Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman

Hopkins and Oldman: The very best of British actors

Following the recent Oscar nod for Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman, Alexander Larman looks at other parallels between the two thespians

Artillery Row

The 1991 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula is notable for many things. It is probably the most faithful adaptation of the novel, albeit with some remarkable and anachronistic liberties taken in its portrayal of the sexual aspects of the story. It features the equally remarkable miscasting of Keanu Reeves, then fresh from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, as the book’s nominal hero Jonathan Harker (his English accent makes Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins sound positively regal in comparison). And, most importantly, it was the first onscreen pairing of Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins as, respectively, the Count and his nemesis, Abraham van Helsing.

Both Hopkins and Oldman grew up in tough working-class communities without any theatrical lineage

To watch the film now is to be tutored in contrasting acting styles. Oldman relishes the prospects and possibilities offered him by the director Francis Ford Coppola to interpret the character in all manner of outlandish ways, segueing over the course of the picture from a dashing warrior to a camp old man to a romantic, if gruesome, anti-hero, with occasional diversions into grotesque wolf-like creatures. And Hopkins, then a recent Oscar-winner for Silence of the Lambs, offers a suitably rich and overripe performance as van Helsing, chewing the scenery with as much relish as Dracula tears through his assorted victims. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, but both dominate the film entirely, along with Tom Waits’ quirky interpretation of the Count’s foil Renfield: the rest of the cast (including Winona Ryder, Richard E Grant and Cary Elwes) can only stand and look on in an astonishment that may not be entirely down to acting prowess.

Thirty years on, Hopkins and Oldman will be reunited, virtually, as both have been nominated for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars. The roles that they have been recognised for are significantly different from their first collaboration together. Hopkins has been lauded for his performance as a man afflicted by Alzheimer’s in Florian Zeller’s directorial debut The Father, and has attracted some of the best reviews of his career for it. Anthony Lane, not a critic given to hyperbole, wrote in the New Yorker that he is “an actor at the frightening summit of his powers”. Hopkins’ performance in Richard Eyre’s TV film of King Lear in 2018 was something of a let-down, but this, at last, seems to be his true Lear.

Oldman, meanwhile, has been nominated for playing almost entirely against type. His performance as the alcoholic screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz in Mank is one largely devoid of the tics, theatricality and grand gestures that this fine actor has been associated with throughout his career. In its place is a warmth and humility that Oldman has occasionally been allowed to demonstrate, most notably in his understated performance as Lieutenant Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but it is a largely underplayed role that only creeps into Big Acting on one occasion, when a drunken Mank gatecrashes a party at the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s mansion, with humiliating consequences.

Some of the rubbish that both men have appeared in indicates that their levels of quality control have dipped significantly

Whether either Hopkins or Oldman wins the award over their fellow nominees Riz Ahmed, Steven Yuen or the late Chadwick Boseman at the ceremony on 26 April remains to be seen. I predict that Boseman “wins” the award both for his heartbreaking performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and for the groundswell of feeling that a popular prize such as that would engender. Yet the fact that both the older actors, many decades into their careers, can both be nominated for the prize – Oldman’s third nomination for Best Actor, and Hopkins’ fourth, with two other nominations for Supporting Actor – is a testament both to the remarkable longevity of their work and also to the way in which their peerless abilities as performers can lift the dross that they have, more often than not in their latter-day careers, found themselves floundering in.

There are significant, even striking, similarities between the two actors. Both grew up in tough working-class communities without any theatrical lineage, and both found their calling at drama school. Both found themselves inspired early in their careers by significant mentors (Hopkins with Laurence Olivier, whose voice he would later dub in the restoration of Spartacus and Oldman with the directors Mike Leigh and Max Stafford-Clark), and both moved to Hollywood after some success in British television and film. Both are recovering alcoholics who have publicly spoken about their difficulties with addiction and gratitude for Alcoholics’ Anonymous, and both dabble in music as well as acting: Hopkins as a composer, and Oldman as a singer.

Both have directed occasionally, although remain best-known for their performing. Both have a penchant for playing real-life characters who have included C. S. Lewis, Joe Orton, Captain Bligh of Bounty fame, Sid Vicious, Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill and, perhaps quirkiest of all, both have a connection with the US presidency: Hopkins has played two Presidents, John Quincy Adams and Richard Nixon, and Oldman has played Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of JFK in Oliver Stone’s titular film.

Both seem to have specialised in appearing in obscure films that haunt in forgotten corners of Netflix

And, of course, both have a particularly notable method when it comes to their work. Hopkins, who recently revealed that he has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, likes to prepare for his roles by memorising his parts after reading the script hundreds of times, or, as he puts it, “I learn the text so deeply that I think it has some chemical effect in my brain.” Other than that, he eschews any idea of Method acting, saying, “I could come up with all sorts of fancy theories about playing these characters but, basically, it’s just a matter of learning the lines.” Oldman, however, is a committed Method performer, albeit one where he immerses himself in outsized characters in a lavish, theatrical fashion. As he commented, “It’s my influence on those roles that probably [makes them] feel bigger than life and a little over-the-top. I mean, I do go for it a bit as an actor, I must admit.”

Both Oldman and Hopkins have a reputation for – how best to put this – taking virtually any role with a reasonably substantial paycheque attached to it. Few would begrudge a great actor the chance to earn a lot of money from an undemanding and well-paid part, but some of the rubbish that both men have appeared in indicates that their once-impressive levels of quality control have dipped significantly over the past two decades. Both seem to have specialised in appearing in obscure films that haunt in forgotten corners of Netflix and feature the kind of one-word titles that are supposed to sound invitingly enigmatic but instead make one wonder if the marketing copywriter forgot to finish their work that day. Solace. Sin. Blackway. Criminal. None of those ever saw their lead actors recognised for their performances, and rightly so; when both thespians are coasting, as they are sometimes wont to do, they can turn in lazily rote appearances that would make the uninitiated wonder why they are thought to be two of the greatest actors of their generation.

When on form, Hopkins and Oldman are capable of some of the finest work that any actor has ever produced on screen

The answer is, thankfully, that when they are both on form, Hopkins and Oldman are capable of some of the finest work that any actor has ever produced on screen, with breathtaking versatility. One thinks of Hopkins’ ability to show terrifying menace as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, and then, a couple of years later, to radiate dignity, warmth and intelligence as C. S. Lewis in Shadowlands. Or the way in which Oldman gives a theatrical and coruscatingly powerful performance as a deranged corrupt cop in Leon, only a few years after his camp, playful Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears. This is part of the enduring appeal of both men. Nine out of ten performances of theirs might be unmemorable, not helped by poor writing and unfocused directing, but when they work with a great director and strong material, they rise to the challenge to Oscar-worthy effect.

And, rather touchingly, their relationship includes both warm appreciation for each other’s’ talents and some affectionate mockery. Hopkins says of Oldman that: “He is consumed by some passion of his own … he has a great genius and a flair for creativity, and, one day in Dracula, he decided to take on Francis Ford Coppola, and, being a brawler myself, I tried to drag him away, saying ‘Leave it, he’s a killer!’” And Oldman, meanwhile, does a pitch-perfect impersonation of the older actor that does not belie the fondness with which it is delivered.

Given that both are recent Oscar nominees (Oldman victorious for his Churchill in Darkest Hour in 2017, Hopkins unlucky for his Pope Benedict in The Two Popes in 2019), one would hope that, even if both head home empty-handed, that there is another rematch to savour in the next few years. And when they do meet once more, Hopkins might take a certain amount of enjoyment from reminding Oldman exactly what happened at his hands on both the occasions that they worked together: in Dracula and the Hannibal Lecter sequel Hannibal, Oldman’s characters ended up being killed horribly by, respectively, a stake through the heart and ravenous carnivorous pigs. Let us hope that neither fate befalls either of these great British actors at the Oscars, or elsewhere, any time soon.

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