Gary Oldman Is Too Hard on His Harry Potter Performances as Sirius Black

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Gary Oldman had a confession to make when he appeared on Josh Horowitz’s Happy Sad Confused podcast: He is not a fan of his performances as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise. Sitting down with the media journalist during the last days of 2023, Oldman was in good spirits when he admitted, “I think my work is mediocre in [those movies].”

Oldman is referring specifically to when he appeared as the Wizarding World’s most notorious escaped convict, and surprise godfather of Harry Potter, in the films Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). 

“No, I do,” he continued. “Maybe if I had read the books like Alan [Rickman], if I had got ahead of the curve, if I had known what’s coming, I honestly think I would have played it differently.” He went on to elaborate, “I’ll tell you what it is. It’s like anything. If I sat and watched myself in something and said, ‘My God, I’m amazing,’ that would be a very sad day, because you want to make the next thing better.”

The comments were unexpected but not entirely surprising from Oldman, as the actor recently admitted on The Drew Barrymore Show that he partially took his roles in Harry Potter and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy to be a little closer to home (those films largely filmed in the United Kingdom) after becoming a single parent with custody of his sons. He could turn down work which was shooting further abroad while still appearing in lucrative Hollywood blockbusters. Although as of press time he has not belittled his work as Jim Gordon in the Batman films.

To be fair, Oldman is right insofar as this: most actors do not enjoy watching themselves on screen, not least of all because they are able to scrutinize choices made and second-guess the ones they did not pursue. So suggesting Oldman should be gentler on his performances might as well be asking an artist to extinguish the spark of creativity that (hopefully) compels their work. But be that as it may, when assessing Oldman’s contributions to the Harry Potter movies in a vacuum, he is being too hard on his performances. Or perhaps too easy on the films.

Writing anecdotally, most Harry Potter fans I’ve met over the years have been either fond or outright enthusiastic about Oldman’s interpretation of Sirius. Many are admittedly not actors themselves, but the performer brought a fatherly warmth befitting the character and Oldman’s own career. Indeed, prior to a pivot toward supporting work in Potter and Batman movies, Oldman’s Hollywood opportunities had become increasingly limited, with the actor facing potential typecasting as only villains and heavies.

Oldman’s performance in Prisoner of Azkaban is also particularly notable because he is allowed to play the role with a faint degree of mania absent in Order of the Phoenix. This is likely in part because the film needed to misdirect non-book readers into believing (like Daniel Radcliffe’s young Harry) that Sirius Black is a madman and betrayer of his dead parents. But in retrospect it also appears to be a signifier of why Prisoner of Azkaban is the best picture in the whole Harry Potter franchise.

Directed by Mexican auteur Alfonso Caurón after the beautiful Y tu mamá también but before the gravely underrated Children of Men, Caurón partially took on a franchise gig to raise his profile and also perhaps to leave another film for his younger children. A bit like Oldman. However, he also wrestled away the greatest amount of autonomy from both Warner Bros. Pictures and author J.K. Rowling (who notably became a producer on the series only after the early Potter flicks). This allowed Caurón to make a movie that breathed on its own with a mirthful, quirky energy divorced from just matching with what’s on the page.

This is glimpsed in small but significant choices, like allowing each of the main child characters to dress in civilian clothes during seasonal breaks or while attending Hogsmeade, the cheerful butterbeer town outside of Hogwarts. While in the novels, Harry, Ron, and Hermione would wear their school uniforms everywhere, and Cuarón’s choice broke with Hogwarts etiquette as defined in Rowling’s books, it allowed the director and costume designer to visually communicate character and personality on film, which is by nature a visual medium.

More strikingly was when Cuarón lobbied hard to create a magical Hogwarts choir, a veritable glee club with belching toads as singing companions. The creative flourish allowed composer John Williams to write one of his greatest Potter themes, “Double Trouble”—a riff on the witches’ chants and brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—which in turn was so bewitching that it was then used to score Azkaban’s very first teaser. In the finished film, it sets a visual and aural spell, creating a sense of enchantment and world-building that is only truly possible in cinema.

These sort of flourishes were usually forbidden from the other filmmakers in the series, and even the movies’ absolutely stacked ensembles of British thespians.

Oldman points to Alan Rickman’s now iconic turn as Professor Severus Snape as a more rewarding creation because Rickman invested so much time into creating the character. However, we also know from Rickman’s posthumously published memoir that he had mixed feelings about playing Snape, and even briefly attempted to leave the series midway through. This is because while he had perhaps more latitude than any other actor in the series in helping define his character, with Rickman being in private communication with Rowling about Snape’s true intentions and motivations, the films were so carefully curated as fan and author-pleasing experiences that any artistic amendment or departure was heavily scrutinized and generally avoided by the producers.

One example where a director and actor did something drastically different from Rowling was when in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, director Mike Newell and actor Michael Gambon decided to play the usually unflappable Professor Albus Dumbledore as very flapped. After Harry Potter inexplicably, and illegally, had his name added to the Goblet of Fire, thereby putting his life in mortal danger, Dumbledore is so disturbed he loses his cool and raises his voice. He demands to know for certain if Harry somehow inserted his own name into the Goblet as a way to boost his popularity! The moment reveals Dumbledore to be human and prone to moments where his carefully curated grandfatherly persona cracks. There is more to this man than meets Harry’s eye (or our own).

Fans were apoplectic about the change. Dumbledore would never shake Harry by the shoulders or shout! But in this writer’s opinion, Goblet of Fire is probably the second best film in the series. Even if certain creative choices didn’t work, perhaps including this one, the film is largely a success that let the creatives actually create their own interpretations. It’s notable, then, that the next film was directed by filmmaker David Yates, who helmed every Harry Potter film thereafter, including the Fantastic Beasts prequels (all of which Rowling was a producer on). Yates never once second-guessed or deviated from Rowling’s vision of these stories, and the films became more staid and eventually lifeless as a result.

Yates’ first Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix, was also Oldman’s last, and Sirius Black is asked to be nothing but a kind and lovely father figure to Harry in a handful of scenes before getting killed off.

For an actor who once turned Dracula into a sweating, swaggering rock star in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and a rock star into a tragedy in Sid & Nancy, it was probably a pretty flat part to play, and one in which he maybe did not get to sink his teeth into the material as fully as, say, Rickman, or for that matter Voldemort actor Ralph Fiennes. But, personally, he was a fine Sirius Black who did everything the part required. Whether it reached its full artistic potential, it will undoubtedly be shared for generations to come.

The post Gary Oldman Is Too Hard on His Harry Potter Performances as Sirius Black appeared first on Den of Geek.

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