Telluride: Gary Oldman Arrives as Instant Best Actor Frontrunner in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman Becomes Best Actor Frontrunner
Focus Features

For actor Gary Oldman, an Oscar nomination was elusive for many years. An Oscar win, however, could be around the corner.

The chameleonic star had dazzled for decades in an endless string of films — “Sid and Nancy,” “State of Grace,” “True Romance,” “Leon: The Professional,” “The Contender,” “Hannibal,” etc. — until 2011, when his work was finally recognized by the Motion Picture Academy. It wasn’t one of his trademark Baroque performances that got the call, but rather, his icy cool portrait of a British intelligence operative in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The man has nothing if not range, and that range now extends to Sir Winston Churchill, about as larger-than-life as it gets.

In Joe Wright’s World War II drama “Darkest Hour,” which unspooled at the Telluride Film Festival Friday, Oldman’s showcase might be his finest hour. He digs into the towering role with uncanny resolve, fearless under gobs of makeup, fully crafting not simply an impression of a man but the fiery soul of a character.

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The last year has been marked by a rash of Churchill projects in film and television. Brian Cox (“Churchill”) navigated Churchill’s crushing doubts later in the war. Michael Gambon (“Churchill’s Secret”) delivered him at his most vulnerable, suffering in the wake of a stroke. John Lithgow (“The Crown”) offered a latter-day portrait as well, with Churchill as counsel to an unprepared new monarch. But “Darkest Hour’s” pressure-cooked atmosphere is what allows Oldman to deliver so definitively.

The film charts the turbulent month from Churchill’s instatement as Prime Minister amid lacking confidence in his predecessor Neville Chamberlain, through the valiant Operation Dynamo (dramatized earlier this year in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”) and Churchill’s famed “we shall fight on the beaches” speech following the British Army’s skin-of-its-teeth evacuation from the shores of France. Oldman’s Churchill is a man of steel resolve throughout, but while the actor luxuriates in his subject’s grit, he also fully inhabits his nuances and grace notes. He’s totally unencumbered by the prosthetics, shining right through with as lived-in a depiction of the man as we’ve ever seen.

The film itself is otherwise an across-the-board player. Certainly best picture and best director are on the table. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay wrangles a lot of history, and a lot of exposition, into an electric throughline. Bruno Delbonnell’s smokey photography is mouth-watering, while of course, design elements are superlative. The makeup and hairstyling Oscar could even be decided. And if there is anyone else from the cast that pops, it might be Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, who faces his own internal struggle and serves as a calming foil along the way.

But this is Oldman’s show. He simply owns the movie.

The best actor Oscar race hasn’t caught fire at all yet this season. (Lead actress, conversely, is set to ignite at this very festival.) So consider Oldman the unequivocal frontrunner at the moment. He’s likely to remain that way, too, what with multiple Oscar-winning contenders like Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington not exactly starving for more Academy recognition. There will be others in the mix, certainly. But none is likely to match the bravado of what’s on display here.

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  1. John Th says:

    Dunkirk will win Best Pic
    Nolan will win Best Director
    Oldman will win Best Actor

  2. Bill B. says:

    An Oscar is very, very possible considering their love of actors who change their appearance. Loved Dunkirk. This ?!

    • John says:

      “Dunkirk” is fantastic & it should win “Best Picture”, but it has no performances that justify serious consideration in the acting categories, because the characters are all presented as a group, not individual heroes. They are all good, but there’s simply no time for anybody do develop a deep character, because that’s not the point of “Dunkirk”.

      “Darkest Hour” on the other hand is a pure actor’s film.

      Both films compliment each other nicely.

  3. Btw, I feel like if he does have competition, it’ll either be some predicting DDL to get a farewell win (I think that’s more likely to result in a nomination only, but DDL does deserve a 6th nod in general.) OR Joaquin Phoenix for You Were Never Really Here. Maybe that film will have some broad appeal trouble and may or may not get BP consideration. But I think Ramsay for screenplay and Phoenix for Actor have strong potential. As for winning, I can see Phoenix getting his lion’s share of critics awards potentially and giving some threat to Oldman. But ultimately, the Academy will feel like it’s Oldman’s time. Plus, it ticks all the boxes: British, biopic, deglam, WW2, et al. Need I say more? Idk what all the negativity is about. This year has an exciting slate imo, especially the Oscar-caliber crop.

  4. His time has come, I think. I’m glad to hear that maybe Mendelsohn can ride the wave, too. No real hope for KST to slide into the supporting actress category, in your opinion? Aside from the glorious performance of Oldman, I hope Joe Wright is at least nominated in the Best Director category. I always felt he was slighted for Atonement (I think Gilroy should’ve only been nominated in the screenplay category that year), so hopefully he gets his due here. If not the win, but I’d settle for just a nom.

  5. Blake says:

    Right now, I’m predicting this will lead the Oscar nominations with 10– too much?

    I got a feeling this will be the winner in the end, especially if the Telluride trend keeps up. The Shape of Water feels like a tech winner, as does Dunkirk. Call Me By Your Name makes sense as the closest competition–looks like it has Adapted Screenplay in the bag, unless Last Flag Flying is a big hit out of NYFF.

    • I doubt Last Flag Flying will succeed THAT much to pose much of a threat. It looks enjoyable, but not exactly Oscarbait. But I need to see The Last Detail as soon as possible. Damn Netflix DVD is unavailable at the worst possible time!

      I’ve always felt like Joe Wright was worthy of recognition and this could do it. I hope it doesn’t suffer from comparisons to The King’s Speech’s trajectory. (Not so much the films themselves, but the success TKS had in 2010-2011.) Winning BP, Director, Actor, etc. plus nods for both supporting categories. Watch this do the same! But it’s a bit too soon to call this a BP certainty. However, I don’t think 10 nominations is all that farfetched. Picture, Wright, Oldman, Mendelsohn (he’s one of those who you just want to see nominated), KST (been a long time, might be a nice welcome back), Screenplay….Add in Makeup, Cinematography, et al. Yup, not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Even if KST is snubbed, for example, there are lots of tech categories I can see recognizing Darkest Hour.

  6. Happy for all the Oldman love, but no words for Kristin Scott Marvelous? Doesn’t she pull a Dench (impact larger than screen presence)?

  7. Alex says:

    Wouldn’t it be a hoot if “two” British WW2 dramas and most of their actors and their directors get nominations at all the U.S. awards shows. Many people are saying that they should give “Dunkirk” the Oscar now, now Gary Oldman is getting Oscar buzz and it’s only September. The upcoming award season may be worth watching…last couple of seasons sucked.

  8. mcgwynne says:

    But does he have the voice??

    Churchill’s speeches are iconic, extraordinarily unique and widely heard around the world In newsreels and movies!

    Oldman had trouble with his Dracula he noted in an interview years ago and was reduced to getting a raspy sound by screaming before the cameras rolled rather than the threatening command inherent in the dark, deep and dangerous resonance employed by Christopher Lee.
    Perhaps re-recording in an ADR studio?
    We’ll see.

  9. Richard Rangel says:

    Looking forward to seeing this movie, one of my favorite actors!

  10. Charles says:

    Gary Oldman would have won before, but many of his performances in movies like “Batman Begins”, “True Romance” or “JFK” were simply too small for serious consideration – or too over-the-top, but perfect for comic book films like “Leon”, “The Fifth Element” or “Air Force One”.

    Many other features had good performances, but were not good enough, like “Chattahoochie” (or whatever).

    Truly worthy of an Oscar were his turns in “Tinker, Tailor…”, “Sid & Nancy” and “Dracula” before.

    Some of his very best performances were on TV, in Mike Leigh’s “Meantime” and especially in “The Firm” by Alan Clarke – which is also one of his boldest and funniest!

    It’s about time to give him the gold, otherwise the Academy gets credibility issues.

  11. Mark says:

    Let that sink in, Emma “flavor of the month” Stone has an oscar, and Gary Oldman hasn’t. The Academy is a joke.

    • Jk says:

      Let that sink on you, Emma Stone doesn’t have anything to do in this conversation or with the fact that Oldman doesn’t have an Oscar. She’s an actress and he’s an actor, two differentcategories at the Oscars. she won this year wherehe hadn’t a submission to look for the prize. So please let that sink on you

  12. Gerard Kennelly says:

    oldman was amazing in TTSS but tom hardy warrior deserved a nom that year too

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