5 Breakout Roles of Gary Oldman You (Probably) Never Saw

A look back at some of the acclaimed actors early work.

Gary Oldman is an iconic actor, known for his remarkable ability to transform himself, often called a chameleon for his uncanny ‘disappearance’ into roles. Working in film since the early 1980s, he is considered one of the greatest of his generation. But have you seen all his movies? Here are 5 breakout roles from Gary Oldman you need to watch.

Criminal Law (1988)

Gary Oldman
Criminal Law, 1989 © Hemdale Film Corporation

Director: Martin Campbell

Moody and atmospheric, this early thriller is a stylish bit of courtroom drama that pits Martin Thiel (Kevin Bacon), a wealthy playboy against up and coming attorney Ben Chase (Oldman). Chase just got Theil acquitted from a nasty murder charge that earns hims acclaim from the public and praise from Thiel, though it’s not long after that Chase learns his client is in fact the murderer, and when the two end up back before a judge for another vicious killing, Chase plays a dangerous game in trying to defend while also setting up Thiel, though the madman has a few tricks of his own. Not a masterpiece, with several plot-holes and some pacing issues, nonetheless, both Bacon and Oldman are fun to watch in this throwback thriller that is somehow better now than it was on release, aged to B-movie perfection.

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Gary Oldman
Sid and Nancy, 1986 © The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Director: Alex Cox

Based on the real lives of two purveyors of the new wave of punk music scene in the 1970s, this bio-pic was very well-received by critics and while issues with authenticity–a mainstay in this genre–left some holes, it was the celebrated performances of the leads that had everyone talking at the time. It follows the story of Sid Vicious, a member of the punk band Sex Pistols, who comes to be dangerously involved with Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), a drug-addled groupie. A love story at heart, the film is a chaotic tale of debauchery and decline amid the turmoil of fame and heroine abuse. Oldman is electric throughout in a sensational turn as a man crippled by his excesses. A great film.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Gary Oldman
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, 1990 © Cinecom Pictures

Director: Tom Stoppard

Surely you remember reading Hamlet while you were in school, and you most likely know the main characters of that famous Shakespeare play, but how about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Well, they are two minor supporting players that playwright Tom Stoppard decided to make story about all on his own, about the two messengers who bring bad tidings in the original play. Here, the new story (both the play and the film) is a comedy, written and performed in the same language and style as Shakespeare. With Tim Roth as Guildenstern and Oldman as Rosencrantz, this is, to be sure, not entirely accessible to most audiences, but, those familiar with Hamlet are guaranteed to get a kick out of the twisted fun of the pair crossing paths with a number of famous moments from that tragedy. Well worth a watch.

State of Grace (1990)

Gary Oldman
State of Grace, 1990 © Orion Pictures

Director: Phil Joanou

This is a great film, one we mentioned earlier in our rundown of great early films of Ed Harris, and deserves to be discussed again. It follows the story of a young man named Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), who comes back to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen after ten years away. He meets up with his old friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman), who is all mixed up with an Irish criminal organization, led by his older brother Frankie (Harris). After Terry hooks up with an old flame, Jackie’s sister Kathleen (Robin Wright), confessing to her he’s not at all what everyone thinks, well, things get messy. Oldman is particularly good, earning high praise for his performance, one that many claim is the best part of the film. Watch this movie.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Gary Oldman
Prick Up Your Ears, 1987 © Zentith Entertainment

Director: Stephen Frears

Well-received but unfortunately, little seen or known by most modern audiences, this drama, based on the biography of Joe Orton by John Lahr, is a moving and highly-compelling story of the chaotic life and violent end of a talented palywright. Oldman plays Orton, a young and gifted writer who falls into a romantic relationship with the older, more introverted Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) at drama school, the two passing through various stages in their time together that binds them and then aggressively divides them. Oldman’s work is nothing short of perfect, his performance deeply moving in a flawed film that is nonetheless a truly memorable experience, especially given the time of its release. Don’t hesitate.

What are some of your favorite Gary Oldman movies?