Oldman Look at My Life

18 Jun

I’ve been first and last
Look at how the time goes past.
But I’m all alone at last.
Rolling home to you

from “Old Man” by Neil Young

Well, the latest from the recent Cannes shindig, yeah, a month ago,  is that Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee have kissed and made up. What’s that, you say? You had no idea that these two world class filmmakers had been engaged in a lover’s quarrel? Well, kinda, something like that. I guess it all stems from the fact that Spielberg recently lost Best Director at the Oscars to Ang Lee. Spielberg’s Lincoln went into the race with the most nominations and a healthy box office take; however, as Ben Affleck’s Argo scored heaps of favorable publicity, thereby inching toward certain victory in the Best Picture race, Spielberg initially appeared to be the default choice in director category until a seemingly last minute surge for Lee, nominated for Life of Pi–a technical marvel that tantalized viewers in a way that Spielberg’s flick did not. Suddenly, Lincoln seemed safe, old school, rote.

Who knows how history will judge either film. What we do know is that for the time being, Lincoln is most famous for being the vehicle that helped star Daniel Day Lewis win an unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar. At this point, almost no one has any doubt that DDL wasn’t full well deserving of accolades galore for portraying one of America’s most revered statesmen. What’s especially interesting is the way DDL so thoroughly dominated a category populated by big name actors (including previous winners and/or nominees, such as Denzel Washington and Joaquin Phoenix) going for broke by bringing to life especially complex characters in generally well-reviewed, high profile projects. Great actors, great performances. All of them deserving and so powerful that they overshadowed excellent turns by John Hawkes (The Sessions), Jack Black (Bernie), and even Tom Courtenay (Quartet).

The 2011/2012 Best Actor race was not quite so dazzling. Oh sure, the talent was evident, including an engaging movie-starish  turn (in the best sense) by Brad Pitt in Moneyball and even noticeably mis-cast superstar George Clooney in The Descendants, both films among the year’s top contenders. Meanwhile, what about the other three, starting with the winner? France’s Jean Dujardin starred in The Artist, an almost too insufferably hip, or worse, cute,  for its own good B& W silent film that paid tribute to Hollywood’s past. Both Dujardin and his vehicle enjoyed novelty status–and a huge p.r. push by the Weinstein folks–but even with all that, and an eventual win for Best Picture and Best Director, The Artist never caught on with mainstream American audiences. I wonder if Dujardin would have stood out among the competition if The Artist had been released in the same year as the recent batch of contenders. Somehow, I doubt it, but I digress.


The 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy was directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, perhaps best known in the U.S.A. for 2008’s Let the Right One In. The Oscar nominated screenplay is by the personal and professional team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor. Among the film’s accolades are an Oscar nominated score by Albert Iglesias as well as the following: 11 British Academy nods, including the award for Outstanding British Film, an American Society of Cinematographers nomination for Hoyte Van Hoytema, a “Technical Achievement” honor for production designer Maria Djorkovic at the British Independent Film Awards, an ensemble acting prize from the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, a USC Scripter nomination for Straughan and O’Connor as well as screenplay honors from the Online Film Critics Society.

Elsewhere, the 2011/12 roster included Mexico based actor Demián Bichir,  with a smattering of  American credits, in the highly acclaimed indie A Better Life (directed by Chris Weitz).  If I had been voting, I would have been torn between Pitt and Bichir; however, there is still one more intriguing entry, and that is Gary Oldman as John Le Carré’s semi-retired master spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Oldman was and is such an interesting–yet worthwhile–choice for Oscar consideration for multiple reasons.  First, Oldman and the press and/or the Hollywood community in general have not always been on the best of terms. The actor, to put it mildly, can sometimes be a little, well, mercurial (as I once described him). He can, allegedly, be a beast on the set not to mention a difficult interviewee during press-junkets.  I’m sure he has made plenty of enemies along the way, and that can often be an obstacle because members of the Academy are more likely to honor actors, directors, writers, etc., who aspire to be team players. Yes, there’s always room for mavericks with huge egos–as long as those mavericks also have integrity. Oh sure, you might be asking, but are the Oscars a popularity contest, or are they a means of honoring significant achievements? Well, the answer is a little bit of both.

Another thing Oldman had working against his favor was that his film, while generally well-reviewed, was not exactly a box office smash even though it had been generating interest since the late summer 2011 Venice Film Festival. Maybe the studio that released it (Focus Features, a subsidiary of NBC Universal) didn’t know how to market it properly, but waves of mainstream audiences failed to materialize. Let me give you an example.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s full-tilt performance as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s woefully uneven J. Edgar earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations in spite of the fact that the well-publicized flick sank at the box office, earning about 37 million at the U.S. box office.  Even so, DiCaprio was widely considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nod just about up until the nominations were announced. By that point, however, his movie had the taint of failure and seemed less like an award worthy achievement. On the other hand, Oldman’s flick grossed less than that, about 24-25 million, so his nomination is seen as bit of a surprise. Plus, there seemed to be more excitement around other performers/performances at the time, such as critics’ darling Michael Fassbender in a host of films, most notably playing a sex addict in the envelope-pushing Shame, and golden guy Ryan Gosling in either The Ides of March or Drive. It’s entirely possible that both actors cancelled themselves out by appearing in too many vehicles seemingly all at once. Nonetheless, my point is still that by the time the 2011/12 Oscar nominations were announced, DiCaprio, Fassbender, and Gosling seemed better positioned to nab one of the five slots than did Oldman.

Before I add more comments about why Oldman’s nomination was so unlikely, given the way the game is often played, I want to come right out and add that I was actually thrilled about his nomination. I enjoyed both the performance and the film as a whole quite a bit–even if it was not my absolute favorite.  I’m just a bit stunned that such unconventional work in a hard-to-sell film actually played as well to Academy members as it did, considering the competition. Nothing I write is intended as a criticism. Just observation.


Gary Oldman packed a wallop in his first major big screen role as doomed punk-rocker Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid and Nancy. From there, he was the go-to actor for edgy roles such as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s J.F.K.; however, even in England, his home country, he’s never been an awards fave, save for his semi-autobiographical Nil by Mouth. I loved him as Ludwig von Beethoven in 1994’s Immortal Beloved (1994). Of course, by the time he channeled both Adolph Hitler AND Ross Perot in 1997’s The Fifth Element, he’d become too insufferably over-the-top for many film enthusiasts though he found a whole new, and younger, audience when he took on the role of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Okay, so why is this performance so different from the usual Oscar template? First, even though Oldman’s George Smiley is assigned the task of piecing together a complex puzzle and is, therefore, the audience’s eyes and ears, he does not necessarily dominate the film in an obvious way. Indeed, Oldman is continually surrounded by top-flight British actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch (especially good), Colin Firth (on the heels of his own Best Actor Oscar for The King’s Speech), Tom Hardy, Cirian Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Mark Strong to name just a few, all of them weaving in and out of the story under mysterious circumstances. Furthermore, George Smiley is not prone to big emotions even when he suffers greatly on the inside.  Of course, we know from decades and decades of Academy history that big impassioned speeches–like those delivered by, say, Colin Firth and DDL, are an Oscar staple. With relatively few exceptions, Oscar voters prefer acting that is conspicuous, which is why a showboating ham such as Jack Nicholson can win an Oscar for the likes of As Good As It Gets (1997) while poor Peter Fonda, doing masterfully understated work in Ulee’s Gold (also 1997), gets relegated to also-ran status. In Oldman’s case, his performance was even more understated, his character less sympathetic,  than Fonda’s.  Indeed, Oldman’s Smiley spends most of his time onscreen listening, trying to make sense of disturbingly curious details all the while silently nursing a wounded heart and contemplating the cost of living a life fraught with secrecy, deception, and paranoia. He has a lot on his mind. but he rarely verbalizes in it, preferring to internalize.  Of course, any good actor knows that all acting is re-acting, as the old mantra goes, but it’s quite a feat to be able to hold the camera’s –the audience’s–attention for long stretches without a lot of bravado, but that’s what Oldman does. He uses his acting skills to make listening look like art.

Of course, Jean Dujardin’s fans will likely argue that because he appeared in a silent film, he achieved a similar degree of greatness. Well, he at least achieved an Oscar, but I feel like Dujardin’s performance was rigged, coasting as it was on novelty. Yeah, I guess it was expressive on some level, and Dujardin can mug and mime in character, but I’ve seen more persuasive acting by silent greats such as, say, Charlie Chaplin. Does that make sense?  I just think Oldman somehow went deeper…down to the subtlest detail in body language. Furthermore, I guess it could be argued that because Oldman has so often in his career played, well, loud and crazy, he offered Academy members something they had not expected by playing a character so subdued.

So, what’s at stake here?  Le Carré’s saga is the anti-Bond. No one looks dashing in a tux. There are no souped-up Aston-Martins with ejector seats. No one is a super-villain; witty banter is kept to a minimum. Instead, this is  1970s Cold War realness–cold in more ways than one:  dreary, wet, and functionally industrial, all of it meticulously realized by designers Tatiana Macdonald and Maria Djorkovic. Plus, in a major shift from the book’s opening, the movie begins with an episode only presented as part of a series of flashbacks in the original text.   A British agent is sent to Budapest to rendezvous with an Hungarian officer who wants to defect. In exchange for the Brits’ cooperation, the officer promises to reveal the name of highly placed mole within the intelligence agency known as “The Circus.” Alas, the mission turns into a bloodbath with the British operative seemingly left for dead–along with innocent bystanders.  The debacle forces the resignation of ‘Control,’ the agency’s increasingly frail chief (Hurt). When Control leaves, Smiley leaves with him though under a cloak of suspicion. On one hand, sure, he’s loyal to ‘Control.’ On the other hand,  even Control isn’t sure Smiley is to be trusted. You see, Smiley was also in Eastern Europe at about the same time as the doomed Budapest mission, so is it possible he’s the mole? Did he sabotage the mission?

With Control out of the way, a new team, led by Toby Jones’s Percy Alleline, comes to power. Control dies, and a broken Smiley, his marriage on the skids, wonders what to do with himself.  Meanwhile, another mission, this one in Istanbul, also turns unexpectedly bloody, thereby once again raising concerns about a mole. At this point, a bureaucrat outside the agency summons Smiley back into service in order to conduct a top-secret investigation.  Hmmmm…how does a retired spy investigate other spies? That’s the story.


John le Carre (l), master spy novelist, and Gary Oldman (r) together on the red carpet promoting the opening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Le Carre did not adapt his work for the screen though he is credited as one of the film’s executive producers.

Full disclosure: I never saw the famous, award winning 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Alec Guinness, but both Michael and I did, in fact, read Le Carré’s original in the months leading up to the most recent version’s theatrical release. We found a nifty new hardback edition for a good price at a store famous for, well, selling books at half their original value. At any rate, not only is it a dense, complex text, it’s also dense, complex, and dry, but it’s also fascinating as Le Carré–via Smiley–takes readers through the back stories of these aging men, and at least one woman, who have spent decades in service of intelligence work, going back as far as the glory days of WWII, when objectives and enemies were easily identified, up to the rampant paranoia of the Cold War, a time of hidden agendas in which trust is the most precious commodity.  Le Carré  gives the reader everything he/she needs to know in order to keep up with Smiley, but some patience is required. One of the beauties of the movie is that Oldman puts a face on all that intrigue. Plus, with each and every viewing, Smiley’s methods become increasingly clearer.  Yep, this is one of those movies that actually improves with multiple screenings–for those willing to go along for the ride. I can easily imagine how bewildering the experience might be to those with little or no familiarity. I know some Le Carré purists have issues with the adaptation, including the casting of Oldman who does not match the description of Smiley offered in the book. Yes, some of the details, including two key locations, have been changed, but I think the essence, and most of the major plot points, remain the same. Adapting this work for the cinema would be a challenge for even the most seasoned screenwriter.

Okay, at 2,500+ words, I know I need to wrap up this thing, but I really want to push this absorbing little flick because I’m sure that most of my readers have not seen it. Okay, I want to praise the filmmakers for pulling off one of the book’s most thrilling passages with hardly a hitch–yet another example of Cold War paranoid scrutiny involving Smiley’s only ally within the agency (Cumberbatch), dispatched to retrieve sensitive files in an intricately plotted scenario requiring split-second precision.  Another thing that really caught my attention was the amount of same-sex coupling and/or switch-hitting that goes on in both the print and screen versions. Holy mother of all that is queer, what a shocker!  Nothing is especially graphic, but considering the times in which the book was first published, Le Carré’s choice to depict manly men with eyes for each other certainly ran counter to then prevailing stereotypes of homosexuals as effeminate weaklings. (The movie goes a bit further in its frankness.) Oh sure, none of the characters are necessarily “out” in the way we think of today, but Le Carré, with a background in intelligence work, just wrote about what he saw–and what he saw were homosexuals who were working as something other than dancers, florists, designers, and hairdressers. On the other hand, cynics will likely jump on the author for portraying homosexual and bisexual men as anything less than morally and ethically virtuous as though the writer’s goal were to paint ALL such men as slippery types without conscience or moral compass who should not be trusted under any circumstances.  I understand the cynics’ discomfort, but I’m not sure I agree either.

Not an Oldman fan? Not sure you want to devote the time and concentration needed to sift through a movie of such labryinthine proportions?  Understood; however, if you’re a fan of state of the art cinematic technology, maybe the featured product reel will entice you. Like spies, the best visual FX work in films is that which is not easily detected.

Thanks for your consideration….

Visit John le Carré’s official website, which includes news and interviews about this film and more: http://www.johnlecarre.com/


2 Responses to “Oldman Look at My Life”

  1. virgwb 18 June 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Oldham – always delivers – with my love of film villains – Zorg in “Fifth Element” was way up top. I don’t usually care what a performer is actually like in the real world, I pay to see their craft and he is a real stand out. Your wonderfully apt description of his character being a mix of Hitler and Ross Perot was plain genius. I look forward to watching the movie (for about the 6th time) with that in my head. Good one, Melanie!

    • listen2uraunt 19 June 2013 at 6:22 am #

      Thanks, Virginia! Michael and I both love The Fifth Element and Oldman’s performance in it. I don’t recall if any of the critics compared his portrayal to Perot/Hitler, maybe they did, but I know that’s how I read it at the time, and Michael still remembers me describing it that way. At any rate, I think when Oldman was promoting Tinker Tailor…, he commented that he had to pull back for awhile because he had played too many over the top villains. Certainly, we all know Hollywood loves typecasting. I didn’t even mention is Count Dracula or his take on Dr. Smith in the big screen version of Lost in Space. Anyway, his work in Tinker Tailor is so the opposite of all that. I was thrilled he’d earned an Oscar nod at last.

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