‘Alcoholics are egomaniacs… but we’re dying inside’: As Gary Oldman portrays one of Hollywood’s most infamous drinkers, he speaks to BAZ BAMIGBOYE after beating his own battle with the bottle and finally bagging an Oscar
Gary Oldman’s mother never doubted that her son would win an Academy Award. ‘She’d say: “Oh, I think you could win an Oscar,” ’ Oldman recalls. ‘Or: “I’d love to see you win an Oscar!” ’
Her son did not share her confidence. ‘Really, for a long time in Hollywood I didn’t exactly play the game,’ he says. ‘But I didn’t want to tell her the chances of me ever winning one were very thin.’
Yet in 2018, Kathleen’s faith was justified. Oldman won the big one — the best actor Academy Award — for his wry and wise portrayal of a wartime Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. He felt blessed that his mother, who had left her home in South-East London to join him in Los Angeles in the late 1980s (‘I just wanted to look after her’), lived long enough to see him achieve the honour.
Oldman plays Herman J. Mankiewicz who, in the 1930s, shambled his way from the East Coast of America to the West, where he signed on as a writer for the Hollywood ‘talkies’
Mankiewicz — known to his friends (and enemies) as Mank — wound up collaborating with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane
Mank wove Hearst’s shenanigans into Citizen Kane and the tycoon tried to have the film banned
After accepting the award, he stood on stage and gave a shout out to Kathleen ‘Kay’ Oldman: ‘Put the kettle on — I’m bringing home the Oscar!’
‘She loved her tea,’ he told me. ‘So do I. I should have got shares in PG Tips.’
But Kay’s Oscar joy was short-lived. She died just three months later. ‘I think she was hanging on for me to win,’ the 62-year-old says, the emotion plain to see in his face, even in our Zoom call. ‘She had a stroke and that was it.’
Kathleen Oldman was almost 99. ‘She said she wanted to reach 100, because she wanted the letter from the Queen. She never got her letter,’ he says sadly.
And then he pulled himself together. ‘Let’s talk Hollywood!’ he declares briskly, after first ordering me to adjust the camera for the Zoom on my computer (‘I’ve lost the top of your head’).
Oldman was speaking to me from his suite at a Mayfair hotel overlooking Hyde Park. The place is, he informed me, practically deserted. ‘It’s like something out of The Shining.’ The actor, who was brought up in Bermondsey, was back in London to set up a new series for AppleTV+.
But he agrees to chat to me about his part in David Fincher’s breathtaking film Mank.
Oldman plays Herman J. Mankiewicz who, in the 1930s, shambled his way from the East Coast of America, where he had been working as a journalist, to the West, where he signed on as a writer for the Hollywood ‘talkies’.
Mankiewicz — known to his friends (and enemies) as Mank — wound up collaborating with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane; still regarded, 80 years after its release, as one of the greatest films ever made.
Mank tells the back story of how he came to write that famous screenplay while cooped up with a broken leg in a ranch house outside Los Angeles.
As he recovers, the sharp-tongued boozer — whose prose was poetry — recalls penning scripts at studios in Old Hollywood and how the great, the good and the bad gathered at Hearst Castle, the palatial home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
There, Mank would bump into the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Hearst’s paramour Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). The writer’s ever patient wife Sara is portrayed by fellow Brit, Tuppence Middleton.
Mank wove Hearst’s shenanigans into Citizen Kane and the tycoon tried to have the film banned.
For decades, there has been fierce debate over who should take the credit for the screenplay: Mankiewicz, or the film’s star and director Welles. Sadly, few today know of Mankiewicz’s importance to the picture (which is available to view on BBC iPlayer, while Mank is streaming on Netflix). But Fincher’s film should change all that.
Mank had been part of the Algonquin Round Table group in New York (nicknamed the Vicious Circle), along with wits such as Dorothy Parker and Harpo Marx, who would match each other in cocktails and cutting remarks over lunch at the Manhattan hotel.
Mank had been part of the Algonquin Round Table group in New York (nicknamed the Vicious Circle)
Fincher’s film whisks us to Hollywood in its heyday, and then burrows beneath the glitter to the murky underbelly, where Mank, the outsider, lives
Oldman says the newspaperman’s tongue lashings were so legendary that ‘even if you were on the end of it, you’d have to laugh because it was so funny’.
Mank brought that East Coast behaviour with him to Hollywood. But the boozing, barbs and gallivanting did not go down well in a town where writers were expected to work hard.
‘No,’ Oldman agrees. ‘Especially when you’re waking at six in the morning and you have absolute contempt for what you’re writing.’ But Mank’s contempt — he famously sent a telegram back to his friends in NY urging them to join him because ‘there are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots’ — was not based on nothing. He may have appeared shambolic, but he was no fool.
In The Wizard Of Oz, for instance, it was Mankiewicz’s idea to have the Kansas part in black and white — and the Oz segments in colour. ‘It was revolutionary back then, Oldman says admiringly. ‘The best special effect ever!’
Fincher’s film whisks us to Hollywood in its heyday, and then burrows beneath the glitter to the murky underbelly, where Mank, the outsider, lives. It’s a magnificent performance by Oldman — perhaps because it’s not a million miles away from his own experience.
Like Mank, he came to Hollywood as a cocksure star from another firmament — in his case London’s theatreland and the independent film industry — with a thirst for fame, and alcohol.
Unlike Mank, though, Oldman won his battle with the bottle (he has been sober since 1995, after joining Alcoholics Anonymous).
But Mank’s outrageous behaviour was still familiar. ‘You can’t dismiss the alcoholism,’ he says. ‘People who are not alcoholics will experience an emotion on a scale of one to three; the same emotion, to an alcoholic, could be a nine.’ In the film, Mank rewards himself with booze when he finishes sections of the Kane screenplay. But as Oldman says, drinkers always have an excuse. ‘Oh, look: the sun’s come out — let’s have a drink! It’s raining — let’s have a drink. So-and-so got married — let’s have a drink.’
Oldman notes an infuriated Welles once described Mank as ‘the perfect monument to self-destruction’. But he was not the first to come to Tinseltown, sneer, and fall flat on his face; nor the last.
Laurence Olivier visited in the late 1930s with his then wife Vivien Leigh. ‘He had a real attitude about Hollywood,’ Oldman says of the great star, who later admitted he’d been ‘arrogant’ about how easy it would be to translate stage stardom to the big screen.
And what of David Puttnam, ousted after a year as chairman and chief executive of Columbia pictures in 1987? ‘That was very short-lived, wasn’t it?’ Oldman says, matter of factly. ‘There was an element of: ‘I’m going to tell you how to do it . . . you’ve been doing it wrong all these years! I can’t think of anyone who’s gone there with a chip on their shoulder and survived.’ Oldman arrived in Hollywood in the late 1980s, bringing critical acclaim from stage success at the Royal Court, and in films such as Prick Up Your Ears and Sid And Nancy; but not the first of his five wives, Lesley Manville, who remained in London.
Finding his feet in his new home turned out to be ‘a long process’, he says, with a hint of a smile. ‘I made a few enemies along the way. But it’s good, isn’t it? To have a few. Yeah, I was a little cocky, probably. I mean, outwardly. I don’t mean inside. There’s that old saying: alcoholics are egomaniacs with low self-esteem. You have all that grandness, but actually you’re dying inside. A little like Mank, I didn’t quite want to play the game.’
He takes a sip of tea from his mug, and considers for a moment. ‘I think it’s that Englishness; that had Olivier saying: “I’m from the theatre, darling!” ’
Like Mank, Oldman found himself torn between his old life, and his new one. In Britain, his success had, he felt, become his enemy. ‘I thought the Brits weren’t looking at the work any more. They were criticising me. I had done the unthinkable — going off to Hollywood — I’d sold out, in their view. It did make me feel unwelcome.’
Meanwhile, Hollywood was proving to be no bed of roses, either. Until one film changed everything.
Nil By Mouth, starring Kathy Burke as a mother in a violent, abusive relationship with her husband, played by Ray Winstone, was written and directed by Oldman. It was a fictionalised version of his own parents’ (Kathleen and Leonard’s) relationship, though he says the violence Burke’s character suffered in the picture was nothing compared to what his mother had to endure.
The film received a prolonged standing ovation at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Burke won best actress, while Oldman was shortlisted for the top honour, the Palme d’Or.
A few months later, he prevailed at ceremonies in London, where the film took prizes at Bafta; and his cast, including Burke, Winstone and Laila Morse (Oldman’s sister) won trophies at the British Independent Film Awards. Nil By Mouth was a milestone for Oldman.
Even now, its power is still potent. The British Film Institute has embarked on a project to restore it, frame by frame, and plans to honour Oldman with a special screening at the BFI in London next autumn (or whenever it’s deemed safe to do so). He laughs and tells me how surprised he was by the enduring success of a picture ‘made for five mates to get out . . . once every ten years’.
But Nil By Mouth opened doors. His career reignited. Soon, he was part of the Harry Potter film ensemble, playing Sirius Black. Christopher Nolan scooped him up to play Commissioner Gordon in his Black Knight trilogy.
His latest project, and the reason he was in London before Christmas, was to start shooting a 12-part AppleTV+ drama called Slow Horses, based on the first novel in Mick Herron’s spy series about Slough House, where ‘all the f***-ups and rejects from MI5 go’, as Oldman put it.
Like Mank, Oldman found himself torn between his old life, and his new one… Unlike Mank, though, Oldman won his battle with the bottle (he has been sober since 1995, after joining Alcoholics Anonymous)
He plays Jackson Lamb, who runs the place. ‘He’s got greasy hair and flatulence,’ he says, delightedly. ‘He’s a farting, working-class version of George Smiley,’ he continued, his voice turning wistful as he mentions the spymaster created by the late John le Carre, who died last month.
Oldman refers to the author by his real name, David Cornwell. They became close when he played Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; and the pair spent hours talking about Cornwell’s most famous literary creation. ‘It was like I was talking to Smiley,’ he says.
‘I’ll tell you what, to have been lucky enough to play Smiley in one’s career; and now go and play Jackson Lamb in Mick Herron’s novels — the heir, in a way, to le Carre — is a terrific thing.’
Playing Mank was terrific, too, although the work was ‘very challenging’. ‘After 40 years of doing this, I still have to go to that place of “Oh, it’s going to be a failure”, and I have to have a little paddle around in that for a while, before I go to the deep end,’ he sighs.
First off, he had to get Mankiewicz’s voice right. There was a 15-second cameo from Mank in some old B-movie talkie. But Oldman also studied his younger brother Joseph (one of those who heeded his advice to head West and snatch work from the ‘idiots’). He figured the apple wouldn’t fall far from the tree and the younger Mankiewicz, who went on to win Oscars for film classics Letters To Three Wives and All About Eve, would also share that ‘smoky, whisky’ voice.
To finish, he added a dash of Burgess Meredith; ‘pre-Rocky’. ‘You’re playing someone who didn’t particularly like himself, and who basically p***ed on everyone who tried to help him.’
Filming was challenging, too, with Fincher proving to be an exacting director, who knew what he wanted; and was prepared to keep shooting till he got it right. But Oldman has no complaints. ‘If the director wants to do 20 takes — or 120! — that’s what I’m paid to do,’ he says.
They came close to that higher figure while filming scenes at the cattle ranch where Mankiewicz actually wrote Citizen Kane while recuperating from a broken leg.
At night, they filmed outside, the set illuminated by lights. The process was complicated by a railway track running across the property, forcing them to time the action to avoid passing trains (‘clang, clang, 30 carriages long’).
‘Then, this one night, we started to hear: moo, moooo-moooo,’ he tells me, giving a fine imitation of a herd of cattle.
‘All the cows had moved across the fields, because of the lights. They thought it was feeding time.’ He waits a beat. ‘Everyone wants to be in the movies.’
After our chat, Oldman was heading home for the holidays, to join his wife Gisele Schmidt, a noted art curator and photographic artist, and her son William, 12.
They’re not in Hollywood any more. ‘Where we live, in Palm Springs, we have this beautiful view of the mountain,’ he says. ‘Throughout the day, the colour changes. I pinch myself and go: “Wow, wow, look at this view!” It’s a long way from Bermondsey.’
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