Let’s hear it for the bad boys raising birthday toasts today, a pair of charismatic U.K.-born lads whose indelible screen characters gave free rein to their wilder instincts, whether in romance or in lawlessness, to make for captivating cinema. Welshman Timothy Dalton, turning 72 today, had defiant French and English/German royalty (The Lion in Winter, Cromwell) in his past, and his future would hold two hair-raising tours as James Bond (The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill) and some intriguing villainy (The Doctor and the Devils, The Rocketeer). But the winter of 1970 delivered Dalton’s take on one of literature’s most tormented and class-cursed romantics, the born-to-poverty orphan Heathcliff, who dares to love and bewitch the tempestuous manor-born Catherine Earnshaw (Anna Calder-Marshall) in the brooding Yorkshire moors setting of Emily Brontë’s 1847 classic Wuthering Heights (1970). His portrayal was noted for a feral intensity that both reflected upon and rebelled against the somewhat more dignified Laurence Olivier interpretation in director William Wyler’s award-winning Hollywood version that arrived 31 years before and under the direction of thriller specialist Robert Fuest on authentic Brontë Country locations, Dalton shaped it that way. In contemporaneous interviews, Dalton, describing the earlier iteration as “like a drawing-room romance, nice and polite, nothing to do with the actual story,” clarified his “moody bastard” concept of the role: “I think Heathcliff is something inhuman, something other than reality. On a superficial level one knows what Heathcliff looks like, how he changes, but that’s not enough. One has to explore and understand him and share his emotions and feelings. He’s so cruel and hard, yet he has this overwhelming love for Cathy. You can’t play a role like that intellectually. It’s not a thing one understands or can really put into words. It’s a happening inside of one’s body. You read the book, you read the script [adapted by Patrick Tilley] and they entwine themselves inside of you.”
London-born Gary Oldman, now 60 years old, has been a tough guy on screen for 30 years, so much so that even his heroic-leaning figures of late (his mentoring wizard Sirius Black of four Harry Potter adventures, Gotham policeman James Gordon of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Oscar®-nominated George Smiley of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Best Actor Oscar®-winning Winston Churchill of Darkest Hour) all have backbones of steel facing down enormous external threats. But the chameleonlike actor first caught moviegoers’ eyeballs playing unbridled and unlawful avatars of reckless and reprehensible rough trade (i.e, his Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy and Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears). Attention must be paid to two additional high-wire showcases, both set in a grimy, crime-ridden New York City, one involving an out-and-out scumbag hood, the other a corrupt NYPD detective who effectively functions like an out-and-out scumbag hood. Written by Dennis McIntyre and directed by Phil Joanou, State of Grace (1990) is set in Hell’s Kitchen, where a “Westies” Irish crime family headed by Ed Harris’ Frankie Flannery, whom Oldman’s psychotic younger brother Jackie supports as a (barely controlled) triggerman, is infiltrated by undercover cop Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), a friend from the past now recruited to help take the gang down. To the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, “The most interesting aspect of the movie is right up front: the confused notion by Jackie that he is, in some way, protecting the neighborhood by committing crimes there. Although the gang's main business seems to be selling drugs, Jackie is willing to pull some jobs simply as a civic service. For example, he takes Terry along one night when he burns down a construction office on a site that will soon be a yuppie apartment building. Oldman’s performance in the movie is the best thing about it. What’s best about State of Grace is what's unique to it – the twisted vision of the Oldman character, who lives in a world of evil and betrayal and has somehow thought himself around to the notion that he is doing the right thing.”
Likewise, Oldman’s womanizing, bribe-taking lawman Jack Grimaldi in the nasty neo-noir Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), written by Hilary Henkin and directed by Peter Medak, strives to do the right thing by his wife (Annabella Sciorra), his mistress (Juliette Lewis) and the Mob boss (Roy Scheider) he juggles with nervy abandon. But this house-of-cards arrangement is about to be toppled big-time by an ace of spades he’s dealt: the incredibly skilled and voluptuous Russian assassin/sexual dominatrix (Lena Olin) he’s tasked with eliminating, but instead unwisely falls head-over-hells for. His undoing is cleverly and stylishly executed with over-the-top filmmaking bravado, as Slant reviewer Chuck Bowen pointedly analyzes: “Jack is one of Oldman’s 1990s-era sleazeballs, then, which he often played with a distinctively zealous and entitled sense of self-loathing that’s exhilarating when provided a supportive context (as in True Romance) and exhausting when allowed to run roughshod over a production as its own justification. Initially, it appears that Medak and Oldman have found a balance for the actor’s gonzo tendencies, as Romeo Is Bleeding resists much plotting, following Jack as he roams about trying to satiate his desires, which include a craving for role-play and kink, allowing Oldman room to luxuriate in his character’s eccentric piggishness. It’s evident that Jack longs to be dominated, but neither his wife nor his predominant mistress appear to have the constitution to ride him the way he longs to be ridden, figuratively and literally. Which is to say that he’s richly due the kind of comeuppance that only a femme fatale can provide.” In short, the deadly duet between Oldman and Olin leaves both of them tantalized, mesmerized and scarred, just like the voyeur viewer. Hats off to birthday honorees Dalton and Oldman, whose fascinating and forceful work in the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Romeo Is Bleeding, State of Grace and Wuthering Heights render themselves – and their fans – breathless.