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The Role Of A Lifetime

For Gary Oldman and a host of other actors, playing Winston Churchill is a defining moment
| By Marshall Fine | From Churchill, May/June 2018
The Role Of A Lifetime
Photo: Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

Some historic figures leave giant footprints. Others cast a looming shadow. But when it comes to portraying Winston Churchill on film, it really comes down to his famous silhouette: the almost snowman-shaped figure in a three-piece suit, chin jutting over a short but corpulent body, topped by a homburg hat—and always with a cigar (of a size that came to be synonymous with his name) clenched firmly between his bulldog-like jaws.

When you take on the role of Winston Churchill in a film, as Gary Oldman did in his Oscar-winning turn in 2017’s Darkest Hour, the question for the actor is always the same: Can you fill out the silhouette? And can you mount the role, undaunted by the fact that a number of acting greats have already taken a crack at this character, often hailed as the greatest Englishman of all?

It took Oldman the better part of a year to decide to play Churchill in Darkest Hour, and almost another year to do the research and makeup tests, before shooting the actual film. Already considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, Oldman earned a Golden Globe and a gaggle of critics’ awards as the best actor of 2017, in addition to his Academy Award.

In fact, Oldman was offered three different Churchill film projects in the space of a year. Even as he wondered, “What are they seeing that I’m not?” he turned them down, saying, “Don’t be utterly ridiculous.” As the slim actor told Deadline, “When you start with the robust silhouette of a man like Churchill, with the big jowls and the double chin, it’s hard to see that. You look at me and I probably could have a good go at Stan Laurel. Every time my manager brought it up, I’d say, ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’ ”

It was director Joe Wright who convinced Oldman to take a crack at Churchill, telling him that if Oldman could find and embody Churchill’s spirit, the rest would take care of itself. “When casting, you can either choose someone who looks right or someone who has the essence of the character. And I always think it’s wiser to choose the latter,” Wright told The Atlantic.

“I wanted someone with a kind of intensity, and Gary has always had, and still has, that intensity as an actor.”

Because Churchill remains someone whose image is inextricably linked with cigars, any actor who takes on the role must contend with the great man’s unremitting affection for full-sized, full-bodied cigars in any and all circumstances. For some of the portrayals of Churchill on film over the years, a little bit of on-camera cigar smoking has sufficed to represent the Churchillian appetite for fine tobacco. Richard Burton’s Churchill in 1974’s The Gathering Storm is shown smoking in his garden, but rarely elsewhere. John Lithgow’s turn as the prime minister in Netflix’s “The Crown” indulges in cigars at dinner with the Duke of Windsor, and while wandering around his own living quarters in his dressing gown. Albert Finney has Churchill lighting up at the breakfast table and while playing cards with his wife, Clementine (played by Vanessa Redgrave) in his 2002 version of The Gathering Storm for HBO. Simon Ward, in the title role of 1972’s Young Winston, lit his first cigar just as the film was ending. In the 2017 film Churchill, which focused on Churchill’s battles with Eisenhower and Montgomery over the plans for D-Day, actor Brian Cox used real cigars as well as electronic cigars. “It was a brilliant design,” Cox says. “I produced vast amounts of vapor and it looked just like smoke. I had vapor coming out of my nose and ears. The only time I had a real cigar was if I was lighting one in a scene. Churchill was smoking most of the time—and he had that round face, like a big baby. When I would see him with a cigar in his mouth, I thought he used the cigar a lot like a baby uses thumb-sucking. It was the perfect substitute.”

Oldman, however, insisted on the real deal. Various reports say the actor smoked anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 in Cuban cigars over the course of filming Darkest Hour. Appearing on “The Graham Norton Show,” Oldman claimed he’d smoked a dozen cigars a day for the entire 48 days of shooting. He said they cost $50 apiece. According to Focus Features, the film’s distributor, Oldman smoked Cohiba Siglos on the set. The Cohiba Siglo V is the longest Siglo (it’s 6 3/4 inches long by 43 ring) and British shops sell them for £38.80 each, including taxes, or $55 at current exchange rates. Twelve cigars a day for 48 days is 576 cigars, and at $55 each that amounts to more than $31,000.

The very first image of Oldman in Darkest Hour includes a cigar, which is seen as Churchill has his breakfast served to him in bed in May 1940, shortly before he is to be named prime minister. Even before his servant can pull the curtain to let in the light of a new day, Oldman’s Churchill illuminates the darkness of his chamber with a wooden match, firing up a cigar in a billow of smoke, beginning dictation to his secretary practically before he’s finished exhaling. He seems to smoke everywhere protocol (or chutzpah) will allow: in the car, on the toilet—even in the London Underground, where fellow riders in a subway car are surprised by his presence when he asks for a match. Only when he is speaking within the halls of Parliament itself does he seem to forgo the impulse to indulge in fine tobacco.

While he muscled through the cigar smoking required to play Churchill, puffing away repeatedly, Oldman knew that to be a real method actor about the role he would have to gain upwards of 80 pounds to approximate Churchill’s girth. But, approaching the age of 60 himself, Oldman feared that he’d have a struggle to shed it afterward. So he reached out to Kazuhiro Tsuji, a special-effects makeup artist he knew who had retired from film after turning Eddie Murphy into the Klumps and Brad Pitt into Benjamin Button. At first dubious that he could hit the level of realism that Oldman sought, Tsuji came up with a blend of mask and headpiece of prosthetic rubber overlays that transformed Oldman’s forehead and jowls. Tsuji also used silicone, foam and spandex to create a fat suit that mirrored Churchill’s famous figure but weighed less than 20 pounds. (For his efforts, Tsuji and his team also won Oscars for Best Makeup.)

By his own estimate, Oldman spent a record amount of time both putting on and wearing the character makeup during the 48 days of filming. He faced days of up to 17 hours, starting with four hours in the makeup chair as he was transformed into Churchill. The filming was 10 to 12 hours, and after shooting all day, he had to spend another hour having the makeup carefully removed, to be used again the next day.

Others who have played the role were less assiduous about getting every detail right. In a 1974 Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of The Gathering Storm, Richard Burton portrayed Churchill—and looked like, well, Richard Burton. He refused to even shave his hair off, and told an American reporter that he didn’t really care how he came across in the drama because “he hated Churchill.” He even went so far as to write a piece for The New York Times at the time, with the headline “To Play Churchill Is To Hate Him.”

Still, Burton, who had met Churchill, wrote, “Whether Sir Winston Churchill was a genius, I don’t know, but certainly he was one of the few people—two others are Pablo Picasso and Camus—who have frightened me almost to silence when we came face to face, a difficult task in my case…Churchill left me with the feeling that I was adjacent to a slow-effusing volcano. He had a kind of dynamic lethargy.”

As someone who spent the entirety of his 20th-century life as a world-known public figure, Winston Churchill understandably pops up often as a character in movies about other historical figures, particularly films about both World War II and 20th-century British royalty. Churchill figures prominently in their stories, whether it’s supporting King Edward’s choice to marry an American divorcee (in the numerous films about his abdication of the throne) or helping Elizabeth II make the transition to the throne after her father’s death in “The Crown.” He has also figured in historical drama and fiction on film and TV, from miniseries such as “The Winds of War” and “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years” to series such as “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” “Dr. Who” and “Peaky Blinders.”

No matter how major or minor a figure he may be in any given story, playing Winston Churchill is both a thrill and a challenge for any actor. Timothy Spall appears as Churchill in only a handful of scenes in The King’s Speech (2010), encouraging Colin Firth’s King George at the start of World War II, but he had to dig into the role. “You get to be asked to play him and you have to do your work,” Spall told The A.V. Club. “When you’re asked to play massively important historical characters, even though it was as a sort of adjunct, a cameo part, you have to pay respect. So I enjoyed the research.” Spall went on to play Churchill once more, making a surprise appearance as the character in the memorable closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics.

Yet Churchill’s full life seems to be a subject too large for a single film or even miniseries to encompass. Sir Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston took Churchill from school days through his adventures as a correspondent in the Boer War to his first election to Parliament at 26 in 1900. The 1981 British miniseries “Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years” (which starred Robert Hardy) covered the decade from 1929–39 when Churchill was out of power and watching with alarm as Germany rearmed. “I think the only way to deal with his whole life would be with a 10-part series, or maybe two of them,” Cox says. “The challenge in playing him is in finding the man himself, because there are so many elements to him.”

Hollywood seems to have decided that Churchill is best viewed under the microscope of individual historical moments of high stress, as a way of examining his character, his intellect and his soul. It can be the approach of World War II in The Gathering Storm, the life-or-death moment of Dunkirk in Darkest Hour or Churchill’s second-guessing about the D-Day invasion in Churchill. Into the Storm, the 2009 HBO sequel to The Gathering Storm, starred Brendan Gleeson as Churchill and covered everything from Dunkirk through Churchill’s 1945 reelection loss, after saving the country and winning the war. Michael Gambon played the character in Churchill’s Secret (2016), a film that illustrated the efforts to hide the fact that Churchill suffered a serious stroke in 1953, in the midst of his second term as prime minister.

Most of the films show some aspects of Churchill’s remarkable life, but the best of them—including Darkest Hour—examine his courage under fire, in the face of stiff opposition from his own colleagues. Darkest Hour reveals a mind capable of running a government while managing a war that presented a threat to England’s continued existence, even as he wrote and delivered some of the most stirring speeches ever made by a politician.

The lure for an actor is irresistible: to capture Churchill at a particularly charged moment, dealing with events that changed the course of history, even while revealing his deeply complex humanity.

“The character was so interesting, full of contradictions and different colors and different kinds of surprising passions,” actor John Lithgow told Indiewire. “He’s such a one-of-a-kind character, and I think everybody is equally intimidated by it because he’s so iconic. He’s arguably the best-known man of the 20th century. It’s the kind of role any actor just adores.”

Having first resisted and then given himself over to Winston Churchill on a two-year-plus journey to the Oscar (“Winston came for me,” he said), Oldman admits that he retains a lasting fascination with the character.

Oldman said he was constantly amazed discovering things about Churchill. He told the Toronto Star: “Churchill was the epitome, the torch of oratory and language and what language can do, how it can move people. His choice of words, very simple and direct Anglo-Saxon words, could rally a nation.” 

Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, NY.

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