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

Updated September 8, 2020 9.4k votes 1.3k voters 47.0k views16 items

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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  • The 'Dark Knight' Trilogy - The Honest Cop
    Photo: The Dark Knight / Warner Bros. Pictures

    One of the reasons the Dark Knight trilogy works so masterfully is that director Christopher Nolan understood a lot of fundamental truths about Batman and his world that are easy to overlook. One of those truths is that Batman requires a strong Commissioner Jim Gordon. The idea of a costumed vigilante only makes its proper impact when contrasted with a good old-fashioned legitimate lawman.

    That meant casting an actor with a strong presence and an ability to convey moral decency. Nolan found his man, perhaps surprisingly, in Oldman. His Gordon is stoic and shrewd, knowing that vigilantism is not necessarily the best solution to the crime that plagues Gotham, while also recognizing that it can be mighty helpful. Because Oldman nails that balance, the actions of Christian Bale's Batman have a stronger resonance. 

    The Dark Knight films are unique in Oldman's career in that they represent one of the few times he played an undeniably honorable character.

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  • The 'Harry Potter' Franchise - The Noble, Unlikely Ally
    Photo: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix / Warner Bros. Pictures

    In the Harry Potter franchise, Oldman plays Sirius Black, an escaped prisoner who initially seems like an antagonist to the title character and his friends, but ultimately turns out to be an ally in the fight against Voldemort. He makes his first appearance in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which marked a turning point in his career.

    Audiences were used to seeing the actor as a villain, given how frequently he'd played such roles in the past. At the same time, Oldman and the filmmakers knew the arc Sirius Black would take - one that would defy viewer expectations by revealing a heroic side. He made the character's transition from hiss-worthy baddie to faithful cohort so credible that it transformed his entire career. Oldman suddenly became a reliable franchise star, a guy who could bring gravitas to a beloved property.

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  • Several years ago, Oldman publicly disowned The Fifth Element. Many science fiction fans don't share his dislike of the picture. Often described as a "good bad movie," there's so much bonkers stuff happening that it's hard not to be entertained. It's definitely a film like no other.

    Oldman plays the movie's villain, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg. He has a suitably unusual look here. One side of Zorg's head is shaved, and long hair combed over to the side covers the rest. To play such an odd bad guy, the star opted for an odd approach. SFX's Susan Arendt put it best, writing, "Zorg could've been a simple cartoon, either an over-the-top force of Evil with a capital E, or a sniveling underling to the real enemy of the film, Mr. Shadow. Gary Oldman makes him a bit of both and something more, a man who's both casually ruthless and utterly terrified."

    In other words, Oldman makes this character megalomaniacal in a way that's not obvious, choosing instead to find a more distinct way of conveying Zorg's menace. It's a perfect example of the creativity that has made him an in-demand performer.

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  • 'Hannibal' - The Sadistic Monster
    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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