The 15 Best Gary Oldman Performances Ranked

Gary Oldman is one of the greatest film actors of all time. His versatility is so established now that there are internet memes about his uncanny ability to just simply vanish into a role. No other actor could convincingly play real-life figures as diverse as Lee Harvey Oswald and Winston Churchill, let alone such contrasting literary characters as Dracula and George Smiley. It's this versatility that has led to his success and longevity as an actor; he can play the hero, the villain, a supporting role, or a mere cameo, and never gives a part anything less than his all, whether he's playing Beethoven or a CGI peacock.

It's true that he displayed a propensity for playing villains in outlandish science fiction romps like "The Fifth Element," popcorn actioners like "Air Force One," or serial killer thrillers like "Hannibal." However, more recently he has received long overdue recognition for his talents with some much more distinguished film roles, receiving three Oscar nominations and one win (for "Darkest Hour)Below are 15 of the best Gary Oldman performances from film and television that demonstrate his versatility in full effect. His is an enviable filmography, so apologies if your personal favorite didn't make the cut.

15. Sid Vicious - Sid and Nancy

One of the most notable aspects of Gary Oldman's career has been his ability to shine in films that are otherwise not particularly remarkable. In both "Chattahoochee" and "Romeo Is Bleeding" he delivers powerful, virtuoso performances, even while the films themselves leave much to be desired.

"Sid and Nancy" is perhaps the best example of this, a haphazard, meandering film kept afloat by the two central performances from Chloe Webb and Oldman as the titular couple. Oldman in particular gives a towering performance, playing the Sex Pistols bassist with a pathos and a romanticism that wasn't always apparent in the real-life version. Losing a scary amount of weight for the role, he certainly looks the part too, even though Oldman himself was admittedly not a fan of the Sex Pistols or punk in general, he shared in an interview.

It proved to be the role that put Oldman on the map, though, and there are some sensational moments, including the scene where he walks through a glass door, and his anarchic rendition of "My Way." However, what sticks with you long after the film has ended is how Oldman and Webb capture the often-overlooked tragedy of the pair.

14. Rosencrantz - Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard's adaptation of his first play reunites Gary Oldman and Tim Roth after working together on Mike Leigh's "Meantime." The actors star as two hapless minor characters from "Hamlet," wandering aimlessly through the Danish play, trying to make sense of their own roles, waxing lyrical on existentialism, chance, fate, and petty disagreements.

Oldman and Roth do an endearing double act, and it's a shame they haven't made more films together. They have a natural, dry comic chemistry, and it's nice to see them play roles so different from their previous on-screen pairing. In Stoppard's film, Roth is the level-headed one and Oldman is the mild-mannered idiot, albeit a bit of a savant (throughout the film he notices natural phenomena, such as Archimedes' water displacement and Newton's cradle, but fails to grasp the concepts thoroughly, invariably messing them up when trying to show Roth).

As with the play, the film's success depends entirely on the central performances, and both actors prove adept comic performers. They underplay the jokes beautifully, and despite the wonderfully absurd script, the laughs mainly come from the central dynamic, be it Roth's exasperation at his partner's stupidity or Oldman's blithe naivety and confusion over whether he is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.

13. Ludwig van Beethoven - Immortal Beloved

It takes 20 minutes for Gary Oldman to utter a single word in Bernard Rose's biopic of Beethoven, but he is captivating from his very first appearance. Told almost entirely in flashback after his death, it's a profoundly moving story that follows Beethoven's assistant (Jeroen Krabbé) as he hunts for the mysterious "Immortal Beloved" of the composer's letters. 

It almost goes without saying that Oldman absolutely nails the broader aspects of Beethoven's character; the fits of pique, the bombastic Austrian pomposity. Even more impressive, though, is the way he captures the quieter moments. The climactic moment during the performance of "Ode to Joy" where he stands up and the sound completely drops from the soundtrack is breathtaking, and though we see the flashback illustrating his thoughts at that moment, the most affecting element is simply the expression on Oldman's face. 

It's a film that suffers from comparisons with "Amadeus," and in truth, it can't compare with Milos Forman's movie in terms of production value or story, but it manages the difficult feat of combining Oldman's over-the-top acting tendencies with a nuance that was sadly overlooked at the time. You also can't fault Oldman's commitment to the role, sharing in an interview that he practiced the piano for six hours a day in preparation for the film.

12. Sirius Black - The Harry Potter franchise

As canny as ever, Gary Oldman entered the "Harry Potter" films in the best installment ("The Prisoner of Azkaban") and left just before it went a little off the rails. Cast very much into type as the enigmatic Sirius Black, he is quickly revealed to be more complex than he first appears. With limited screen time, Oldman gives a remarkably lived-in, intense performance, instantly capturing the ambiguity of his character. In "The Order of the Phoenix," he builds up our empathy for Black while showing his growing frustration at being cooped up in his hideout. 

More than anything, Oldman perfectly captures the impulsive Black's frantic restlessness. He so clearly wants to be taking a more active role in the war against Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and when he is let loose in the climactic battle with the Death Eaters, his exhilaration is palpable. He is finally in his element, fighting alongside Harry, making the film's ending all the more tragic.

While other characters are accused of infantilizing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Sirius' problem is that he treats Harry as a friend. He sees so much of Harry's father in him that in their final scene together he mistakenly calls Harry by his father's name. It's a subtle character beat but Oldman nails it.

11. Herman Mankiewicz - Mank

In a huge departure from the prosthetics required for his Oscar-winning turn as Winston Churchill, in "Mank," director David Fincher told Gary Oldman he wanted "no veil between [Oldman] and the audience," the actor shared with IndieWire. There is little attempt to make Oldman look like the real Herman Mankiewicz, and the result is one of his most natural, authentic, playful performances, and one that would result in his third Oscar nomination.

Playing one of Hollywood's most acerbic writing talents, Oldman has a whale of a time dishing out barbed insults to those in positions of authority, including William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). While others bristle at Mank's impertinence, Hearst praises Mank as "wonderfully contrary," and a curative to the crowd of toadies he surrounds himself with. Essentially serving as a court jester to the tycoon, the position rankles Mank pretty soon, and his increasingly belligerent comments set him against Hearst. This is all told in flashbacks as Mank works on a new screenplay, a thinly veiled assault on Hearst, named "Citizen Kane."

In an interview, Oldman described Mank as "an egomaniac with low self-esteem" while Orson Welles is said to have called him "the perfect monument to self-destruction," both of which are evident in his frankly incredible performance. Mank is a performer, clearly relishing being the single dissenting voice in a choir of yes-men, and speaking with no fear of recriminations. Still, there is a vulnerability to his character, too, and a clear warmth in the interactions with his long-suffering wife, cruelly nicknamed "poor Sara" (Tuppence Middleton).

10. Drexl Spivey - True Romance

"True Romance" is a film absolutely crammed with colorful performances from acting heavyweights — including Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, and James Gandolfini — and yet Gary Oldman manages to stand out as the flamboyant pimp, Drexl Spivey, making an indelible impression with a little under 10 minutes of screen-time.

According to Flickering Myth, Tony Scott pitched the role to Oldman as "a pimp who's white but thinks he's black" and Oldman immediately agreed to the part. He created the character's look himself, insisting on the dreadlocks, the gold teeth, the facial scar, and the glazed-over pupil, resulting in one of the most distinctive villains in film history.

Both a comic character and a viable threat, Drexl is a monstrous creation. It's a testament to Oldman's versatility that he never comes across as a joke, and instead might be the most terrifying character he has ever played. He is endlessly compelling and full of little tics that make him effortlessly memorable. Even with all the plot twists and Quentin Tarantino's exquisite dialogue, it's Oldman who sticks in the memory long after the film has ended.

9. Jackie Flannery - State of Grace

An emerging theme in Gary Oldman's career choices is his decision to play characters whose actions are abhorrent, but whose virtues make them if not likable, then at least relatable. In Phil Joanou's overlooked gangster film, Jackie Flannery is a psychotic, impulsive character, but his childlike loyalty and affection for his family make it impossible to condemn him out of hand, especially when compared to his ruthless brother Frankie (Ed Harris). His friendship with undercover cop Terry (Sean Penn) is his redeeming character trait, and their early scenes together are where the film really sparkles. The moment where he hysterically laughs while showing Terry a pair of severed hands he keeps in a freezer is the perfect distillation of his character. He's a psychopath but an endlessly watchable one.

When his friends begin getting killed off by the rival Italian gang, it's Jackie who feels it the most, breaking down and immediately seeking retribution. Oldman's visceral reactions make Jackie a much more complicated, multi-layered character than the endless cold-hearted psychopaths churned out by Hollywood. An interview with Oldman confirmed this "haunted quality" proved instrumental in him getting cast as Lee Harvey Oswald in "JFK," and many actors have singled out his performance in "State of Grace" as an inspiration, with Leonardo DiCaprio saying that it "influenced an entire generation of actors." 

8. Jackson Lamb - Slow Horses

Based on Mick Herron's series of spy novels, this spy comedy drama sends up both "Spooks" and the more low-key espionage of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Playing off his performance as the refined, softly-spoken George Smiley and his newly acquired status as an Oscar-winning actor, Gary Oldman lights up every scene in which he appears, and clearly relishes the opportunity to sink his teeth into a real character. 

Introduced sleeping on the sofa in his office, wearing socks with holes, and waking himself up by breaking wind, Jackson Lamb is not your typical spymaster. There is more to his character than first appears, though, and while he would never admit it, it's clear he has an affection for his team, screw-ups though they might be. 

Jack Lowden's River Cartwright is the ostensible lead of the show, but every time the series looks like it's heading down a conventional route Oldman simply walks into the room and upends everything. Whether giving a withering look or dropping acerbic lines like "Getting you up to speed is like describing Norway to a dog," his crumpled spy is one of the funniest performances of his career. Oldman has stated that he'd be happy to retire once his role on "Slow Horses" comes to a close. Thankfully, there have been two more seasons commissioned, and with eight novels in the series, we won't be bidding him farewell any time soon!

7. Joe Orton - Prick Up Your Ears

Gary Oldman has a number of real-life people in his repertoire, but none of them are as affecting as his portrayal of controversial playwright Joe Orton and his tragic death at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina). Both actors give incredibly poignant performances, bringing to life a witty script by Alan Bennett that sheds some light on the inner dynamic of their relationship, providing some context for their deaths.

It's clear from early interactions that the young Orton was nurtured by Halliwell as a writer, and he quickly gains confidence thanks to his lover's support. But at the same time, Orton's rapid success clearly takes a toll on the overly sensitive Halliwell, which makes the tragic ending unfold with a dreadful inevitability.

Only three years after playing the blunt instrument that was Sid Vicious, Oldman plays Orton with a playful recklessness and a sharp, outrageous sense of humor, without ever making him a caricature. Most impressive is how he captures Orton's vulnerable side; his insecurities that lead him to stay with Halliwell despite their growing unsuitability, and the affection he feels for him that manifests itself as a callous disregard.

6. Shelly Runyon - The Contender

By rights "The Contender" should have been Gary Oldman's first Oscar nomination. He gives a nuanced, subtle performance as Sheldon Runyon, the Republican congressman intent on preventing the appointment of Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) as Vice President. With thinning, curly hair, and glasses that magnify his eyes (making him look like a turtle), Oldman is virtually unrecognizable.

Runyon is the ostensible villain of the film — his use of smear tactics and insidious use of rhetoric makes him a clear antagonist — but his actions come from a place of personal principle rather than outright villainy. In Oldman's own words to GQ, he viewed Runyon as the film's only "true patriot," using dishonest means maybe, but for what he truly believes is best for his country. 

In any case, his performance ranks among his strongest work on film, and any behind-the-scenes conflict serves the character brilliantly. It's always more compelling to watch a villain who thinks he's a hero; instead of a black-and-white story of good vs. evil, it becomes a story of canny political maneuvering. The best scenes are those in the confirmation hearing, where Runyon pointedly leaves some questions unasked, ostensibly for the sake of propriety, but really allowing the watching reporters to fill in the blanks themselves.

5. Jim Gordon - The Dark Knight Trilogy

In previous film versions of "Batman," Commissioner Gordon is a fairly thankless role, a stern authoritarian character who is a grudging ally of Batman. Gary Oldman's version of the character is the first time he feels like a fully fleshed-out character, and a likable one at that.

In Peter Traver's review for Rolling Stone (one Oldman quotes regularly), he says that Oldman "makes virtue exciting." And it's true; Gordon is essentially the white hat of Nolan's trilogy, the dogged sheriff having to deal with criminals as well as a masked vigilante, and yet in Oldman's hands he never becomes dull, or a third wheel. He's incorruptible but fallible in his judgment and with his own blind spots.

Crucial to the performance is the basic decency that emanates from Oldman in the role. One tiny gesture of kindness marks him as one of the few decent, truly good men in Gotham, and worthy of Batman's trust. Most impressive of all, he makes the straitlaced Gordon a plausible pick for the favorite character in a series filled with colorful heroes and supervillains. It would be unthinkable if you just know the character from the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films or the animated series.

4. Count Dracula - Bram Stoker's Dracula

Described by Roger Ebert as "an exercise in feverish excess," Francis Ford Coppola's opulent adaptation of Dracula might have a claim to the greatest disparity between the best and worst performances in any film. On one extreme is Keanu Reeves' infamously wooden turn as the ostensible hero, and on the other Gary Oldman gives a remarkably nuanced portrayal of Count Dracula. 

More than any other depiction, Oldman captures the unearthly qualities of Dracula. He is utterly other-worldly in his actions and movements (an element emphasized through Coppola's use of in-camera effects, such as making his shadow move independently). He is a ruthless monster, killing Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), and has no compunction about feeding babies to his Transylvanian brides. Oldman plays every iteration of his character with the same intensity, whether a decrepit old man, a dashing young count, a werewolf, or a gigantic bat.

Bearing more resemblance to Klaus Kinski's version of the character than the iconic Bela Lugosi portrayal, Oldman makes Dracula a tragic figure who is driven by a deep love, and yet he makes no concessions to make him more sympathetic or human. Like Kinski, Oldman depicts him as a feral creature, but one motivated by an overwhelming heartache that makes him an endlessly fascinating character.

3. George Smiley - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

By his own admission, Gary Oldman has been guilty of overacting in the past. It's part of his charm, the shouting, booming voice is one of his trademarks along with his chameleon-like ability to disappear into his roles. As such, the part of George Smiley is a real departure for the actor. 

Oldman plays John LeCarre's spymaster with a stillness that is quite unlike anything the actor had done before. In contrast to his more emotive performances, his Smiley is softly-spoken and slow-moving. He appears cold and detached but he also makes Smiley strangely vulnerable with a few beautiful touches. He raises his voice once in the entire film, and it's more in exasperation than anything else. When the mole is finally caught and arrogantly complains that he's not an office boy, Smiley roars back "What are you then?" It's the culmination of the betrayal and indignation the character feels and is so much more powerful when contrasted with his otherwise muted performance. 

It remains a shame that Oldman didn't win the best actor Oscar for this uncharacteristically subdued performance, which remains one of the most beautifully observed of his career. It's quite telling that after this snub, he followed this up with a much broader, more award-friendly performance as Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour." His turn as Smiley was a much more deserving performance, demonstrating a more subtle sensibility than he had ever played on film before.

2. Clive Bex Bissell - The Firm

Described by the BFI as Gary Oldman's "Greatest Screen Performance," it's hard to disagree with this assessment. Alan Clarke's final film is also his best — an unflinching look at football hooliganism, that's really not about football at all. It's a film specific to the Thatcherite era and yet it's also about the universally relevant pervasiveness of violence.

Oldman's Bex is a very specific brand of monster, hiding behind the veneer of an estate agent's smile. It's an incredibly complex, fearless performance, full of self-loathing and a particularly toxic brand of masculinity. As he put it himself, Bex is "A British American Psycho — he had money and he was greedy but he was still angry."

Prior to appearing in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" Oldman would always say this was the film he was most proud to have appeared in. He never shies away from the darker side of his character; he's nervy and thin-skinned, bringing down violent retribution on anyone he believes has wronged him, and yet charismatic enough to galvanize his gang into action. At the same time though, at his core he's a twisted child, playing with his toys until he finds himself woefully out of his depth. The most illustrative scene shows him calmly walking upstairs to his room, decking himself out with his various weapons and impotently attacking his mattress until he's exhausted. 

1. Norman Stansfield - Léon: The Professional

As a general acting rule, less is more. However, somewhere along the way Gary Oldman decided that actually, more is more, and in the case of "Léon: The Professional" he was proved absolutely right. Playing corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield, his character kicks off the film's plot when he murders the family of Mathilde (Natalie Portman) and inadvertently sends her into the arms of the childlike hitman, Léon (Jean Reno).

Introduced listening to Beethoven on his walkman, before literally sniffing out a lie from a duplicitous fence (Michael Badalucco), Stansfield is an unpredictable, volatile character, popping pills and gunning down innocent people without a care in the world.

Oldman has played a lot of villains over the course of his career, but Stansfield is the greatest of all and might be the best film performance of his career. He flits between broad comedy ("EVERYONE!") and sudden bursts of violence, while always projecting a palpable aura of menace. His performance might be larger-than-life, but it's the perfect counterbalance to Reno's subdued acting style. The moment when he finally confronts Mathilde with the line, "I take no pleasure in taking a life if it's from a person who doesn't care about it" is genuinely terrifying.