Asked what attributes he took from his old college rector Vivian Green that inspired his most famous character, John Le Carré talked about his spirit and intellect, his powers of observation and recall, and “his ability to disappear into the crowd like a shrimp in sand”.
An extraordinary image, that, to convey camouflage and invisibility, and one that makes Gary Oldman seem like the perfect choice for George Smiley.
It’s been a long time coming. For many of us (he’s Ryan Gosling’s favourite actor) Oldman is the most gifted actor of his generation – but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the films he’s made over the last decade. As I wrote not so long ago, he’s kept himself busy in supporting roles in blockbusters that have been by just about everybody (the Potters and Batmans), and taking leads in quirky oddities that have been seen by just about no one: Nobody’s Baby; Sin; Dead Fish; Backwoods; Rainfall… I’m not making these up!
At last he has found a role worthy of his talents, and how perversely appropriate that it should be playing someone as straight as Smiley, the quiet, undemonstrative, enigmatic spy first played so memorably by Alec Guinness in the BBC’s dramatization of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Guinness was 65 when he played Smiley in 1979, and more or less at the end of a long and illustrious career that included such unforgettable epics as Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai (all with David Lean of course), Tunes Of Glory, The Quiller Memorandum, and half a dozen great Ealing comedies from the 1940s that still stand up today. Oh, and let’s not forget Star Wars.
In 1979 Gary Oldman had just graduated from drama school. He was 21, and still three years’ shy of his first film work. It would be another five years before he’d make a name for himself in Mike Leigh’s Meantime (opposite Tim Roth, Alfred Molina and Phil Daniels)…
Whether Oldman watched Tinker, Tailor at the time I have no idea, but I do know he saw Alan Clarke’s film Scum that same year because he never forgot Ray Winstone’s performance. When he came to direct his own film, Nil by Mouth, in 1997, he would entrust Winstone with the part based on his own father – a raging alcoholic – and in the process he salvaged Winstone’s career from the dustbin of British TV hell.
In Scum Winstone embodied an angry, visceral, street performance style more influenced by American method acting than the British theatre tradition.
That’s a roundabout way of saying I doubt that the Oldman of 1979 would have found much to identify with in the shadowy establishment figure of Guinness’s Smiley. Le Carré described his hero as “small, podgy, at best middle-aged” (of course Guinness was tall and slender, like Oldman); he was obviously the product of Oxbridge breeding… Nothing much there for a working class kid from New Cross to latch onto.
Still, there are real affinities between Oldman and Alec Guinness if you look harder. Both are reticent stars, actors who shun the limelight and disappear into their roles. So many movie stars are paid to play themselves – or rather, their persona. Probably one reason Oldman hasn’t become a bankable leading man is that he’s a shape-shifter, transforming his hair, his voice, and his bearing with each role. Just like Guinness – who famously played eight members of the D’Ascoyne family in Kind Hearts And Coronets and played a Jew (Fagin), an English officer, an Arab prince, a Russian general, and an Indian teacher for his favourite director, David Lean.
As for Oldman, you surely don’t need me to point out that anyone who can play Sid Vicious and Ludwig van Beethoven, Dracula and Jim Gordon, Joe Orton, Sirius Black, Lee Harvey Oswald and a dwarf (that would be Tiptoes, Gazza completists) can play just about anything… Anything, except himself, perhaps?
There must be evasion in the actor’s urge to dress up in wigs and exotic costumes, his need to vanish before our eyes. Oldman has a need to challenge himself, but it’s only comparatively recently, in the relatively circumscribed supporting roles in The Dark Knight and the Harry Potter films, that he’s allowed himself to relax on screen and do, well, not nothing, but not very much. There is an art to that, and it comes from knowing yourself and trusting that you’re enough. Brilliant as he has been on so many occasions, maybe Oldman had to find that composure before he could reach his very best…
Surprisingly, Alec Guinness was only nominated for Best Actor once in his career (he won, for Bridge over the River Kwai). More surprisingly, Oldman has never had a single Academy Award nomination in any category. That’s quite a disappearing trick for such a widely admired actor but one that I will predict here and now will be blown wide open when he wins for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy next February. It’s high time this shrimp took a bow.Tom Charity email@example.com
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