Tom Courtenay did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Gatiss in A Dandy in Aspic.
A Dandy in Aspic is a spy thriller about a British agent, Eberlin (Laurence Harvey) being tasked to find a Russian spy among their ranks the problem is he is the Russian spy. The film suffers from what seems to be a central conceit to show a contrast between the inhuman loyal British agent against the supposedly sympathetic fake British agent, this is problematic when you cast the man best known for playing a robotized assassin as the "good" one, and an amazing actor as the "bad" one.
The role of Gatiss is an interesting change of pace for Tom Courtenay who usually played more sympathetic roles, even in Doctor Zhivago we learned how his Pasha became so cruel and bent. Gatiss's role is made clear from his first appearance where he is lurking in the shadows of a firing range. Gatiss is set up to be essentially the villain of the film, even though technically in most Cold war thrillers he's doing the hero's work. Courtenay is such a great actor though that he doesn't appear to have any intentions to simplify Gatiss at any point, even if perhaps the film would like him to at times. Courtenay knows though how to create such fascinating characters though, and use what is given to him and build upon that. There is something already intriguing about his shady operative, but they decide to go further in making him distinctive by giving him a strange looking cane he always has with him. The cane that does not help him walk, but rather is his secret weapon of choice. That idea that not even his walking stick can be trusted is within Courtenay's performance, though what Courtenay is doing is creating this man defined by the duplicitous world he lives in, but to be fair the end result of Gatiss's mission is noble.
Courtenay's performance, as usual particularly for his stellar 60's run, is incredibly gripping. Courtenay's physical manner has this certain tightness about him at all times, there is an exactness in any way he stands or even speaks to someone. Courtenay uses this to show the way Gatiss's lack of trust even in his body language. Courtenay portrays the man carefully never getting too close, and even when he does his cane seems always ready for its true purpose. Courtenay does not waste an ounce of himself though as in his eyes there is such an incisiveness as though is he constantly analyzing whoever or whatever is in front of him. There is no moment of rest that Courtenay portrays and reflects this in the restrictive nature of his manner which he reveals as the conditioned state of the man to always keep his distance. Courtenay actually approaches his work similair to the way Gary Oldman would later play spy master George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Courtenay though gives it a very specific inspiration in that instead of portraying the man as someone who hides his emotions, he instead depicts him as a man who covers it all up by instead always having such a negative view about all around him as a further defense mechanism needed for his line of work.
Courtenay is terrific as he oozes such palatable disdain for everyone and everything around him. Courtenay infuses such venom into every delivery as he shows the man who indeed seems to hate everyone, and everything. Courtenay never overplays this though and does not use this to just make Gatiss an obvious villain, which seems the film's intention. Now Courtenay acting as such a contemptible sort is compelling to watch in itself, but that is not all there is to his performance. Again Courtenay plays a certain game in this in suggesting that there is perhaps more to Gatiss than the hateful man he presents. This is partially in the way Courtenay always presents the hate with this certain control suggesting that Gatiss uses it for a purpose. He always keeps a certain obsession with his task always as part of his disdain for all things. There is an even more pivotal moment where we see Gatiss gather Eberlin from a hotel room with his love interest, a photographer Caroline (Mia Farrow). Courtenay is brilliant in the scene as in a brief reaction he reveals a certain pain in witnessing Caroline's affections for Eberlin, seeming to suggest Gatiss's frustrations in seeing something he does not allow himself to have. Gatiss does leave a final comment to Caroline that is at the expense of both her and Eberline, but the same venom is not in Courtenay's delivery. He eases it to convey just the slightest hint of empathy that the man usually destroys within himself. He steals the film completely and really the film should have just been from his perspective. Courtenay goes beyond the call of his duty to create a complex portrait of this spy, when it seems the film would have settled for a one note fiend.