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With Gary Old­man set for an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for Dark­est Hour, David Thom­son ap­praises the mer­cu­rial ac­tor’s ca­reer


Can the ac­tor fa­mous as Sid Vi­cious, Joe Or­ton and Drac­ula re­ally play our ma­jes­tic Churchill? Re­mem­ber the his­tory — per­haps our sense of the great leader has been mis­led. When the 65-year-old Win­ston be­came prime min­is­ter in May 1940, a place in le­gend seemed less likely than a poi­soned chalice. Lead­ing fig­ures in the Con­ser­va­tive Party be­lieved that Churchill suc­ceed­ing the dis­cred­ited Neville Cham­ber­lain was proof of des­per­a­tion and im­mi­nent de­feat. Some of those power-bro­kers hated Win­ston and were plot­ting against him. Power in that gloomy mo­ment might be a pre­am­ble to epi­taph.

Gary Old­man could not claim Churchillian wilder­ness as he came to play the great leader in the film Dark­est Hour. But he has not been an insider or an es­tab­lish­ment favourite. He does not at­tempt the suave ease of Ge­orge Clooney or the pol­ished man­ners of Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch. Old­man has never sought to seem up­per class or debonair, or even “English”; he lives much of the time in Los An­ge­les and is com­fort­able play­ing Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially if they’re as un­know­able or un­re­li­able as Lee Har­vey Oswald in JFK (1991). Ed­die Red­mayne has won an Os­car al­ready as a wide-eyed, adorable ge­nius, but the clos­est Old­man came to that prized sta­tus be­fore his Ge­orge Smi­ley was as Sid Vi­cious. And Sid was passed over by hor­ri­fied Academy mem­bers who wanted act­ing to be taste­ful.

Old­man has been re­garded as a spec­tac­u­lar player for decades, but he fol­lows his own tur­bu­lent and pri­vate inspiration. His work has var­ied wildly, so he has sel­dom been a star who can gen­er­ate or dom­i­nate projects. He is not an easy sell, or an in­gra­ti­at­ing per­son­al­ity. I don’t think he sells tick­ets any more than he charms his way through talk shows. No cast­ing agent would ever say, “Get me some­one like Gary Old­man,” for that type doesn’t ex­ist. He is lost in the jun­gle of his many con­trary roles. He does not let us grasp him, or place him. By be­ing a char­ac­ter ac­tor, his own self stays elu­sive.

He has never taken one step to be loved or needed by the pub­lic (or the busi­ness). It is as if ad­mi­ra­tion makes him anx­ious, and even at this high point in his ca­reer he prefers to do lit­tle in the way of in­ter­views or pro­mo­tion. Take me as I am, he seems to say — but then join him in puz­zling over who that trou­bled per­son is. He may get his Os­car at last as Churchill and that would be only his sec­ond nom­i­na­tion. But this is a mav­er­ick who has of­ten trashed the Golden Globes for hand­ing out stupid awards that lack class or sig­nif­i­cance. There are times when this Old­man seems to have cor­nered the mar­ket as his own worst en­emy, or be­ing reck­less about rep­u­ta­tion. Equally, it’s part of the won­der in his Churchill that he re­fuses to let the man be sim­ply a bull­dog, a hero or the wor­shipped in­sti­tu­tion. Old­man’s Churchill is a wreck, asked to save the na­tion, but need­ing to save him­self, too. Who is Gary Old­man? Well, it’s worth stress­ing that he was born on 21 March 1958, only three years af­ter a be­fud­dled and ail­ing Win­ston Churchill stepped down as prime min­is­ter (be­cause he was by then un­able to do the job men­tally or phys­i­cally). In 1958, Old­man’s Lon­don was only just emerg­ing from the shadow of WWII and the strange curse of vic­tory: it had last­ing bomb sites, food ra­tioning, and men’s clothes that went from drab to grey. More­over, Old­man was the son of a sea­man who be­came a welder and then left the fam­ily. Dad was an al­co­holic and a miss­ing per­son. Gary Old­man was work­ing class, from New Cross, be­fore south-east Lon­don dreamed of be­ing fashionable. This was in an age when Dirk Bog­a­rde, Jack Hawkins, Don­ald Sin­den and Richard Todd were shin­ing and well-spo­ken mod­els in the shel­tered realm of Bri­tish film. It was an era when im­po­lite re­al­ism was not yet com­mon, even if it saw the dawn of an­gry young men, kitchen sink the­atre, a time of John Os­borne, Harold Pin­ter and Tom Stop­pard in which Bri­tain was about to have a gen­er­a­tion of work­ing-class ac­tors that in­cluded Albert Fin­ney, Tom Courte­nay, Robert Shaw, Peter O’Toole and Michael Caine. Gary was five when The Bea­tles hit — a per­fect age for go­ing wild.

When Old­man was in his teens, his Lewisham Dept­ford was a safe Labour seat (John Silkin was its MP for years), but Na­tional Front pre­cur­sors man­aged to get close to 2,000 votes in elec­tions there in 1966. There were fas­cist demon­stra­tions in the Seven­ties, and then a se­ri­ous fire in 1981 (with 13 deaths) that may have been set by racist ex­trem­ists. Bri­tain by then was a more pros­per­ous coun­try and in the Six­ties, Lon­don and the prospects for youth cul­ture had been trans­formed. Gary Old­man’s world was chang­ing in ways par­ents could hardly com­pre­hend. But he was a New Cross lad who watched Mill­wall play foot­ball.

He thought he wanted to act but Rada turned him down and told him he had no fu­ture. In­stead, he went to the Rose Bru­ford Col­lege in Sid­cup. And he was on his way, as an out­sider, do­ing any old job to sur­vive. He played Ham­let once as a kid, but his nat­u­ral habit was to sound rough and to hunt for new, dan­ger­ous ma­te­rial. In his twen­ties, Old­man worked on the edges of Bri­tish the­atre, of­ten at the Royal Court in its anti-gen­teel hey­day. He did sev­eral plays by Ed­ward Bond that ex­plored out­rage and in­de­cency,


and he made his movie de­but as a skin­head in Mike Leigh’s Mean­time (1984), a pic­ture that starred his friend (and oc­ca­sional ri­val), Tim Roth. To­gether they would do the film of Rosen­crantz & Guilden­stern are Dead in 1990, di­rected by its au­thor, Tom Stop­pard. Other ac­tors in this group in­cluded Al­fred Molina, Phil Daniels, Ray Win­stone and Les­ley Manville. Old­man and Manville were to­gether on stage in Caryl Churchill’s Se­ri­ous Money (1987). They mar­ried in a rush, they had a son, Al­fie, and then af­ter a few months they broke up.

By the time he was 30, Old­man had the rep­u­ta­tion as the most un­re­strained young ac­tor in Bri­tain, a des­per­ado fig­ure, in­ven­tive to the point of self-de­struc­tion, un­pre­dictable and fear­less. He was a year younger than Daniel Day-Lewis but he was ahead of that more up­per-class ac­tor. In just a few years, Old­man de­liv­ered three as­ton­ish­ing and alarm­ing per­for­mances, as funny as they were scary: as Sid Vi­cious in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986), play­ing with Chloe Webb, ex­ult­ing in out­rage; as play­wright Joe Or­ton, in­so­lently queer, in Prick Up Your Ears (1987), writ­ten by Alan Ben­nett and di­rected by Stephen Frears; and as Clive “Bex” Bis­sell, an East Lon­don real es­tate agent and leader of a gang of foot­ball hooli­gans in Alan Clarke’s TV film The Firm (1989). You could not be­hold Old­man in those years with­out be­ing struck by his lack of in­hi­bi­tion or cau­tion. There was an ex­u­ber­ant ni­hilism in him and a to­tal lack of that pro­fes­sional need to be liked that can over­take (and tame) so many ac­tors. Was he go­ing to hell?

At the time im­me­di­ately post-Sid and Nancy, the Best Ac­tor Os­cars went to Paul New­man in The Color of Money (1987) and Michael Dou­glas in Wall Street (1988), ur­bane and es­sen­tially in­of­fen­sive per­for­mances as

at­trac­tive rogue fig­ures. Whereas, Old­man’s Sid was an au­then­tic beast, un­no­ticed by the Academy, and dis­par­aged by Old­man him­self. He had to be coaxed into the role; he dis­dained the punk ethos and he of­ten wor­ried he was un­con­vinc­ing or half-hearted in the part. But he lost so much weight get­ting close to the drug-rav­aged Sid that he had to be hos­pi­talised. He seemed as much in dan­ger as Vi­cious him­self, born John Si­mon Ritchie in Old­man’s own Lewisham in 1957 and dead at the age of 21 from a heroin over­dose. It didn’t seem likely then that Old­man had any in­ten­tion of last­ing much longer. He set­tled that dilemma by go­ing to Amer­ica. His very lo­cal voice and tal­ent shifted from New Cross to New York and Los An­ge­les. He was can­did about get­ting into the sort of money that might be avail­able there for a flam­boy­ant ac­tor. He was also de­voted to those schemes of pre­tend­ing like chang­ing his voice and his look. Al­most in­ad­ver­tently, his skill as a mimic and his ea­ger­ness to ap­pear dif­fer­ent ev­ery time meant that there was less pub­lic cer­tainty on how the real Gary Old­man looked or sounded. Eva­sion and dis­guises went hand-in-hand with au­da­cious ex­plo­ration.

In State of Grace (1990), he matched up with Sean Penn and Ed Har­ris as Ir­ish crim­i­nals in New York; in Oliver Stone’s JFK, he took plea­sure in be­ing slip­pery as Lee Har­vey Oswald — as if em­brac­ing all the dif­fer­ent Oswalds con­spir­acy the­o­ries had de­tected. Then, in 1992, for Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, he en­tered into a tour de force of dis­guise in Bram Stoker’s Drac­ula. Old­man spent hours over cos­tume, makeup and hair styling. He was fear­some (or loath­some), yet se­duc­tive, too — what else is that fa­tal kisser role? The film won Os­cars for makeup and cos­tume, but not even a nom­i­na­tion for Old­man. He was spec­tac­u­lar, to be sure, but the film seemed too stud­ied or over-dec­o­rated, and Old­man’s vir­tu­oso per­for­mance was un­der­mined by the sim­plic­ity of fel­low-ac­tors Keanu Reeves and Wi­nona Ry­der.

Old­man played a pimp, a white man who thinks he’s black, in Tony Scott’s True Ro­mance (1993) with a script by Quentin Tarantino. It was a small part, but Old­man took great pains over dread­locks, bad teeth and fa­cial scars, to say noth­ing of his voice. For Luc Bes­son, he was a drug-ad­dict law­man chas­ing Jean Reno in Léon: The Pro­fes­sional (1994). Then, as a de­lib­er­ate change of pace, he was no less than Lud­wig van Beethoven in Im­mor­tal Beloved (1994), deaf but in­tense: he re­ceived awed no­tices, yet the film didn’t quite work and there was some feel­ing that Old­man was show­ing off too much. By con­trast, his Sid Vi­cious had ac­tu­ally seemed more in need of mu­sic. In Roland Joffé’s The Scar­let Let­ter (1995), play­ing op­po­site Demi Moore, he was lost in a pe­riod film that lacked his­tor­i­cal or emo­tional re­al­ity. Not for the first time, Old­man failed to gen­er­ate much chem­istry with an ac­tress on screen.

That does not fit the real man, who has fallen for many women in life — or caught their fall. Close to 60, he has been mar­ried five times. In or­der, af­ter Les­ley Manville, his wives are the ac­tress Uma Thur­man (1990–’92) — they were in Henry & June (1990) to­gether; Donya Fiorentino (1997–2001); the singer Alexan­dra Eden­bor­ough (2008–’15); and writer and art cu­ra­tor Gisele Schmidt (they mar­ried in 2017). He has two sons by Fiorentino and won cus­tody of them af­ter a bit­ter dis­pute. There were other re­la­tion­ships, too, no­tably with Is­abella Ros­sellini, who acted with him in Im­mor­tal Beloved. Along this way, Old­man was get­ting into a tougher fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion and he be­came in­volved in a few drunk driv­ing in­ci­dents that led to al­co­hol re­hab.

Had Amer­ica ful­filled Old­man? He was a name ac­tor, but in­creas­ingly hard to cast, or even iden­tify. It was strik­ing how, in 1997, he took some of his money back to Bri­tain and wrote and di­rected a film of his own, Nil by Mouth, an un­com­pro­mis­ing, foul-mouthed por­trait of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence set against his south-east Lon­don back­ground. The film starred Ray Win­stone and Kathy Burke, who won the act­ing prize at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. Old­man did not act in the film him­self but he di­rected it very well and he seemed re­plen­ished by con­tact with Lon­don. Nil by Mouth had bet­ter re­views than it ever did busi­ness but the les­son of the film seemed clear: he might be more him­self in an English set­ting.

He did rally as the cruel Kazakh hi­jacker bat­tling Pres­i­dent Har­ri­son Ford for con­trol of Air Force One (1997), a sat­is­fy­ing, old-fash­ioned ad­ven­ture film, with a flam­boy­ant ac­cent and lip-smack­ing hos­til­ity. But this was the kind of per­for­mance Old­man could have done with­out too much prepa­ra­tion. A cou­ple of years later, with stren­u­ous makeup as­sis­tance, he was his most odi­ous vil­lain, crip­pled, warped and sheer evil, as Ma­son Verger in Han­ni­bal (2001), the cu­ri­ous se­quel to 1991’s The Si­lence of the Lambs. The pub­lic loathed Verger, to be sure, but it felt pos­si­ble that some of that at­ti­tude ex­tended to the ac­tor. He had worked hard, op­po­site Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen, in the 2000 po­lit­i­cal film The Con­tender, play­ing a nasty con­gress­man, but again the movie was a throw­back. Old­man felt ag­grieved be­cause he be­lieved di­rec­tor Rod Lurie re­cut the



pic­ture un­der pres­sure from Steven Spiel­berg and DreamWorks.

By this stage, Old­man was mak­ing too many poor films and hold­ing onto a ca­reer with a few sta­ple roles: as Sir­ius Black in four Harry Pot­ter films, and as Com­mis­sioner Gor­don in The Dark Knight tril­ogy. These jobs were mod­est meal tick­ets and Old­man did de­cent work in them, but no one could see him as a movie star any longer. Plus, he was past 50 with a look the pub­lic didn’t know or like.

But some­times an ac­tor is res­cued. Over 30 years ear­lier, Alec Guin­ness had had one of his great tri­umphs play­ing the sad master spy Ge­orge Smi­ley in the TV drama­ti­sa­tion of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In 2011, there were thoughts of re­mak­ing it as a the­atri­cal movie, though some warned against chal­leng­ing the mem­ory of Guin­ness. The writer Peter Mor­gan started the se­quel and then To­mas Alfredson came on board to di­rect. He chose the mid­dle-aged Old­man, with­out makeup adorn­ments, to be Smi­ley in a cast that in­cluded Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch and Si­mon McBur­ney. Old­man un­der­stood the sit­u­a­tion

thor­oughly. There was not a trace of showoff now, just the dry, wounded author­ity of Smi­ley the veteran, ex­pert but melan­choly. This was in keep­ing with Guin­ness’s per­for­mance, but it felt fresh and per­sonal, and it was a re­lief to see the ac­tor look­ing like him­self. Ev­ery ad­mirer of Gary Old­man was en­cour­aged. Alfredson de­liv­ered an ef­fec­tive thriller, and the film was a hit that drew at­ten­tion to Old­man’s sub­tlety.

He earned his first nom­i­na­tion for an Os­car, and though he lost to Jean Du­jardin in The Artist, there was wide­spread feel­ing that Old­man had been de­serv­ing, and might be prop­erly re­cov­ered in his ca­reer. Bet­ter yet was to come.

On the face of it, Win­ston Churchill is not a ne­glected char­ac­ter. All too many ac­tors have had their shot at the role, some as good and touch­ing as John Lith­gow in The Crown, and oth­ers less nec­es­sary. But writer Anthony McCarten and di­rec­tor Joe Wright had a novel plan in mind. They would con­cen­trate on the first month of Churchill’s premier­ship, in the cri­sis of Dunkirk, when politi­cians like Vis­count Hal­i­fax (the ex­cel­lent Stephen Dil­lane) were plot­ting a se­cret peace deal with Hitler. Old­man might not have seemed ob­vi­ous cast­ing. He had never been com­fort­able do­ing up­per class parts; his Smi­ley had not seemed pub­lic school or Oxbridge. But the vi­sion in Dark­est Hour was braver still for it opened up truths that have been ne­glected by decades of of­fi­cial Bri­tish hero wor­ship. We had for­got­ten how un­sta­ble Churchill was: a manic de­pres­sive, a rag­ing al­co­holic and sub­ject to im­petu­ous and dis­as­trous de­ci­sions. He turned out to be a great war leader but the Hal­i­faxes of the time had good rea­son to be wor­ried.

Writ­ing in Oc­to­ber 2017, with Dark­est Hour set to open in Jan­uary, my only pre­dic­tion is that it will be a pop­u­lar suc­cess: it seems to me more com­pelling as a nar­ra­tive and more his­tor­i­cally re­veal­ing than Christo­pher Nolan’s Dunkirk. I sus­pect Old­man will get his sec­ond Os­car nom­i­na­tion. He may go on to win, even though it’s not clear at the mo­ment what his op­po­si­tion will be. I say this be­cause I think it’s the best thing he has ever done and be­cause the com­mu­nity of ac­tors and other film-mak­ers recog­nises that, what­ever his way­ward­ness over the years, he is an ex­cep­tional tal­ent. He wears a lot of makeup as Win­nie, and he has fun with the ora­tor’s plummy voice — a cul­tural cliché in Bri­tain by now. Still, this is the kind of role and per­for­mance the Academy re­spects.

What would that mean for his ca­reer? Will Gary Old­man emerge as a master? Does he risk a knight­hood? I’m not sure. He is not likely to be­come a main­stream favourite. When he does in­ter­views, he can seem furtive or sly, mis­chievous but un­set­tled. Per­haps he is more at ease pre­tend­ing than be­ing close to him­self. He will not sud­denly be­come ob­vi­ous cast­ing; he can­not get younger or turn him­self into a ro­man­tic fig­ure. I sus­pect he still nurses a ten­dency to make mis­guided choices (so like the real Churchill), and I can imag­ine a few overblown mis­takes still to come.

One les­son is clear: Gary Old­man’s creative soul is still English. His home­land has changed so much since 1958, but in Ge­orge Smi­ley he placed him­self as a recog­nis­able func­tionary, skilled at his in­tri­cate, be­tray­ing job but some­one who has lost hope in the process. And now his Churchill is an out­cast who be­comes cen­tral. Does that in­di­cate a way for Old­man to move on? He might even re­turn to the live stage. It’s not hard to see him in Chekhov or Pin­ter. You can imag­ine him as Lear or Pros­pero. With a ton of makeup he might be Fal­staff.

He has said he wants to act in and di­rect a pic­ture about the 19th-cen­tury still pho­tog­ra­pher Ead­weard Muy­bridge who helped cre­ate movies. Muy­bridge was born in Eng­land, but then he went to Amer­ica, and killed a man for hav­ing an af­fair with his wife. You want to see that.

Dark­est Hour is in cine­mas on 12 Jan­uary

Top row, from left: Gary Old­man as play­wright Joe Or­ton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987); in The Firm (1989), Old­man plays foot­ball hooli­gan Clive ‘Bex’ Bis­sell; as Lee Har­vey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Mid­dle row, from left: Old­man as the...

Gary Old­man as Win­ston Churchill in 1940, in the forth­com­ing Dark­est Hour

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