|Big issue article|
|Article||THE BIG ISSUE- interview
Hollywood is a solidly Democrat town. Many of the biggest players either contributed funds to or even campaigned for the democratic party. The city's pretty forgiving of most human frailties- drug problems, or the alcohol addiction that Gary Oldman suffered from for years, for example. Being gay does not have the stigma it once had, but in the town where Pee Wee Herman's made a comeback as a serious actor (after the porn incident in a porno cinema) and no one bats an eye if you say you're a Scientologist, one thing remains beyond the pale. You can't get away with having right-wing sympathies. You might manage it for awhile while you're on top of the box-office pyramid, like Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenger, but the Austrian's dwindling status seems to be slipping in inverse proportion to his vocal support for the Republicans' cause.
So you have to give Gary Oldman credit for having the couldn't-give-a damn bolshiness to come out as a Republican sympathizer in this of all towns-even if he can't vote anyway since he is not a U.S citizen. But then again, the London born actor and the director of the acclaimed Nil By Mouth, who's made plenty of money playing the villain (most recently as Mason Verger in Hannibal) has never been shy about speaking his mind, even to diss a film he's helped shape.
This is exactly what's happen with The Contender, a political drama written and directed by critic-turned film-maker Rod Lurie. The film depicts twisty horse-trading and back stabbing intrigue behind the scenes as a fictional president (Jeff Bridges) puts forward woman senator (Joan Allen) as his vice-presidential choice before a congressional president. It's headed by Republican representative Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) who is determined to scupper her confirmation by leaking what appear to be photos of her taking part in a frat- house orgy years before. Oldman is the best thing in the movie hewing depths of character from the nervous way he changes his glasses before he meets the press, or systematically tucks into a bloody steak, chewing demurely, during a confrontational lunch scene with Allen's Hanson.
When it was released last October in the U.S., mere weeks before the election, Oldman, the film's executive producer, and his manager-producer-partner Douglas Urbanski (one of film's producers, who appears in it as Runyon's shadowy cohort, memorably advising they should "gut the bitch in the belly") were openly critical of the final film. They charged that the editing & the soundtrack, supervised by Steven Spielberg personally (Dreamworks had bought the film for distribution), had turned the film into gooey liberal mush.
And even though our interview was set up so Oldman could promote the movie, director Lurie's selling- out still seems to be smart. Sitting in the office of his production company (though situated in L.A, it's called SE8 in a post-coded tribute to his south London roots) and speaking in smooth, well-modulated, still mostly cockney voice, Oldman's manner doesn't seem angry, but the words are stingingly frank.
I ask Oldman what went wrong with The Contender. "I'll tell you what went wrong: big shotism. The director got a big head. Thought he knew it all. He needed us when he needed us (then) Mr. Spielberg came on to this picture.. and Rod was just in his trajectory. I know it all now," he says. Is he bitter? "I'm not. I'm sad that had we continued the way we started- as a team - had we continued with that collaboration I think the movie could have been better. And that's why I am sad; I think it could have been a
really great movie with some great scenes- it's uneven.
How different is it from the film he thought he was making? "The script had flaws but it had a different energy and a different dynamic." He says. My character was more sympathetic, I guess, more rounded. And then those moments were taken away. They put bad-guy music on them, and I became the bad guy & they became the good guys, What we really liked about it was that it was grey, it was ambiguous, and it wasn't black & white - Rod is not the most talented person I've worked with."
Oldman doesn't see things in black & white. He's an ambiguous guy. In fact, I leave the interview utterly charmed by the man, but little wiser about where he stands on specifics.Although no great fan of the rich, what he loves about America is couched in terms of monetary success. ""If you have a doorman in London, in the same position here he could own the building one day. In London he's always be a doorman," he explains. "There is hope that one can get on and be encouraged. It's like Michael Caine said: here a kid can look at a Cadillac and say I'm gonna get me one of those. In England they fucking scratch it."
And yet the film-makers he most admires are all red-as-roses left wingers: Ken Loach, John Cassevettes and particularly Alan Clarke, who directed him in The Firm and whom he cites as one of the directors he as learned the most from. Oldman also professes great admiration for the brilliant Marxist journalist Christopher Hitchens, mainly because Hitchens has given the Clintons such a rough ride.
As an ex-pat British subject, does he support Hitchens' demands for the abolition of the monarchy? "Of course I say I don't have an opinion one way or the other until you try to film in London and you want to put a bit of dolly track in the road, and it's "oh you can't close down the Queen's highway." Then you may have more of an immediate response about the royal family, in the moment." Following on from observing that the Windsors are just another very dysfunctional family, he does all voices for a hilarious, extemporized fantasy sketch about the Queen going for therapy.
The sense I get is this - like most people, to be fair- Oldman's political sympathies are mostly built on personal experiences and emotional responses to personalities, hardly surprising in an actor. He asks me how are things going for Labour at the moment, and I tell him not so hot. "We're starting to miss Maggie, aren't we?" he observes. What he liked about Bush was that he was "a simple man who, as far as I could see, came over as very sincere. (In the debates) he didn't pretend to know everything, which is charming. Gore looked like a sweaty, rather overweight version of Christopher Reeves as Clark Kent, with that pathological sense of entitlement."
Whatever his politics are, I can't help but like Gary Oldman himself, as a person and as an actor. He speaks his mind & pisses people off and has no shame about doing roles beneath his talents and then biting the hand that distributes the paychecks. I'm treated to another impression of Dino De Laurentis (producer of Hannibal) "Gary we make-a, a movie", while he's evasively explaining why he was uncredited for that film (we run out of time before I can get a complete answer).
Currently he & Urbanski are having some trouble raising money for his next directorial project "Joe Buck", which is about sexual addiction. Oldman says that it was Francis Ford Coppola who taught him to accept that compromise might be productive. "I had an ideal, a dream, for Joe Buck and every door I open has been closed. But out of compromise and necessity, because I'm going to make this movie, I am enjoying the process far more than I think I would have done. Everyone's saying no, you can't do this or that, and it's like fuck them, I can."
That doesn't sound very compromising, but given what a one- man riot Oldman was in his early years before he went to AA and beat his alcoholism, it's positively pipe-and-s
lippers mellow. When I ask if the control-kick he gets as a director might be akin to the "god-like" feeling he says he got from drinking, he acts genuinely surprised, like the notion never occurred to him before.
But clearly he's found something to temper all that anger in there, the anger you can see in Nil By Mouth's harrowing out-of-shot violence. At the time of our interview, it's been reported that his wife Donya Fiorentino, whom he met at an AA meeting, has gone back into rehab and Oldman is taking care of their 2 sons & her daughter from her first marriage by himself. Naturally, his wife's problems aren't mentioned in our chat (though he cancels a photo session twice, citing "personal problems"). But there's undoubtedly a keen tenderness there when he talks about how happy he is when his son Gulliver falls asleep on his lap when they curl up to watch the Discovery channel together.