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Overlooked: possibly the greatest actor of them all

Gary Oldman may still be an enfant terrible. After all, he lost Sunday night, despite these Academy Awards being a night characterized by the appreciation of old-to-ancient stars (the sixtysomething Meryl Streep's makeup artist looked like Mr. Sarcophagus).

A "crazy actor," as Natalie Portman said onstage at the Oscars, while speaking of the best-actor nominee. And yes, Oldman, 53, has played a deranged terrorist, a vicious mobster, the Devil (in a Guns N' Roses video!), a Republican and the punk icon/murderer, Sid Vicious.

What Portman was actually referring to, however, was that it is "crazy" that it has taken this long for Oldman to receive notice from the academy.

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He was nominated for his remarkable portrayal of George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (a role previously played by Alec Guinness in the 1979 TV movie; both films, of course, are based on the 1976 John le Carré novel). Best known, for a lamentably long time, as a deranged villain in film and a lush in life, the now clean and sober actor – using his turn as the upright, unabashedly débile and fairly decrepit Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight as a launching point – has, in Smiley, found a second act.

Smiley is also a rather-past-middle-age, rumpled, eerily quiet and solemn peacekeeper, a high-ranking member of the SIS, in this case.

Oldman most readily comes to mind as Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, or the half-eaten child molester and monster Mason Verger in Hannibal, or the original Jack Sparrow, the pimp-psychopath Drexl Spivey in True Romance. Or as any number of extreme, screaming freaks: Look at the YouTube video called "Gary Oldman says EVERRRRRRRYONE for 10 mins," and there you have the star, in his mid-career free fall.

For what would appear to be personal reasons, Oldman stopped working in the late 1990s – adumbrations of his crash were evident when he failed to show up for his highly anticipated gig as guest host of Saturday Night Live in 1992. His replacement, Tom Arnold, cited "personal reasons." "He personally hates the show," he said.

After chewing scenery with the deplorable ham Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal, Oldman appears to have wandered onto the set of the sitcom Friends, where he played, with virtuosic wretchedness, an absurd actor who spat when he talked.

He spat all over his odd new friend Matt LeBlanc, and his career, and vanished, like the shadowy Count himself, for several years.

Prior to the Dark Knight in 2008, he began gathering a large new audience (arguably even more disquieting) for his role in the Harry Potter films. It's fitting he plays a wizard in these films, as their wholesomeness and mass appeal made the actor new again, in a manner of speaking, and eligible for less villainous roles.

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Yet, Oldman's career, diagrammatically, does not simply spike and fall and spike again.

It's more like a road trip that veers into rough, then nightmare terrain; that runs smoothly, in one sense, at all times because he is driving. Critics never fail to single Oldman out, because no matter how terrible the film, or overblown the performance, he is one of a few truly great living actors – arguably, even, the best.

Why he was ignored by the Academy Awards for so long is a mystery: In 1987, a quarter-century ago, he played the doomed playwright Joe Orton so well (in Prick Up Your Ears), one could scarcely distinguish between him and the capricious, deeply sexual, brilliant and charismatic writer.

Oldman is weak-chinned, slight and somewhat plain-featured, but his acting – like the shy, wispy hero of Kurt Vonnegut's short story Who Am I This Time? – transforms him not only into beasts, but sometimes into dangerous beauties.

His Joe Orton emanated sex through his frank, appraising eyes, pelvis-forward stance, and amazingly animated mouth (he leers, turns up its corner, smiles blindingly); as does, differently and powerfully, his George Smiley.

Smiley is not a sexual creature, exactly. But he is a man whose weakness is love, and Oldman uses his dark, inscrutable eyes and mouth (pursed, largely, in the Tomas Alfredson film, or open, like that of a drifting, hapless fish) to lure us to the passion beating at this drab espionage expert's centre.

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The SIS Christmas party scene is the finest example of the work Oldman does.

The singer (Julio Iglesias) croons the premonitory La Mer lyrics – " Au pays du froid/ Où le vent sauvage/ M'apporte un regard" – and Smiley walks through the crowded room blindly, mouth agape, as if feeling his way through sonar.

And when he reaches the window to see his beloved wife being kissed by a colleague, his face registers shock, terror and anguish – as fleetingly as a blast of savage wind.

The scene recalls Michael Corleone's betrayal in The Godfather II, by his brother, at a New Year's Eve party in Havana, but Oldman's acting is not derivative of Al Pacino's.

In this moment, he is the composed, brilliant George Smiley, come horribly undone: We have only the look on his face to gauge the extent of the injury, yet we know it is severe.

Sometimes, even the academy members get it somewhat right. It took a very long time, but they did recognize what is, indeed, the performance of a lifetime.

In Oldman's near-future are reprisals of Commissioner Gordon (in The Dark Knight Rises) and, it is widely rumoured, of George Smiley.

Was he disappointed to lose the Oscar? "I guess there's always another time," Oldman said modestly, and to those familiar with his fatal charm, with uncanny assurance.

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