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16 Performances That Prove Gary Oldman Is Hollywood’s Greatest Shapeshifter

List RulesVote up the roles that prove Gary Oldman's greatness.

Few performers have had such a versatile career as Gary Oldman. Children know him as the Sirius Black actor from the Harry Potter franchise, but adults are familiar with the breadth of his work, much of which has been in more mature fare. He's a true chameleon, changing his look from role to role. Gary Oldman as Dracula in Bram Stoker's Dracula looks much different than Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey in True Romance. Sometimes, he doesn't look like himself at all. In Hannibal, the actor is buried underneath makeup that renders him unrecognizable, while his Oscar-winning turn in Darkest Hour turns him into a doppelganger for Winston Churchill.

Aside from his admirable chameleonic quality, Oldman has gone through an interesting career shift over time. In his earliest roles, such as Sid and Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears, he was viewed as a prodigiously talented performer who had an air of danger. There was a rawness and an unpredictability about him. Years of solid performances have morphed him into a veteran respected by peers whose sheer presence can help provide substance to mainstream pop culture franchises like the Planet of the Apes series or Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. 

Over the past few decades, Oldman has continued to surprise and delight audiences with the boundless creativity he brings to every role he tackles. Whether you prefer the edgy young Oldman or the seasoned veteran, a closer look at his most important roles demonstrates just how extraordinary he is.

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  • Photo: MGM

    In Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Oldman took an uncredited role as Mason Verger, the only person to have survived an attack by the notorious Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter. He now wants revenge against the psychotic shrink, and he's got one impressively devious plan to achieve it. 

    Keeping his name off the picture was an intriguing move. Verger is facially disfigured because of Lecter, so Oldman is virtually unrecognizable underneath a ton of prosthetics and makeup. That creates an aura of mystery around the character. Something about him seems familiar, yet it's hard to place who's portraying him if you don't already know. Oldman seemed to realize that this mystery would add something to the film. Whether you can identify him or not, the actor brings his famous intensity, creating a figure who possesses a very unique brand of maliciousness. We believe the violent Lecter might really be in danger from this guy. Given the iconic stature of Hopkins-as-Hannibal, that's a major accomplishment.

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  • Leon: The Professional is best known for the breakout performance from then 12-year-old Natalie Portman. She may have stolen the show, but Oldman was nevertheless highly memorable as Stansfield, a psycho DEA agent looking to eliminate Portman's character. A rather aggressive DEA agent, for that matter. 

    Playing a guy evil enough to want to take out a child is something a lot of actors would avoid because of the discomfort of appearing so deeply unsympathetic. Oldman went the opposite direction, leaning into the idea of creating a character so deliciously mean that we can't wait to see him get his comeuppance. This is also the role that turned Oldman into a meme. The manner in which Stansfield screams at a henchman that he wants "EV-ERY-ONE!" brought to him has become an internet favorite.

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  • Oldman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in 2018's Darkest Hour. Buried under prosthetics, he plays Winston Churchill in this dramatization of how the former prime minister resisted calls to negotiate with Hitler, instead crafting a series of speeches designed to earn the public's support in standing firm against him. It's astonishing how much the makeup work makes the actor look like Churchill. In fact, if you didn't know who was playing the role in advance, you might not even realize it was Oldman. 

    If a good prosthetic job was all there was to the performance, though, it wouldn't have won anything, much less an Oscar. At that stage of his career, Oldman had become a widely respected showbiz veteran, appreciated for his ability to tackle larger-than-life characters. And who was more larger than life than Churchill?  Darkest Hour needed a star who could both disappear into character and convey the historical figure's commanding presence. The list of viable candidates was small. Oldman was literally one of the few who could have pulled it off.

    It's a cliche to say something "brings history alive," but his electrifying turn as the transformative WWII figure does just that.

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  • Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy was Oldman's second film, his first as a lead, and absolutely the movie that put him on the map. He was tasked with playing Sid Vicious, the bassist for punk rock band the Sex Pistols. Aside from being an important influencer in the punk movement, Vicious was notable for having a heavy substance dependency that eventually cost him his life. The movie looks at the dysfunctional codependent relationship between Vicious and his fellow-user girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) - a relationship that ended when he allegedly fatally attacked her.

    Obviously, Sid Vicious was a deeply troubled individual. Rather than merely imitating him, though, Oldman truly embodied the punk legend, capturing the anarchy inside. There's a palpable sense of danger in his performance. We aren't just watching an actor in a role - we're watching an unpredictable young man on a whirlwind path of destruction. Sid and Nancy works so well in large part because Oldman makes the portrait of a person allowing himself to get sucked down the drain feel all too real.

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