Contender Controversy Continues

October 17, 2000 -- Gary Oldman doesn't play a villain in The Contender — at least not according to the actor's manager, Douglas Urbanski. And, even though Oldman went on the record in Premiere magazine as siding with his hidebound, right-leaning character in the political drama, don't call the Brit actor a conservative, insists Urbanski.

Fine. Point noted.

Although we should also note that nearly every reviewer in the country has jumped to the conclusion that Oldman's character, Sen. Shelly Runyon, is yet another rogue in the actor's crowded gallery of villains. (Runyon gets called a "junior-league McCarthy" in the film by his wife, and Premiere's own critic praises the actor for being "reliably bloodcurdling as the serpentine villain." D'oh!)

"We did not set out to make a movie about a nasty, villainous Republican," Urbanski explains to Mr. Showbiz. Urbanski co-produced the film and makes no secret of the fact that his own political leanings are diametrically opposed to those of the "left-leaning billionaires," as he refers to DreamWorks heads Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The feud between the two sides is well sketched out in the November Premiere interview, with Oldman and Urbanski seeing Runyon as the film's "dark, tragic hero." Director Rod Lurie, in contrast, insists — as most audiences will likely agree — that the hero of the piece is vice-presidential designate Laine Hanson (Joan Allen).

Sam Elliott, who plays presidential adviser Kermit Newman in the film, admits that he didn't know what to expect from working with Oldman, especially from the other side of the on-screen political divide.

"I've been a fan of Gary's for a long time and I'd heard a few horror stories about him," says Elliott, a tall, silver-haired acting vet with a perpetual twinkle in his eye. "He comes in and he's totally consumed by the character — either that or he totally consumes the character."

That characterization is in keeping with what director Lurie has said about Oldman, who is The Contender's highest-billed star and the film's executive producer. In the same interview in which Oldman claimed that the final cut of The Contender was influenced by studio democrats, Lurie said that those remarks were due to the actor's complete immersion in the film — something the film-critic-turned-filmmaker likened to "Stockholm syndrome," in which hostages start to identify with their captors.

"Rod Lurie has diarrhea of the mouth," Urbanski says of the "Stockholm" remark. "It was an idiotic comment that he's since apologized for," the producer told Mr. Showbiz.

Lurie's rep, Tony Angelotti, refused to comment on Urbanski's response. Angelotti did say that (contrary to the Premiere article) the shoot was an easy one and that Oldman and Urbanski's subsequent displeasure was "a mystery to all of us."

At the end of the day, what matters most is how the film does.

"I belong to the 'I want my movie to succeed' party," quips Urbanski, who's voting for George W. Bush come Election Day.

So, will this ongoing controversy help the film or hurt it?

The Contender opened Oct. 13 with an estimated $5.5 million. Lurie told USA Today that "for a political drama, it did extremely well." He said he has been in constant contact with Urbanski, "and we're all very celebratory" about the opening.

While Urbanski says he and Lurie are still great friends, the manager-producer admitted to Premiere that Oldman and Lurie's falling out seems to be permanent.

Oldman was a no-show at the film's Los Angeles premiere Oct. 6. (He was reportedly away on location for another film.) He was also absent from the Toronto premiere in September, although he has done a battery of other press appearances for the film, according to Urbanski.