Gary Oldman and the Good Friday prayer

I'm not exactly sure who Gary Oldman is. I thought I knew but then I realized I was picturing Alan Rickman. So it doesn't matter all that much to me personally that he is, let's say, not super-likable, at least on the evidence of his recent, lengthy, a-bit-too-candid interview with Playboy -- which I only heard about because he said some terrible things, in particular some headine-grabbing things about Jews for which he later apologized. And the wording of that apology rang a bell I didn't expect.

I am deeply remorseful that comments I recently made in the Playboy Interview were offensive to many Jewish people.... I hope you will know that this apology is heartfelt, genuine, and that I have an enormous personal affinity for the Jewish people in general, and those specifically in my life. The Jewish People, persecuted thorough the ages, are the first to hear God’s voice, and surely are the chosen people.

Most of the responses I've seen to this last part ran along the lines of "Laying it on a bit thick, there, Gary." But I recognized that line about "the first to hear God's voice" right away, from the petition offered at the Good Friday liturgy for the Jewish people. I would say the "reformed" prayer, but that would introduce some confusion: it's the one from the ordinary rite, not the rewritten but still controversial one in the extraordinary form. This one: "Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant."

Is Gary Oldman Catholic? I don't have any idea, and when I did a little Googling to try to guess where else he might have picked up the language he used there, I got pages and pages of links to stories about the apology. So if you have another guess, please fill me in. Until then I'll be puzzling over Oldman's decision to close his (not totally satisfactory) apology for spreading anti-Semitic tropes with a paraphrase of the Catholic Church'sofficial post-Vatican II prayer for the Jewish people.

What was Oldman apologizing for, you may ask? I will tell you.

It seems the actor was complaining about how hard it is to get financing for projects in Hollywood these days, and he said, "I can understand why someone like Mel, for instance, would finance his own movies now, because it has all become so crazy." The interviewer, clarifying that "Mel" was "Mel Gibson" and, no doubt, having some other ideas about why Mel Gibson has turned to self-financing his projects recently, asked, "What do you think about what he’s gone through these past few years?"

"I just think political correctness is crap," Oldman replied -- the published interview notes that he was "fidget[ing] in his seat" as he said so. Then he told a story about "a Buddhist kid" whose science teacher -- in a public school? private? It would seem to matter, but Oldman doesn't say -- told him it was "stupid" to believe anything other than that God created the earth. So, says Oldman, "the parents went in and are suing the school! The school is changing its curriculum!" Well, I should think so -- assuming that telling kids they're "stupid" is part of the curriculum. But to Oldman this is an example of how "No one can take a joke anymore."

A joke? Well, he has other examples! "I don’t know about Mel. He got drunk and said a few things, but we’ve all said those things. We’re all fucking hypocrites. That’s what I think about it." Hm. Have we, Gary Oldman? Have we all said "those things"? Maybe we have all spoken in anger things we later wished we hadn't, but what Gibson said...

The [police] report says Gibson then launched into a barrage of anti-Semitic statements: "F*****g Jews... The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Gibson then asked the deputy, "Are you a Jew?"

I have never said those precise things. How about you? Have you ever even come close? It's a little bit troubling, this assertion of Gary Oldman's, which suggests at the very least that he has said those things, and thinks it's just a commonplace way to vent one's anger.

At this point you might be willing to extend to him the benefit of the doubt -- he may have forgotten exactly what "things" Mel Gibson got himself in trouble for saying. (I personally have never been able to forget the part where he called a police officer "sugar tits," but maybe that didn't seem so memorable to Oldman.) But then Oldman elaborates:

Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him—and doesn’t need to feed him anymore because he’s got enough dough. He’s like an outcast, a leper, you know? But some Jewish guy in his office somewhere hasn’t turned and said, “That fucking kraut” or “Fuck those Germans,” whatever it is? We all hide and try to be so politically correct. That’s what gets me. It’s just the sheer hypocrisy of everyone, that we all stand on this thing going, “Isn’t that shocking?” [smiles wryly] All right. Shall I stop talking now? What else can we discuss?

So, it turns out Oldman actually remembers pretty clearly what made Gibson "an outcast." But he has a unique interpretation of why it did so. Where you or I might have said that Gibson, long rumored to harbor unsavory opinions about Jews, exposed himself in that moment as one who subscribed to truly alarming, pernicious anti-Semitic tropes of the sort that had led to major persecution of the Jewish people over centuries -- actual persecution, not "We prefer not to finance your movie" persecution -- Oldman thinks that Gibson has been cast out by the Jews who "run" Hollywood for his ingratitude. In other words, that he was right. Oldman seems not to know that what Gibson said was not so much "politically incorrect" as it was just plain old "incorrect." It kind of is shocking that you would say Hollywood is "a town that's run by Jews," as if you had no idea what sort of history that kind of talk has, Gary Oldman! I mean, it was shocking, up until I read this interview. It won't be anymore.

I left out the part of Oldman's apology to the ADL where he says,

If, during the interview, I had been asked to elaborate on this point I would have pointed out that I had just finished reading Neal Gabler’s superb book about the Jews and Hollywood, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews invented Hollywood. The fact is that our business, and my own career specifically, owes an enormous debt to that contribution.

See, that's not really helping. There's a difference between saying that American Jews happened to be particularly successful in the early days of the motion-picture industry and saying, as he already did in that interview, that they wield unseemly power and should thus be held in suspicion. That what Mel Gibson said was only wrong "because he's actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him," not because it was hateful.

After "Shall I stop talking now?" would have been a good moment -- though not of course the best moment -- for Oldman to have stopped talking! But he was enjoying himself. "What do you think of the pope?" Playboy asked. "Oh, fuck the pope!" he replied. So...not a Catholic, then?

There's more. After expressing his admiration for Charles Krauthammer ("I think he’s fair, very savvy and politically insightful, so I enjoy watching him"), Oldman cycles back to the topic of political correctness, and by this point everyone else is fidgeting in their chairs. He calls Nancy Pelosi an ugly name. He expresses some confusion about who's allowed to say what about gay people. "At the Oscars," he complains, "if you didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave you were a racist." (Is this a good time to make my "Gary Oldman? More like Cranky Old Man" joke?) And then, "You have to be very careful about what you say," he says, as though he cannot hear his own voice at all.

After some back-and-forth about how the Oscars and the Golden Globes are all phony, not that he cares, he sums up his career on a positive note: "I’m successful. I know that. And I think I’ve been successful because I’m probably very good at what I do. I’ve been very disciplined."

"Disciplined" is not the first word I'd use!

So, anyway, getting back to where we started, and unsavory as all this is, I am left wondering about that echo of the Good Friday prayer, and asking, is it a sign of progress, or a depressing indication of how far we have left to go, that what was once a refreshing expression of respect and (implicit) contrition for a long history of demonization -- the prayer's image of the Jewish people not as "perfidious" rebels, but as "the first to hear the word of God" -- should now find its way into the mouth of a Hollywood star trying to demonstrate his high regard for Jews, despite his casual conviction that they "run" Hollywood? What do you think?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Also by this author
The Miracle Worker

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Books
Collections