The Churchill Challenge

What made Gary Oldman's portrayal of Winston Churchill different from any other?


( The consensus, from the time the film Darkest Hour came out, seemed to be, it's at best an uneven film, but by God, the portrayal of Churchill by Gary Oldman would certainly earn him an Oscar for Best Actor. A theory was even proposed to suggest why it was practically inevitable: the Brian Cox (who starred in the other Churchill movie of 2017) Rule which more or less suggests that when Cox, a very capable actor indeed, plays a role and fails to win an Oscar for it, that some other actor who then decides to play the same role will end up getting the award instead (you can watch the British film critic Mark Kermode talk about this theory and along the way, compare the Cox and Oldman films). Whether the Brian Cox Rule will hold up is less interesting than the frontrunner for Best Actor status Oldman gained: it proves you can be widely applauded for fantastic acting in a far-from-fantastic film.




In a recent interview, John Lithgow, who played Churchill in two seasons of The Crown, said Gary Oldman emailed him, referring to himself as "Churchill 40" and to Lithgow as "Churchill 53," since Oldman plays the Churchill called to be Prime Minister in 1940 while Lithgow played Churchill during his second stint as premier, in 1953. There's a small, but distinguished, club of stars who've played Churchill, of course. The "Churchill 40" club includes Richard Burton and Brendan Gleeson, while the "Churchill 53" club includes the outstanding portrayal of Churchill as a post-stroke patient by Michael Gambon, and there is the truly remarkable Albert Finney as, shall we say, "Churchill 38," the Churchill who was out of power and a lonely voice against Hitler before World War II.


Of these various Churchills, there seem to be two approaches. The first is to literally turn into Churchill, the supreme example of which is Oldman's transformation by means of prosthetics, which required a "fat suit," hours and hours of makeup at the hands of a Japanese makeup genius pulled out of retirement for the task, or at least the selection of an actor not too far removed from the actual, not very tall, and pot-bellied Churchill (he was 5'7" which even in his time was considered small for a Western leader), which is why Albert Finney was a natural for the role. The other was simply to play Churchill with such chutzpah that the audience would at least set aside, or be so entranced they'd forget, how different the actual actor was to the real Churchill. This school of acting includes John Lithgow's amazing portrayal of Churchill in The Crown, where everyone forgets that Lithgow was impossibly tall (and American) to get away with it but somehow, doesand quite movingly, at that.

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Richard Burton, Brian Cox, too, and Michael Gambon when you think of it, were too much like Richard Burton (dark, brooding, himself), more of a retired prize fighter, and so obviously Dumbledore-like, respectively, to get away with it: and indeed, both Burton and Cox utterly fail. But Gambon manages a vivid and touching Churchill, and succeeds. Why do some non-Churchill-like Churchills work, while others fail? It's a mystery, and perhaps simply owes to Lithgow and Gambon being better actors when it came specifically to playing Churchill. It may simply be that there is an innate gentlemanliness, combined with a different kind of toughness, required for Churchill that real tough guys like Burton and Cox in the non-Churchill looking crowd cannot possibly capture but actors like Lithgow, Gambon and yes, Oldman, the most prosthetically-endowed of the bunch, can; in the case of Oldman quite possibly because he has become known for specializing in playing characters where highly emotional inner turmoil and carefully controlled eruptions compete.


Churchill himself once said, "all men are worms; but I am a glow-worm." He was an aristocrat with his class's contempt for things like debts and bills, a lordly sureness combined with, at times, debilitating bouts of depression; a politician with a contempt for the rules (he switched parties twice, remarking, of party loyalty, that "when the bugle sounds the charge, any old nag in the stable will do") but a fixed idea of his nation's greatness combined with a devotion to its democracy that neither his imperialism nor his zigzagging style in so many other matters could quite diminish. Terrible as Darkest Hour is, as a filma rather good first half utterly wrecked by a corny and ridiculous second halfthe concentration, devotion, and sheer verve Oldman brings to the role explains why the Academy likely set aside the film's flaws to reward Oldman's performance.





A fun experiment is to compare and contrast these big-name stars in their various Churchill incarnations to see what I mean. Start with Richard Burton, then see Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson, go on to Michael Gambon, John Lithgow, and end with Brian Cox and Gary Oldman.


One of the most vivid scenes in the film is at the very start, when parliament is shown snarling like a pack of wolves, at Chamberlain. The truth of those days was even more chilling. The story of Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain's rivalry is chronicled in the completely absorbing Burying Caesar by Graham Stewart. As for the events in the film, the definitive account for many years of how Lord Halifax and Churchill faced off for the premiership was Five Days in London by John Lukacs. This is an absolutely amazing book. But it's getting a run for its money from a very recent publication, Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister by the grandly named Nicholas Shakespeare. You can learn about how Darkest Hour came to be, and how its portrayal of Churchill is different, from the author of the original book, Anthony McCarten in Churchill's Darkest Hour.


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