Features and Columns

A Brief History of the Oscar’s Commanders-in-Chief

By  · Published on November 9th, 2012

The release of Lincoln could not be better timed. The plan must be to get as much of a boost from the presidential election as possible, yet at the same time avoid being cast as part of the political debate, by opening after November 6th. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner would rather their film be seen as a portrait of a great American hero above contemporary politics, or at least not see it hijacked by 21st century bickering. They have every right, even though upon closer inspection it might become clear where they stand.

However, let’s leave that for later and move on to some Oscar history. Only four men have earned Best Actor nominations for playing US Presidents, with Daniel Day-Lewis now certain to be the fifth. (For context, the Academy has over the years nominated nine Kings of England.) The list contains one other Lincoln, one Woodrow Wilson, and two Richard Nixons. That’s a bit bleak, isn’t it?

Obviously, Spielberg’s Lincoln has a lot more in common with the non-Nixon pair. Raymond Massey was nominated for 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a box office flop adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Wilson, meanwhile, was a financial disaster that nonetheless somehow managed to pull off five wins from ten nominations in 1944. No doubt that had something to do with Darryl Zanuck’s sheer willpower, a great admirer of President Wilson who couldn’t bear to admit the defeat of this extravagant and expensive pet project. Alexander Knox was nominated for playing the embattled politician, but lost to Bing Crosby.

Lincoln is much better than either of these relics of Hollywood history. Massey’s impersonation of Honest Abe borders on the ridiculous, with an accent that reads more hickish than presidential. Wilson, meanwhile, is the kind of indulgent biography that could put even the most earnest historian to sleep. Yet the connection is in the context. Both Wilson and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, along with the much more highly regarded Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939), were made during the FDR administration at the height of his popularity. Barrack Obama just became the most successful Democratic president since, winning both the Electoral College and the popular vote for the second time. Well-regarded Commanders in Chief seem to inspire a look back at the Great Emancipator.

Meanwhile, there are the Nixons. Anthony Hopkins was nominated for Oliver Stone’s Nixon in 1995. Then there was Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, just four years ago. In the sixty-eight years since Wilson, Oscar has only gone for presidential villains. Nixon is our Richard III, compelling because he is the opposite of Lincoln’s “better angels.” He is the personification of the dark side of American politics and ambition, a strain that has had more success in recent Oscar history than the gallant heroes. Look no further than Day-Lewis’s other recent roles. Bill the Butcher, the id of the Bowery, and Daniel Plainview bring out the worst in the nation’s character, both politically and spiritually.

Just as he did with There Will Be Blood five years ago, Paul Thomas Anderson brings a harsh Best Actor contender to the table with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddy Quell in The Master. He and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd represent the greatest of uncertainties and anxieties in America’s identity, a far cry from Spielberg’s embattled but steadfast national savior. In fact, Lincoln seems to be the odd man out in this year’s slate of leading men. Standing among broken men in recovery, like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook or John Hawkes in The Sessions, Day-Lewis juts forward from Mount Rushmore despite the care put into his humanity by Spielberg and Kushner. It is a grand, extraordinary performance that creates an icon anew. I raved as much in my NYFF review. Yet it might be too capital-I important, too reverent to connect 100%. None of the four prior presidential performances took home gold, and two of them lost to comedies.

Then again, Lincoln does have one thing going for it that none of the other films in the mix can really claim. The Obama connection, despite insistence to the contrary from the writer and director, is clear as day. The current president has been invoking Abe as a hero and role model from the very beginning. Back in 2009 Obama took the oath of office on the same Bible that was used in 1861, and took the same route to the capital. Between the Illinois connection, the legacy of emancipation, and the language of unity the president used in his victory speech on Tuesday night it is hard to miss. If we find ourselves focusing on Lincoln again this coming January, would it be too far-fetched to suggest Hollywood’s passion for Obama might lend itself to an emotional vote for Daniel Day-Lewis? What a way to win a third Oscar.

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