There are some truly provocative, personal and excellent films on the academy’s docket of nominees this year. In a race filled with worthy winners — from Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” to Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” — it’s almost surprising that Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” made the cut in several categories.
Perhaps the most shocking is Gary Oldman’s “Best Actor” nomination for his performance as the famed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the aforementioned biopic.
Oldman finds himself surrounded by worthy competitors in the category.
Daniel Day Lewis’ performance as a controlling and idiosyncratic dress designer in “Phantom Thread” is dazzlingly romantic, even when disturbing. Daniel Kaluuya shines in “Get Out” as he transforms from cool and collected to manic and terrified for his life; his performance externalizes fear in ways that are as unclichéd as the film itself. In “Call Me By Your Name,” Timotheé Chalamet delivers a devastating portrayal of a young man in love, with refreshing vulnerability, intimacy and a method of expression that is anything but obvious. Denzel Washington’s performance as the titular character of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is quirky and endearing — no doubt the most effective part of the film.
These three men’s performances are leaps and bounds ahead of Oldman’s in “Darkest Hour” — and they did it without the heaps of makeup that does most of the work in convincing viewers that Oldman is Winston Churchill.
Sure, it’s very common for actors to require prosthetics in order to physically transform into the real-life figures they portray in biopics such as “Darkest Hour.” Oldman captures Churchill’s bullheadedness and blatant misogyny, as well as an apparent softness in the character’s vulnerable moments — but ultimately, his performance is unexceptional, certainly not one of his best, with his own mannerisms frequently distracting from his portrayal of Churchill. If the most persuasive aspect of Oldman’s character is his makeup, rather than his performance, then it’s makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji who deserves the award, not Oldman.
But his comparatively lackluster performance isn’t the only reason Oldman shouldn’t win the “Best Actor” Oscar — it’s also his former misdeeds, which include alleged domestic abuse and defense of another actor’s racist comments.
In 2001, while Oldman and his former wife, Donya Fiorentino, with whom he has two children, were filing for divorce, Fiorentino accused him of choking her and hitting her with a telephone in front of their children, according to The Independent. Although Fiorentino hadn’t come forward publicly about the alleged abuse until recently, it’s described in the paperwork filed for their divorce nearly two decades ago.
More recently, during an interview with Playboy in 2014, Oldman defended actor-director Mel Gibson’s use of racial slurs, according to The Guardian. In the same interview, he also defended Alec Baldwin’s use of a homophobic slur — and then later tried to have much of his defense of these men removed from the record.
As Ira Madison III of The Daily Beast points out, Oldman has a shady past when it comes to abuses: He’s not only been accused of abuse himself, but he seems to think it’s acceptable to throw around homophobic and racial slurs. He didn’t just defend Gibson’s and Baldwin’s bigoted language, he himself used several slurs throughout the interview, throwing them around flippantly as if to make a disturbing point about his privilege.
“It’s not just that Oldman makes excuses for bad behavior in Hollywood,” Madison writes, “It’s that he’s been accused of engaging in bad behavior himself and called others hypocritical for being offended.”
The reality is that Oldman clearly isn’t citizen of the year. His performance was decent, but hardly compares to those with whom he shares a nomination.
Some have argued that a celebration of Oldman’s decades-long career is overdue — but this isn’t the performance to commemorate and Oldman doesn’t seem like the type of man worth celebrating, either. Additionally, actors shouldn’t only be awarded for their career-long achievements, but the merits of the performance for which they are nominated.
It’s as much a question of whether Oldman “deserves” the win as it is a question of whether Oscar voters will continue to celebrate abusive men simply because they are “talented.”
The “Best Actor” Oscar is centrally about a performance, yes, but after the Weinstein revelations, the continuing reach of the #MeToo movement and the global adoption of Time’s Up, it’s clear that awards aren’t simply about celebrating portrayals of characters, but the moral character of the media-makers and artists as well.
If the academy votes for Oldman’s performance, it will reveal how little it has learned this past year and re-expose the industry’s continued erasure of artists’ problematic behavior, simply because it is inconvenient or complicated to address the issues of abuse within the Hollywood institution.
Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].