Gary Oldman Goes Casually Psychotic

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Why you should care

Because he could kill you, lecture you or just sniff you.

There was a time in the 1990s when it seemed as if every captivating film villain was but a different costume donned by one seriously talented performer. From his breakout role as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991) to Dracula (1992) and then Drexl, the drug-dealing pimp in True Romance (1993), to Ivan the terrorist in Air Force One (1997), British actor Gary Oldman was evil personified, in all of its many guises.

But in his role as the corrupt, drug-dealing DEA agent Norman Stansfield in Léon: The Professional (1994), Oldman elevated his villainous art to an almost Pacino-esque plane. He doesn’t just steal the scenes he’s in; he pillages them. Stansfield is a bundle of insane contradictions and idiosyncrasies — a casually violent psychopath with a cultured insanity that swats at conventional morality as if it were a fly buzzing around his drug- and Beethoven-addled brain. In another actor’s hands, the part would come off as pretentious, even laughable. It would kill the film. But Oldman kills it, and just about everyone else he encounters in the picture.

These days, Léon, directed by Luc Besson, is best known for Natalie Portman’s first film role as Mathilda, the 12-year-old street kid orphaned by Oldman who takes up with the lonely professional hitman Léon (Jean Reno). Part Lolita, part Pygmalion, part La Femme Nikita, the film constantly flirts with transgression. And no one engages in the bewitching foreplay before a bloodbath better than Oldman.

Not everyone was amused by Oldman’s histrionics.

“I like these calm little moments before the storm,” a pill-popping Stansfield muses serenely as he prepares to enter Mathilda’s apartment in order to murder its inhabitants. “It reminds me of Beethoven.” And sure enough, Beethoven blaring in his head and a shotgun blasting in his hands, Oldman — who would play the German composer in his next film, Immortal Beloved (1994) — proceeds to conduct a symphonic slaughter before cornering Mathilda’s terrified father for a largely improvised lecture on the great masters.

Oldman’s intrepid improvisation also makes the film’s most remembered scene (see above), in which a frustrated Stansfield screams at a fellow goon to bring him “EVERYONE!” And “what’s funny,” as Oldman later told Playboy, “is that the line was a joke and now it’s become iconic.”

But not everyone was amused by Oldman’s histrionics. “In this preposterous role,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “Mr. Oldman expresses most of the film’s sadism as well as many of its misguidedly poetic sentiments.”

It’s true that nowadays, thanks in part to Oldman’s virtuosity, the refined, unpredictable sadist has become a Hollywood cliché. But even now as you watch Léon, Stansfield — with no “time for this Mickey Mouse bullshit” — is one of the few characters you will encounter where you feel as if absolutely anything is possible. He could kill you, lecture you or just sniff you. “Death is whimsical today,” the psychopath remarks in what proves to be more proclamation than observation. In the end, what could a film villain promise you that is any more terrifying than that?

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