“We can give you a comfortable life,” quotes the 1973 Smiley of the original 1955 conversation. Notice how the reminiscence is staged, Smiley talking to the empty chair in front of him, like an actor rehearsing on stage. “Have a cigarette. Use my lighter. Think of your wife.” Smiley confesses to Guillam that his strategy to get Karla was to “keep harping on about the damn wife,” offering forth the logic of coming to the West when a return to the East meant almost certain death. “We’re not so different, you and I. We look for the weaknesses in each other. There is as little worth on your side as there is on mine.” But Karla “never said a word. Not one word.” Karla willingly went back to Russia, knowing full well that he might be tortured or killed. “He kept my lighter. It was a gift. ‘To George, from Anne. All my love.’” Smiley acknowledges that the interrogation gave Karla an advantage, because Smiley, through the lighter and his “harping on about the damn wife,” has essentially revealed to Karla how much his wife, Anne Smiley, means to George. Smiley’s emotional attachment exposed, he is vulnerable. Paradoxically, Karla’s steadfast determination to reject the West points to why Smiley says “he can be beaten.” He explains, “He’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” Your passion is your weakness to the enemy, found in political ideology and romantic love. You only win by not being yourself.
Smiley looks at Guillam. “Assume they’re watching you, Peter. Now’s the time to tidy up.” Smiley is telling him that whatever elements in your life serve a private human yearning, get rid of them if you want to endure in this world of espionage. It’s as if Smiley already knew everything “secret” about young Peter Guillam, who we then see taking his elder’s advice, “tidying up.” Guillam has a gay lover who must be rejected so that the young spy can maintain an inconspicuous heteronormative appearance. This leads back to the eerie presence of Oldman’s Smiley, who seems a metaphor for the fine film Alfredson has meticulously crafted. At first glance, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the most dispassionate films imaginable, its arteries hardened and blood slow moving like we could sense in these middle aged effete men, their visages like masks (none more so than Smiley) conveying decay and submission to aging: Oldman, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, even a ladies’ favorite like Colin Firth – they are the anti-Daniel Craig, the anti-Bond or Bourne. Their bodies are appropriated by governments and made vessels of information and communication; the men of the “Circus” (Le Carre’s name for Great Britain’s spy division) are performers, actors, and acrobats, selling the drama.
And that’s why this scene with the great Gary Oldman is so moving, in every sense serving Alfredson’s film while also reaching out beyond it, pointing to how emotional and heartbreaking not only espionage is, but acting itself. The tragedy of an actor’s resignation exudes from Oldman’s pores, the reflecting glare in those great owl-glasses conveying an unfortunate detachment from the real world of love and relationships. Like other characters in films about undercover operatives and duplicitous spies, such as Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Oldman’s Smiley feels like an unfinished human being, not wholly real, while resigned to his fate, giving him an edge. His silence over the course of his introductory 15 minutes references a chilly vacated soul lacking a personal agenda, only carrying out an obscure directive. He appears empty and dead, but make no mistake: he’s watching and absorbing. While a buzzing bee annoys two men escorting him back to the Circus, Smiley is savant-like in how he observes the trapped insect. Then he opens the window and lets it fly out.
If Smiley is the Circus’ key actor, his director is the man with the puzzling (and almost sci-fi) name “Control” (John Hurt). Smiley silently left with his master (who claims, “A man should know when to leave the party,” beginning Alfredson’s motif of masquerading performance) after a botched event in Hungary exposed the possibility of a mole. An alien actor has thus infiltrated the Circus’ stage, and none of Control’s top men – Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) – are prepared to relinquish their own information or contacts. Control has ironically lost control, his chess pieces suspicious rogues on a board without a conscience. After Control’s death, Smiley is recruited from retirement to investigate Control’s mole suspects, knowing that he too was not completely trusted by his old master.
Before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s release to universal acclaim and finally the long-awaited Academy Award nomination and recognition for its quiet leading man, Gary Oldman personified the actor’s torment: a chameleon without a “there” there, wearing a multitude of masks and accents. He’s an actor’s actor whose characters have plastic identities, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was perfectly fitted for him. As Smiley’s essence is mysterious with no “there” there, Sid Vicious is displaced from any spatial or temporal context in his drug addiction; Joe Orton has no talent as an actor on the stage, but he’s a great performer in real life, able to assume whatever mask in his rise to stardom as a playwright; Lee Harvey Oswald cannot be located in Oliver Stone’s kaleidoscope of theories in JFK, where Oswald ranges from Communist lone-gunman to anti-Castro Fascist patsy; Prince Dracula is the prince of many faces and forms, being both the film’s demonic antagonist and romantic hero.
Oldman’s talent and promise, however, went unfulfilled in the Hollywood cult of personality and celebrity. The man who not only played but became Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald, and I maintain the greatest of Draculas was soon relegated to playing memorable villains supporting name-brand stars like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis. The force of “Gary Oldman” felt like it crumbled along with bad decisions, alcoholism, and self-destructive impulses. But now here he is in his greatest performance in probably 20 years, playing mentor to characters played by actors who grew up idolizing Gary Oldman, like Tom Hardy and Mark Strong.
It’s alarming – and a little depressing – to think how that same year I was being introduced to this new actor in JFK and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so less conspicuous in appearance than Pacino if every bit as indelible a presence. All night-movie marathons allowed me to see Pacino’s fleshy 32-year-old face thin out as he became middle aged. But even now, 20 years after Dracula, who is Oldman? It’s telling to his professional misfortune that he was disappointed that his name wasn’t above the title in Ridley Scott’s ferociously campy Thomas Harris adaptation Hannibal, where Oldman was the ruthless antagonist to Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins). For while Hopkins’ Lector is a visage of pop culture legend, Oldman’s Mason Verger is a character who is defaced, having no eyelids or lips. We aren’t allowed to recognize him through either visage or voice.
In the early nineties I could rent Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears, Track 29, State of Grace, Criminal Law, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and JFK, but in absorbing those films – some fantastic, some mediocre, some not good at all – as much as I retained a sense of the characters like Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald, and whatever the hell Theresa Russell’s man-child was in Track 29, “Gary Oldman” still felt ephemeral. Winona Ryder said of her Dracula experience that she remembered meeting and being friendly with the whole cast of the film, except for her leading man. It would be difficult to instinctively match the face of Oldman’s Dracula to Sid, of Drexyl in True Romance to Beethoven. This isn’t the same as watching The Godfather films, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, and Sea of Love, or Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Cape Fear. Yes, the characters of Pacino and De Niro make their individual mark, but they have a quality of “Pacino-ness” or “De Niro-ness” that helps you categorize them. Yet a Gary Oldman performance is in some way wound up with the absence of Gary Oldman.
Dracula is then so fitting as being the film that made Gary Oldman, however briefly, a big-budget Hollywood leading man, landing him on the covers of Entertainment Weekly and Premiere (which he would repeat two years later following the release of his Beethoven romance, Immortal Beloved). Dracula’s biographers have titled the notorious and mythical Transylvanian the “Prince of Many Faces,” and Francis Ford Coppola makes his vampire just that: 15th century bearded warrior, 400-year-old androgynous bloodsucker, rapacious wolf-man, dashing high-hat Victorian nobleman, horrifying humanoid bat, and demonic mixture of all-of-the-above. “He can appear as mist, vapor, the fog, and vanish at will,” Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing says of Dracula, and the statement applies to Oldman. Even with Greg Cannon’s special makeup effects used in creating Dracula’s many faces, Oldman’s remarkable performance transcends the artificial personae. When Cannon won the Best Makeup Oscar for Dracula (the same ceremony where Pacino finally won his Best Actor award for Scent of a Woman) he thanked Oldman for his patience and performance, an acknowledgement that met with great applause. Coppola’s Dracula is a flawed and divisive movie, but Oldman’s over-the-top acting is addictively delicious and continues to be lauded.
His follow-up was a deliriously brazen turn as Drexyl, Patricia Arquette’s white-guy-who-thinks-he’s-black pimp in Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance. Chewing the scenery like his personal Chinese food buffet, Oldman’s Drexyl was the first of True Romance’s many scene-stealers, followed by Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in Tarantino’s infamous “Sicilian” dialogue exchange, and Brad Pitt’s Floyd, the perpetually stoned roommate of Michael Rappaport’s struggling actor. Again Oldman is wearing a mask with Rastafarian dreads, a discolored eye, and a scarred face. “Yeah, I know. I’m pretty,” he tells Clarence (Christian Slater) in their fateful confrontation, turning the lampshade on his visage after deconstructing the Mr. Majestyk process of the vigilante loner’s revelation. “You’ve already given up all your shit,” says Drexyl. “See, I’m still a mystery to you.” Oldman the actor’s actor who’s lost in his array of faces is skating on the pulp narrative norms that Tarantino has since perfected (and with which Oldman’s contemporary, Tim Roth, worked in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs a year earlier). The actor is relying on the part he’s playing, in accordance to an established script, to ensure victory. Unfortunately for Drexyl, Clarence knows the script too (and the B-movie that Drexyl passively watches, The Mac), and his absorption in romantic fantasy gives him the upper hand as his gun literally castrates Drexyl. Oldman’s scene is explosive, but nevertheless premature. Despite the subsequent presences of Walken, Hopper, and Pitt, one of the few gripes I have with True Romance is that Oldman’s dazzling Drexyl is gone after the first 20 minutes.
What he needed was a leading role to cash in his JFK and Dracula chips. Spring 1994’s Romeo is Bleeding, a down-key comic neo-noir where Oldman seems endlessly beaten up, amputated, and seduced, failed to catch any fire. A year later he had three parts. Two of them were intense supporting villains: a thuggish warden who abuses Kevin Bacon in Murder in the First, and as a dirty cop going up against Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Leon, or The Professional; more prestigious was playing Beethoven in Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved. Though Oldman’s Beethoven has the unruly energy of a stubborn and tormented genius, and Rose’s Citizen Kane-styled plot about the mysterious woman of the composer’s recovered letters seems fail-safe, Immortal Beloved feels stiffly executed, the beautiful artifice of the images and delicately placed source music unfortunately not bridging to the inner life and duress of its subject (unlike what Milos Forman, Peter Schaffer, F. Murray Abraham, and Tom Hulce pull off in the Mozart/Salieri saga Amadeus). Despite publicity of an off-screen romance with costar Isabella Rossellini and being newly sober, Immortal Beloved fizzled away (though it remains somewhat cherished on Valentine’s Day for some lonely viewers, and some scenes do have merit).
The most crushing disappointment for me was the following October. Say what you will about Demi Moore playing Hester Prynne in an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, but I still thought there was cause to be cautiously optimistic. Directed by Roland Joffe from The Killing Fields and The Mission, and with Robert Duvall, who could conceivably own it as Roger Chillingworth, The Scarlet Letter had an absolutely perfect man to play the tortured and disintegrating Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in Oldman. Reading Hawthorne’s book before the time of the film’s release and imagining Oldman on the scaffold offering his final confession, in theory this was supposed to be the one. Though I believe a filmmaker often needs to betray a novel in order to do it justice, Joffe’s revisionist take on Hawthorne is flagrant politically correct Hollywood at its most flimsy. Instead of descending into the transcendental and haunting possibilities of the source material (after seeing The New World, it’s interesting to wonder what Terrence Malick would do with Hawthorne on film), The Scarlet Letter is a Demi Moore star-vehicle reducing psychologically complicated characters to saccharine soap opera parts. Whatever Oldman tries to do as Dimmesdale (or for that matter Duvall as Chillingworth) is dulled by a studio’s need to create an escapist love story with a “strong woman.” Joffe even robs the catharsis of Hawthorne’s ending, as Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne ride off happily together in the wilderness (the “bad” Puritans are killed by pissed-off Native Americans). It is a castrated film, and for Oldman a castrated possibility.
Oldman’s leading-man credit was used up. Like Dennis Hopper (Speed), Jeremy Irons (Die Hard with a Vengeance), Tim Roth (Rob Roy), and John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire), he was destined to be embraced by the Hollywood mainstream only as a memorable villain or go-to psychopath. He was cast to take on Kevin Costner in Waterworld (being replaced by Hopper due to scheduling conflicts), Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element, William Hurt in Lost in Space, and Harrison Ford in Air Force One. And though he was immensely watchable in each film (his twangy Zorg from Fifth Element is particularly a hoot), there was the sour afterthought of wasted time and energy on projects that weren’t themselves terribly memorable or worthy of his talent. Oldman’s great early roles were tied into the mystery of his characters’ discontentedness. That inner struggle was summarily dismissed. Even though Oldman’s Russian terrorist from Air Force One works to remind us how he’s fighting for his own brand of justice, the audience applauds when Harrison Ford’s U.S. president triumphantly says, “Get off my plane!” and throws Oldman into the open sky to die a worthless bad guy’s death.
He recuperated by going to the other side of the camera and deep into feelings of his past. He wrote and directed Nil by Mouth, about working class South London and based on experiences of growing up with an abusive, alcoholic, and finally absent father. Set in the present instead of the 1970s of his youth, it’s worth wondering if Ray Winstone’s hostile drunk, who aggressively beats his girlfriend (Kathy Burke), is supposed to be Oldman’s father or Oldman’s fearful self-image. Winstone says that he never had a choice; his own alcoholic father was mercilessly violent with him, entrapping him in a cycle of forceful will. Did performance, acting, give Gary Oldman the Daedalus wings to escape the maze of a brutal family tree? A method of coping, like a drug? I remember one scene from Nil by Mouth, where a drugged-out character has Apocalypse Now playing on the television, and perfectly mimes every word that Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist says to Martin Sheen. The actor, film fan, and drug addict are one in the same, escaping the stark grime and calloused streets of a hopelessly grey world (and few films are as grey as Nil by Mouth) through a play of self-eradication.
Unfortunately, the tricky line between play and reality seemed to subterfuge a triumphant comeback. Writer-director Rod Lurie gave Oldman his juiciest role since Dracula with The Contender, where he played Shelley Runyon, a conniving conservative congressman whose loyalty to his convictions is his tragedy. Determined to be a stumbling block for a charming Clintonian president’s (Jeff Bridges) aim to appoint the first female Vice President (Joan Allen), Runyon epitomizes the gridlocking strong-arm passive-aggressive conservative Americans have come to know and love/despise since the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich in 1994. Oldman, looking haggard, his hair shaved and curled, is transformed into the most interesting of his recent villainous “man-worm” roles, his intimate scenes giving insight into a man who has long ago willfully estranged himself from existing as a real person, committing himself to the game of politics over morality. But off-screen, the actor was openly bemused with how Rod Lurie had edited and released the film, painting the conservative Runyon as the clear villain while the picture unspooled in theaters weeks before the 2000 Gore/Bush election. Watching Charlie Rose’s provocative interview with Oldman, it’s worth wondering if Oldman had maybe become Runyon too much. Though the controversy was probably blown out of proportion, and Oldman’s gripes not accurately quoted, it was enough to cost him what would have been his first Oscar nomination (Bridges got the nod instead). He next played the defaced Mason Verger in Hannibal, choosing to be excised from the credits because the producers refused his name to appear before the title. Further linking life to art, the man who played Mason Verger cut off his nose to spite his face.
The early promise of Gary Oldman was blown up once again. It was as if he were the Wile E. Coyote of revered English actors, blowing his potential away to bits with the ACME bombs he’d laid out to capture the elusive Road Runner of fame. If I were to do a blog or radio show with the topic of could-have-been actors, I would have gotten the most mileage out of discussing this fascinating figure. Thankfully, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ensures I won’t have to do that, though the themes of Tomas Alfredson’s spy marvel seem deliberately linked to the promise established by the younger Oldman and his characterizations of two other men who seek to become blank slates, Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy and Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears.
After Oldman’s gradual unraveling through the 1990s, it’s poignant to go back to his incendiary breakthrough as Sid, the heroin-addicted bass-player for the Sex Pistols, hopelessly attached to American groupie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb, in another one of the very best performances of the 1980s). Sid could have been a kid from Nil by Mouth, escaping squalor through fame, then crashing and burning through his excesses, eventually murdering – however inadvertent it may have been – Nancy at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City, so far from where his fame began. Whatever Oldman’s professional failings were after Sid and Nancy, I can see the distinctive chip-on-his-shoulder being akin to Sid Vicious singing his punk-rock version of “My Way” for Julian Temple’s The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, gloriously re-staged and imagined in Cox’s film.
We first see Sid’s face in a close-up, surrounded by dark with the patter of investigators and cameras overlooking a crime scene. He’s in the company of hounding detectives. “Did you call 9-1-1?” In an interrogation room, the detective quiets the abuses of his peers. “Kid, we just want to know who the girl is. Where did you meet her?” He offers his cigarette to Sid, who eagerly inhales. “I met her at Linda’s.” “Linda. Who’s Linda?”
Who is Linda? Sid’s answer in the opening minutes is key to his character. Cox and Oldman’s Sid Vicious is a man so strung out and wrecked by his excessive lifestyle that he completely lacks a contextual relationship to events, places, and times, something for which Cox saw great possibilities in the art of filmmaking. The New York cop wouldn’t have a clue that Sid met Nancy long before at the London flat of “Linda,” a dominatrix who has the Sex Pistols over as guests in-between whipping-good-times of with her upper-class clientele. Sid can’t arrange continuity to time or space. Cox demonstrates this disconnect through film editing early in the picture, as while X-Ray Spex plays on stage, Sid leaves the side of Johnny Rotten to beat up a rock journalist “Dick Dent.” Sid is interrupted by Rotten, who’s been teleported on the club stage, the band waiting for their bass player. What happened to time? We’re confused, and we might accuse the filmmakers of sloppy editing. But Sid isn’t confused. He just keeps on drunkenly stumbling on ahead, performing bass lines he doesn’t know…or really just giving up after his amplifier refuses to cooperate, spitting beer into the crowd. As Johnny Rotten and company rock out the Monkees’ “Stepping Stone,” Sid’s catapult into euphoria has him dismissing time.
Oldman’s actor body is a tool of Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, and for Sid Vicious, the body is a failing, abused, malleable thing onto which Sid carves Nancy’s name, bleeds for crowds, and injects endless amounts of narcotics and alcohol. Sid oftentimes is inert and catatonic, crumbling from his exhaustion and disappearing into a late-night television set or burning room like a moth incinerating itself. The only thing that can get Sid moving, and so is his tragic enabler just as she is his life blood, is Nancy. “What matters?” she asks him. “You.” “What else?” He pauses, and can only say “You” again.
Indeed, Sid Vicious is not a real person. He is a vacuum sucking away any sense of self, and not until the final minutes of Sid and Nancy, as Sid is being bailed out of jail, do we hear Sid’s real name, “Ritchie” (as in “John Simon Ritchie”). “Sid Vicious” was an invention. If he truly does embody “the dementia of a nihilistic generation” as Malcolm McLaren claims, that means he’s also the obliteration of John Simon Ritchie’s identity: the player empowers himself through assuming another identity, and also extinguishes himself. Cox metaphorically displays this idea moments before Sid first meets Nancy in Linda’s flat, as Sid spray-paints an X over his mirror reflection.
A consequence of self-annihilation is having no values. Sid conveniently sponges up the values of those surrounding him, firstly from his friend Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield). When Nancy comes on to Johnny at an after party, his disgust with her groupie-mindset is authentic, if laced with sarcasm. “You’re not getting any! Fucking Americans. That’s all you ever think about, sex. None of us fuck, see. Sex is ugly. None of your free-love hippie-shit here.” She moves on to Sid, who turns away, repeating the party line (“How vile. Sex is boring, ugly, hippie shit.”) Of course, he can be swayed Nancy’s way, just as he acts the part of heroin user before he’s ever tried it (“You’ve done this before, right?” Nancy asks as she prepares his arm for an injection. “Oh yeah,” he lies). Nancy becomes his new teacher, and Johnny Rotten – or the ethos of Punk – is left behind. High and in love, Sid and Nancy are removed from the political content of punk rock, moving like ghosts through a police crackdown on the Thames, which as photographed by Roger Deakins and scored by Pray For Rain is one of the most haunting shots in the 1980s.
A methadone clinic social worker (Sy Richardson) points out the wayward anti-philosophy of Sid Vicious’ punk. “You could be selling healthy anarchy,” he says. “But as long as you’re addicts, you be full of shit.” The philosophy of liberation is a staged act, produced by the exploitive (though watchful and sober) Malcolm McLaren, and taken over by Nancy, who is unable to hold the reigns and protect Sid from self-annihilation (indeed, she enables it). The excesses of “revolution” are something Sid may have been born with, as an early scene at his mother’s flat opens with a close-up of an Easy Rider poster, a reference to the film that launched a cinematic revolution while also prophesying how the subversives would “blow it.” The part that John Simon Ritchie plays has walked off with the whole play, swallowing the world in a fantasy lacking coherence.
And once Nancy is dead, all that’s left for Sid is the fantasy. On bail, Sid walks through an industrial wasteland to an outpost called “Pizza.” There’s no punk-rock decorating the sound, but only post-apocalyptic wind and some local kids jamming out to KC and the Sunshine Band on their boom-box. “Dance with us, Sid,” they ask. “I’m not going to dance with some kids,” he says. “Stop being so stuck-up!” they say, and he wakes up to the part he’s been playing. He submits, dancing until the golden lights of an ominous taxi flash over him. Inside is Nancy, representative of the complete otherness that distracts whoever John Simon Ritchie is from a “boring” planet of responsibilities and consequences. He joins her and the two drive off to some presumed Hell or Heaven. It doesn’t matter. Sid’s fate is to be elsewhere, away from himself. “Sid, you don’t even know where you’re going!” one of the kids says as the car drives away. Gary Oldman’s breakthrough masterpiece performance symbolizes his trajectory as the prince of many faces, the shape shifting actor with no direction home (like Bob Dylan, who according to the Chelsea bellhop, was “born” in the room where Sid kills Nancy, and in effect himself). His next role serves as a double that further reinforces the actor’s art of adopting personae and eradicating the self, Stephen Frears and Alan Bennett’s excellent Prick Up Your Ears.
The expensive nature of filmmaking makes it difficult for even the most powerful filmmaker to establish an intentional body of work the same way a painter or novelist can. The topic of Gary Oldman proposes the same question of intentionality, always posed for directors, for an actor. Acting was Oldman’s escape. The escape of performance is a theme of his first two great performances, as Sid and as playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (and later on in the art-reflects-life possibilities in the multi-faced Lee Harvey Oswald and Count Dracula), making it seem like there was a very deliberate and prescient selection in the two roles that made him one of the most admired actors of his generation. Like Sid, Oldman’s Orton is a sponge who lacks essence, but shape-shifts his way to success and, like Richard III (coincidentally Orton’s first performance – though as a messenger, not the title character), his sticky ruin. Given how these ideas are intact, and how marvelously both films are written and directed, one can see how Oldman appeals so especially to actors, whether they’re successful or still serving tables.
Even the design of the two films is coincidentally identical, both bookended by the final scene of murder before flashing back to how the doomed lovers – Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell – ascended and burned out. In both roles, Oldman conveys the allure of losing oneself and becoming someone else, executed with the same thrilling sense of danger and possibility that’s found in undercover cop dramas or a scenario like Antonioni’s The Passenger, where Jack Nicholson swaps passports with a dead man. After moving into a small “cupboard” flat with the older, more refined and well-read (if not as attractive and more socially awkward) Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), Orton voices his self-dissatisfaction and insecurity. Looking at Kenneth’s formidable book collection he says, “I’ll never catch up. I don’t understand Shakespeare.” Kenneth replies, “I’m a cultivated person. It rubs off.” Kenneth confides his great personal sadness in having lost his mother to a wasp sting when he was a child and being detached from his suicidal father. Orton says, “I always wanted to be an orphan. I could have been if it hadn’t been for my parents,” a wryly delivered line that fits into one of Orton’s plays, just as it is the trademark wit of Prick Up Your Ears’ Beyond the Fringe screenwriter, Alan Bennett. Joe/John Orton wants to cut himself off from history.
Stephen Frears does a remarkable job in playing with time, opening with the murder scene (where a policeman says, “Someone here’s been playing ‘Silly Buggers’), then moving ahead to the present where biographer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) is seeking information from Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave). Orton’s greatness as a playwright is established when Frears cuts back to the final months of Orton and Halliwell, the two lovers preparing for Halliwell’s art show. The scenes paint Orton as confident, sly, libidinous, and distant from a lover who is jealous, anxious, loud, and insecure. Even though it’s Kenneth’s night, Joe insists they stop in front of the local theatre where signs show off how Orton’s play Loot is still selling out. Kenneth gave Joe the title, and complains that his thoughts and words have been appropriated by Joe into the acclaimed script which will win awards and fame. As Kenneth’s insecurities lacerate his brain, Joe quietly leaves his lover in the subway to have sex with a handsome stranger. According to Ramsay, this was a daily occurrence.
It seems like Orton was born with this confident smoothness. He walks around in a cheap fur coat, but “it suits me, because I’m from the gutter.” When Orton poses nude (wearing only socks) a painter comments on his good body. “When I die,” Orton smiles, “I want people to say he was the most perfectly developed playwright of his day.” At home, Kenneth lurches over Joe’s diary. “Have you read my diary?” “No.” “Why not? I would.” Joe Orton is creating himself, and maybe his enigma is to have his life discerned and scrutinized as a play or a work of art. But where did he come from?
As Ramsay and Lahr’s discussions frame the outline, the film cuts back to Orton’s youth in Leicester. Joe Orton doesn’t exist. He is a teenager named John, with the local provincial accent, groomed by his mother (Julie Walters) to be a civil servant (“He types forty words a minute!”) As he was, Joe was inadequate for a theatrical profession. “You had to get rid of your accent if you wanted to be an actor,” his sister reflects to Lahr in the present. The character Oldman is playing in 1950s Leicester is a completely different person we’ve seen in 1966: coy, naïve, harmless. He visits a revered acting teacher to learn “movement, elocution, poise, and conviction,” though, she tells him, “you still lack talent.” “I still want to learn,” he says with all sincerity, and she gives him high marks for “Dunkirk spirit!”
A small performance in a local Shakespeare production compels a council official to recommend him for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. His audition has him not playing one role, but two – both Smee and Captain Hook from Peter Pan. Accepted, he meets Kenneth in his class while also having dates with girls. Orton’s pan-sexuality reflects an actor’s array of limitless identities. He will not work out as an actor, but he will adopt a role in life, a work of art in progress creating other works of art, in collaboration both active (he and Halliwell begin as co-writers) and silent (he takes his relationship with Halliwell as the biggest influence for his first plays). It’s Kenneth who shows him the ropes and plants the seeds for razor-sharp wit and cynicism which we now know as “Ortonesque.” It’s Kenneth who points out how cheap clothes suit Orton, “because you’re from the gutter.” Oldman’s restrained and studied performance is not simply an interpretation of a true-life figure, but is a fascinating commentary on the question of how a “genius” is cultivated over time with the interaction of others.
The question of identity connects to Orton’s thrill of anonymous casual sex. After failing to interest a distinguished publisher in a gay-themed novel, Orton drags Kenneth on one of his sexual adventures. For Orton, sexuality stems from performance, the endowment of a man, for example, being “written” all over a man’s face. Following their target to an apartment, Orton assumes the role of “Kevin,” a “fitter of car components.” Kenneth, not as comfortable with the duplicity, is “Patrick.” Carnal delight happens in the dark, the thrill of sex being the freedom from identity. Orton is willing to be anyone else, whereas Kenneth can’t escape from his self-consciousness. Orton’s attempt to have Kenneth play a game of “cottaging” after he’s bought his bald lover a new wig ends up with Kenneth simply chatting up the stranger in a stall, the pants still up and buttoned.
The endgame of assuming different identities is like the artist’s aim of affecting other people. For ten years Halliwell and Orton fail to make their mark. “Mozart was dead by the time he as my age,” says Orton. The two struggling authors vent frustrations by changing the binding in library books – a subversive activity associated with performance in how they are defacing objects. Kenneth seems to have given up writing altogether, committing himself to a visual art of displacing heads and bodies from famous artworks and icons, and using his odd assemblages to decorate the apartment walls (the apartment is then a shrine to masks). This ten-year period has been an education for Orton, who like a vampire has absorbed Kenneth’s learning, adopting an Islington accent and big city swagger.
Imprisoned for their defacing of books, Orton runs wild with the potential for creating an identity. He gets in good physical shape, and tells his psychiatrist that he’s the orphan, not Kenneth, and that he’s been separated from his wife who lives with his only child. Through his manipulation of the prison psychiatrist, Orton has turned Kenneth into a preying homosexual and sociopath while Orton is the unassuming innocent. He also gets creative freedom in his writing, “a room of one’s own,” he says in quoting Virginia Woolf. He writes his first solo radio play and the BBC buys it.
“Prison gives a writer credentials,” Ramsay says to Lahr. She’s enthusiastic when Orton tells her that he was just incarcerated because “the papers will love all that.” In agreeing to be Orton’s agent, she has but one request: change your name. John Orton sounds too much like John Osborne. “Joe Orton” emerges out of this vacuum, the identity being another crowning in a line of the playwright’s coronations (we note that Kenneth and Orton consummate their love while watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, a ritual where a person assimilates with a symbol).
Kenneth is fearful because Orton has both stolen his identity, thoughts, and phrases for his acclaimed plays, and will also probably leave him. Starved for fame, Kenneth gets no recognition (he gets a wig; Orton is gesturing that Kenneth leave his personal/biological identity and partake in the masquerade). Joe/John taunts Kenneth while writing up “undisputed facts” for a brief biographical sketch. “Am I 25 or 26?...I can’t put 31. I don’t look 31…Married or single? Married.” He thinks about it. “Divorced. One kid.” The man to whom Kenneth clings is not only leaving Kenneth behind, but it’s now as if he never existed to begin with.
Joe Orton’s life is a play, so he lives it artfully, if dangerously to unconsciously invite conflict and danger. In the public lavatory, his Drama Desk Award looks on from the urinals as the anonymous sex begins. No one has a discussion before engaging in carnal activity (so contrary to how Kenneth stumbles through things; even masturbation for Kenneth is “like organizing D-Day” or “raising the Titanic”); the script of cottaging is known to all. The actor/playwright of his artificial existence, Joe has little attachment to his Leicester past, lacking feeling when news comes that his mother has died. At the funeral, he kisses his sister goodbye. “You kiss now,” she says. “You never used to kiss. That’s London.” She asks him if their mother was the reason Joe was gay, a question that leads to a composition of a troubled-looking Joe seeing multiple reflections in a mirror. He has no answer, and is contemptuous of any “real” existence straining back to before his “perfect development.” He is detached absolutely, or must convince himself to be. The other extreme is Kenneth, who mourns for Joe when Mrs. Orton dies, because it reminds him of his own parental loss.
“I made you,” Kenneth says when Joe asks to break up. “Mind the dialogue,” Joe replies cooly, as if to point out the script they’re working from. “I’m not Eliza fucking Doolittle, I made myself.” “Those are my books,” George Bernard Shaw probably included, “I taught you!” “If it hadn’t have been you, it would have been someone else,” the cruelest remark from Joe, as it points out Kenneth’s insignificance as a player. Kenneth makes the mistake of calling Joe “John” again. “John’s dead,” Joe says and goes to sleep.
It doesn’t make sense. The shape shifter, lacking essence, has acquired the talent, poise, and acclaim that Kenneth lusted after. Kenneth was an only child, his mother tragically died young, his father committed suicide, he began to lose his hair at 20, and he was gay. The circumstances would thus make him the blueprint for being a successful novelist or playwright. “You do everything better than me,” he says to the slumbering Joe/John. “You even sleep better than me!” Kenneth takes a hammer and bludgeons Joe to death, and then realizes his formal error in acting out the crime of passion. He sees the Drama Desk Award and pathetically says, “I should have used this. More theatrical. But you’d have spotted that straight away.” Credit here goes to Molina, whose portrayal of Kenneth’s self-consciousness makes a horrific event a little sardonic and inevitable in how this act seems like it was scripted by Joe. The relationship culminates in a murder that is morbidly hilarious. Like Chloe Webb in Sid and Nancy, Oldman’s magnificent acting is played against the perfection of his counterpart, and Molina’s Kenneth Halliwell is another one of the decade’s greatest performances.
There are players in the Theatre, and there are players on chessboards. Joe’s theatrics amounted to a game in which he was the better performer, an idea reinforced by the checkered ceiling in the apartment. The friction between Kenneth and Joe results in a double victory/loss. Though dead, their immortality is sealed. Kenneth’s murder/suicide ensures that he’s known, and is even pitied instead of vilified. He gets to be with Joe forever, as the Orton family willingly mixes and scatters their ashes.
Joe Orton again doubles for our popular notion of Oldman, the Nowhere Nothing Man who has, according to recent interviews, lost his own English accent over the years, requiring a dialect coach to get it back properly for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As natural as Sid Vicious would seem, Oldman, in true Olivier style, began by transforming himself from the outside in (unlike the American method style, of working from the inside out), wearing dark contact lenses to give himself Sid’s eyes, in addition to hair extensions. That plasticity, exemplified by the legend of Joe Orton, found relevance in political fantasy with JFK and in special effects monstrosity with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The actor’s method is a transcendent thing, a thunderous revolt overriding and exploding the walls of imposed limitations. Speaking of the root of his intensity as a performer, Oldman has commented that when he was 14 a teacher told him that “he was stupid and wouldn’t amount to anything.” This made him insecure and hungry with what he describes as a “fire” and “anger,” and acting has fulfilled that. It is a revenge on the past.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy returns to the actor’s paradoxical tragedy and transcendence. The Cold War of John le Carre makes espionage a stage, the Circus a theatre troupe, and spies actors. The passion of personal attachment is anathema in this world, so the work of performance functions as a tool for escaping grief or doubt. As with Prick Up Your Ears, whose chessboard ceiling becomes the wallpaper in the Circus’ top secret meeting room, play-acting and game-playing are the same. Before he died, Control gave pieces on his personal chessboard the faces of the Circus, each with their assigned “role”: Smiley is “Beggarman,” Haydon is “Tailor,” Bland is “Soldier,” Esterhase is “Poorman,” and Alleline is “Tinker.” A spy’s usefulness is connected to “available” identities. In the prologue, Control sends young Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to assist with a possible defection, because “you still have one Hungarian identity running.” In retirement, men like Control and Smiley have no apparent usefulness; they are empty vessels. Control appropriately exits the stage and dies; Smiley lurks in the shadows as a ghost, expressing no emotion when the memory of his master is invoked. The cataclysmic implications of the Cold War mean that the whole world is truly a stage, an illusion “where nothing is genuine anymore.” The wall between nuclear destruction and calm civilization is divided by a curtain. The front lines aren’t soldiers, but actors.
Out of retirement to find the mole, Smiley first meets an old accomplice, Connie Sachs (played by Kathy Burke, Oldman’s co-star from Sid and Nancy and leading female from Nil by Mouth). It’s so appropriate that the fermenting ground of Smiley’s investigation should be Sachs’ commune, which functions as a youth theatre camp, as if Smiley were trying to acquire a certain theatrical mindset. It’s also the only place in a “real world” setting where a former Circus cast-member like Sachs can survive. She tells Smiley how Alleline and Esterhase dismissed her when she suspected a mole after investigating film footage of a Russian general who is supposed to be an informant. She also reflects on “the old days” with Smiley and the others. “That was a good time, George,” she says. “It was the war, Connie,” he reminds her. Yes, it was; but it was a war not plagued by the pretense of duplicitous play-acting. It was before war became a circus.
An important strand in the mystery involves a younger agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who went missing in Istanbul when he decided to stop playing his assigned Circus role and instead try to save a woman, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a Soviet agent playing the “wife” of Ricki’s target, Boris. While playing the role of a businessman during his affair with Irina, Ricki thinks he’s discovered “the mother of all secrets” when she reveals that the Russians have a mole in the Circus. When Ricki sends this information over the wire to London, Boris and Ricki’s Istanbul boss are killed, and Irina is captured. The message was certainly intercepted. “Everybody’s looking for me,” Ricki says. The Soviets want to capture or kill him, and the West thinks he’s defected. Smiley, through Peter Guillam’s careful infiltration of record logs (where pages detailing the night of Ricki’s disappearance are ripped out), knows that Ricki is right.
Throughout this cluterfuck of duplicity and information, Ricki differentiates himself from Smiley and the other Circus members. While a man like Guillam, who may have a good future as a spy, willingly severs himself from precious relationships, Ricki makes it clear that he wants to lead an authentic life. “I want a family. I don’t want to end up like your lot,” he says at one point (he doesn’t yet realize that the woman he loves, Irina, has been killed at Karla’s orders). Earlier he says, “Stop trying to involve me in your little cabaret.” He wants no part in this international theatrical performance held up by effete actors, where possibilities are castrated or emasculated by makeup or masks (some background graffiti tells us “The Future is Female”). A Christmas party showcases a dancing Santa Lenin, the Circus theatrically singing the Soviet anthem with smiling faces. It’s in this crucial sequence that Smiley demonstrates his one moment of unguarded emotion when he sees his wife Anne (whose face, significantly, we never see) in the arms of another man. Oldman shows Smiley’s soul collapse in a moment; the guidelines of his soulless profession are a safeguard against “feeling” or the ramifications of real-world relationships. In the blur of real and artificial, Smiley is distracted, and nothing is as distracting as sexual jealousy or attachment. With Sachs, he skids away from any discussion of Anne (as a couple of theatre students begin to get sexually comfortable in the background) just as Sachs builds on the film’s theme of impotence: “I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked.” It’s better for Smiley, the anonymous actor, to be anything but himself, and so he’s made himself sexless, unlike the passionate Ricki.
Smiley knows who Anne’s lover is, and indeed it’s what threatens to set him off course. Earlier we see Smiley glance at a picture on his wall, and later on we see that the abstract painting was dropped off by Haydon, discovered by Smiley at his dining table after an afternoon tryst with Anne. Yet the painting has no sentimental value. Haydon’s seduction of Anne was based on dispassion, a board move to foil Smiley – and it worked, for a while anyway. “You do have a blind spot,” Haydon tells Smiley. “If you thought I was Anne’s lover, you wouldn’t be able to see me straight. [Karla] was right, up to a point.”
Haydon was Karla’s assigned mole. He is another affluent actor of various parts; appearing like a smooth lady’s man, Haydon’s true emotion lies in a homosexual relationship with Jim Prideaux, who disclosed the secret intent of Control’s mission to his lover before leaving for Hungary. However contrary to his emotions, Haydon relayed the information back to the Soviets and Prideaux was shot, captured, and tortured (witnessing Irina’s execution before his eyes). Prideaux is released and teaching at a school where he seems to be looking for watchful and perceptive kids who can be groomed for the Circus life, outsiders unable to function in a “real world,” but perhaps on a stage of appropriated and disseminated identities. He is pained by the truth of Haydon, and how the world of espionage saps what’s precious to humans away. He breaks down at the one child he seems to have been grooming, an overweight lad with glasses that make him similar to Smiley. “Go play!” he says. Get off this stage and go into the real world with the other boys.
Knowing the play’s the thing, Prideaux forgives his lover’s betrayal. He shoots the imprisoned Haydon in the face so that he won’t have to endure torture in the East. The two men, unable to freely be lovers in 1973, reflect one another in a moment of deep sentiment. As a tear falls from Prideaux’s eye when he lowers his rifle, Haydon’s bullet wound, just below the eye, looks like a tear of blood. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy only seems dispassionate with its convoluted information, busy plot and ensemble, and remote detachment. In truth, the film is a mournful requiem during the Cold War architectural layout for our present day postmodern universe, when nothing is at all real or genuine, and every image and word is doctored, disseminated, and broadcast in the one dimension of Twitter.
Gary Oldman’s Smiley, meanwhile, becomes the Circus’ new chief and stage manager, existing “under the sea” as the song on the soundtrack playfully indicates. He may be an empty suit, an underdeveloped and “underfucked” human being setting up the pieces on the castrated future, where the confused flux of information will further enable pawns, knights, queens, kings, and bishops to wear any assortment of masks, chosen by either committed ideology or simply, as with Haydon, for “aesthetic reasons” (much like the “bored” punk-rockers of Sid and Nancy). But he’s achieved equilibrium in that dark within the dark, the lack of there being a “there” there in functional vessel of his government-owned body. It’s dark under the sea, but no one has a more watchful eye, almost HAL-like, than George Smiley.
Much has been said about Oldman’s understatement in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so contrary to the over-the-top bad-boy of the past. His real-life masterly and muted triumph here is like Smiley’s own comeback and triumph, and so unlike the downward spirals of Sid Vicious or Joe Orton or Dracula. In the past decade, smart younger directors influenced by those now-classic performances have gone to Oldman for important parts in large movie franchises: Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the series thanks in large part to the filmmaker, cast Oldman as Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black; around the same time, Christopher Nolan cast Oldman as Commissioner Jim Gordon for his Batman/Dark Knight trilogy. Finally, Tomas Alfredson, hot off Let the Right One In, immediately went to Oldman for his George Smiley, a casting decision that seems genius given how Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s theatrical dynamics connect with an actor’s art and Oldman’s first great roles, as if to tie a great career together just before he descends into the deep section of middle age. As pictures of Oldman at award ceremonies indicate, George Smiley is another mask, one more embodiment of a foggy or withered essence, a theme rooted in Shakespeare that remains pertinent. Smiley’s post-human condition suggests the walking panopticon that silently absorbs every performed movement, in public or private. He’s a perfect fit for the unknowable and restless Gary Oldman, whose greatest performances all suggest our deep-seated desire to be elsewhere, free from our histories and attachments. Hopefully Oldman has many more bodies to possess and inhabit, his restless spirit eluding himself while always searching for a new face.