaps because he knows writer-director David S Goyer, who wrote The Dark Knight? Who know why Oldman picks anything for that matter. It's been the oddest career for an actor almost everybody ranks as among the most gifted of his generation, a talent as mercurial in his way as his near-contemporary Daniel Day-Lewis (intriguingly, DDL was in the running to play Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy – one of Oldman's breakthrough roles).
While Day Lewis has been notoriously picky, making just a handful of movies over the past 15 years, Oldman has kept things ticking over with a couple of films a year. Some of them have been supporting roles in blockbusters that have been seen by just about everybody: Jim Gordon in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; Sirius Black in the Harry Potters; Ivan Korshunov, the heavy in Air Force One.
Quite a lot more have been leads in quirky, leftfield titles that have been seen by just about nobody: Nobody's Baby (2001); Tiptoes (2003); Sin (2003); Dead Fish (2004); BackWoods (2006).
It's safe to assume that Oldman didn't take any of these projects for fame or fortune. They're mostly independent productions, the filmmakers aren't exactly "A-list", and the scripts probably smelled like longshots at best. On the other hand, it must be considered unlikely that a big budget studio picture would afford him the chance to play a ginger-haired genie with a monkey-pipe and no, uhm, manhood (Interstate 60); let alone – my favourite – Matthew McConaughey's very un-identical twin, in Tiptoes, who happens to be a dwarf.
There's a quixotic, impetuous quality to an actor of Oldman's stature signing up for something like that (for the record he's 5'9). My guess would be he was looking to stretch – metaphorically, I mean... That he enjoys the challenge and the chance to buck against the typecasting that still prevails in Hollywood. After all, this is a town where "character actor" usually means playing the same character over and over and over again.
In Oldman's case, his big mistake was surely playing Lee Harvey Oswald for Oliver Stone in JFK (1991) followed by three unforgettable villains in the space of three years: for Francis Coppola he was the screen's most exotic Dracula (1992). Then the pill-popping corrupt DEA man Stanfield in Leon (1994) and the monstrous warden in Murder in the First (1995)… And let's not forget his blistering rasta drug dealer Drexl in True Romance (1993), presumably Oldman's idea of letting his hair down for some light relief. It's no wonder the business had him pegged him as an arch villain.
Things might have been different if he had found the sort of hit that Day Lewis enjoyed with The Last of the Mohicans. The commercial failure of 1994's Immortal Beloved (in which he played Beethoven) and The Scarlet Letter shortly afterwards signaled doubts about his appeal as a romantic leading man and so the die was cast. He's been running away from bad guys ever since... (and cashing in when it suited him).
To a younger generation of filmgoers he's synonymous with the quiet heroism of James Gordon and the dashing Sirius Black... but whether that's enough to open up leading roles in bigger movies is doubtful – he's 50 now, and he may have squandered his box office clout with too many of those smaller movies.
There's always the hope that a really sharp filmmaker will decide to adopt Oldman the way that, for example, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson have built movies around Daniel Day Lewis, Ridley Scott has done with Russell Crowe or Quentin Tarantino with Samuel L Jackson and Tim Roth. If no one else steps up, perhaps Oldman will one day write and direct another film as powerful as shattering 1997 slice of Southeast London life, Nil by Mouth – and act in it too.
In the meantime, the joy for Oldman fans is that you never know where he's going to pop up next: as the disfigured Mason Verger in Hannibal... wigging out as a dim country criminal in Nobody's Baby... as the Machiavellian rightwing politician in The Contender... as Pontius Pilate, or General Zorg, or even as a rabbi in some trashy horror flick. Never mind the quality: feel the width.
Against Type: Hollywood's Strangest Casting Calls