Despite working steadily in film and television for 30 years, Gary Oldman has had a lower-key career than might have been anticipated from the string of virtuosic performances he gave in his first decade or so – the years of “Meantime” (1983), “Sid and Nancy” (1986), “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987), “Track 28” (1988), “JFK” (1991), “Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’” (1992), and “True Romance” (1993). Never less than incisive and troubling, he has more recently impressed as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, and we were reminded of his range and threat by his frosty, repressed George Smiley in last winter’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Oldman has a fan in the novelist Martin Amis, who on Monday evening presented a screening of the 1989 BBC drama “The Firm” as part of “Under the Influence: Writers on Film,” a series held at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, in Manhattan. The last kinetic film directed by the great Alan Clarke, it explores the psychology and sociology of the soccer hooliganism rampant in Britain from the late '60s through the early '90s and is a companion piece to Clarke’s “Scum” (1977) and “Made in Britain” (1982), which similarly examined youth violence. Another analogue is Mike Leigh’s “Meantime,” in which Oldman excelled as a racist skinhead whose courage can’t match his inane swagger.
In “The Firm,” Oldman stars as a married East London real-estate broker who bullies a gormless crew of soccer thugs into taking on two rival “firms” for the right to follow the English national team in the 1988 European Championship. Never descending into caricature, Oldman quivers, postures, and goads as “Bex,” determined to get his “buzz” through violence, even at the cost of his young son’s safety. Lesley Manville, married to Oldman at the time, is also outstanding as Bex’s wife, who recognizes that his thuggery is an aberrant form of play. It’s also a form of (homo)sexual displacement, with Bex and his boys and their enemies constantly taunting each other with mock effeminate voices. The savagery, though, is unpalatably real.
The Crosby’s audience seemed stunned by Clarke’s depiction of soccer hooliganism (which has largely been eradicated through CCTV) and by Oldman’s performance – what kind of Martian is this Bex? Amis attributed the thugs’ “herd mentality” to the desire for young British men of the time to fight non-existent wars; one of Bex’s crew, significantly, is a former soldier. “The sociological line was that this was a kind of nostalgie for Empire. They still wanted to have quasi-military raids and this was the form it took for a while.” He noted how at the national level, soccer tribalism elicits “emotions of religion and war, and they’re very powerful and atavistic and repellent.”
As for Oldman, “he strikes me as the most novelistic actor I’ve ever watched,” Amis told Michael Maren, his onstage interlocutor. “It’s all based on observation, on ear and eye. The way he does the modulations of the [Cockney] accent and the glottal stops – all that is so exact. Perhaps American wouldn’t recognize the type, but it’s a graphic rendition of a certain kind of Englishness.”
“He’s the most concentrated actor I’ve ever seen at work, “Amis continued. “Do you remember ‘Dracula,’ where he had this marvelous voice? You have next to him the spectacle of Keanu Reeves trying to do an English accent and making five mistakes per syllable. He’s trying like mad to do it, and there is Gary doing a Translvanian accent with about 30 per cent of his concentration and the rest is going into these marvelous, graceful stylized [hand] movements. And think of him as Lee Harvey Oswald in ‘JFK.’ He’s not a starry actor. He doesn’t, as [Robert] De Niro would, play [himself] against the character … where it’s almost osmotic and you’re wondering how De Niro is going to have a pas de deux with his character. [Oldman’s] not like that at all. He remakes himself for every role.”
Amis talked regretfully of Hollywood’s failure to get behind a film of his scabrous 1984 novel “Money,” which was to have starred Oldman as the protagonist, John Self, a decadent English movie director who falls victim of a practical joke when trying to launch a project in New York.
“It was one of the great lost opportunities of cinema,” Amis said. “The producer Eric Fellner and I went to Belgrade where Gary was filming ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ from the Tom Stoppard play. I was led into his hotel room and he said, ‘I’ve been sick, but I’ve been working on the part and I’ve got a great new cough.’
“We talked about ‘The Firm’ and the scene where Bex and Snowy [a black member of his crew] crush Oboe [the leader of a Birmingham gang] on the ground and Bex throws his head back and he’s sweating with loathing and hatred.” What Bex then does to Oboe is concealed by a long shot and Bex’s back. “I said, ‘What do you do to him with that Stanley knife [boxcutter]? Do you gash his nose like the Roman Polanski character does to Jack Nicholson in ‘Chinatown’? And Gary said, ‘No, I blinded him.’”
“We had a good talk about violence. He’s not one of these literalists who goes and hangs out with football hooligans for months, but he has his points of reference and he says that often the most violent guys are not the biggest, not the strongest, but they have another quality, which we narrowed down to being the most self-righteous. When they come after you, their blood is boiling with self-righteousness. They have their point to make.”
“Money” the novel, Amis said, was partially based on his experiences working on Stanley Donen’s “Saturn 3,” a “very poor” 1980 science-fiction movie that he wrote and which starred Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. He reported how Douglas was obsessed with wanting to appear naked in the film and wanted his co-stars to follow suit.
“So I had this material about actors,” Amis said. “They all want to redeem themselves through the character and are tremendously transparent about their insecurities and wanting to adjust the role to give them all the strengths they don’t have and to obliterate the weaknesses they suspect they have.” Amis based "Money"’s ageing tough-guy star Lorne Guyland (one of his greatest character names) on Douglas.
“That was really the idea for the film. John Self is trying to get a film going and it falls through in the most terrible way, just as the film of ‘Money’ fell through. As someone said, no one really knows why certain films get made and certain films don’t. Brian De Palma, whom I interviewed, said that what happens is that there are all these ideas swilling around in Hollywood, all these thoughtful discussions in the dens of the Moorish mansions of Los Angeles, and the ideas and projects sit around until someone who has power gets attached, then it goes through development with a writer and actors get connected to it, then it goes upstairs to the suits. Then a very mysterious decision is made, and either it goes forward or gets put into turnaround. De Palma said they only make the films they can’t get out of making and that everyone has absolute terror of taking responsibility.”
Three of Amis’s novels have been filmed. Following “The Rachel Papers” (1989) and “Dead Babies” (2000), both disappointing, “Money” was finally made as a solid television movie by the BBC two years ago. Shekhar Kapur will reportedly direct a movie of the sexually apocalyptic “London Fields,” David Cronenberg and Michael Winterbottom having previously been attached.
I asked Amis for his reaction to the “Money” movie. “I thought it was really pretty good,” he said. “Nick Frost as John Self was great. But what the writer is going to feel watching an adaptation of something he wrote…you’re going to feel a succession of missed opportunities and also embarrassment at the lameness and vulgarity of some of your jokes. So it’s a deeply armpit-igniting experience.”
Nothing came of Amis’s screenplay of Jane Austen’s "Northanger Abbey," written for Miramax, and he doubts he’ll get into bed with the film industry in the future. “You get discouraged,” he said. “Writing for movies is collaborative. You’re willing to try your hand at that when you’re 35, but when you’re 60 you’re so jealous of your territory that the idea of listening to someone else’s suggestions….” If the right opportunity presented itself, however, you wouldn’t bet against him writing something for Gary Oldman. It would have to be an indie, of course.