Yes, Steven Spielberg’s “LINCOLN” is a triumph, even though it didn’t triumph at last week’s Academy Awards. “ARGO” won best picture. That’s fine. But “LINCOLN” did pull down the least-suspenseful Academy Award in history. Specifically, the great Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for his dazzling portrayal of our iconic 16th president. Well earned, well done. And the overall movie is pretty good too. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t be an idiot—go see it.
In fact, Mr. Day-Lewis, in the afterglow of his triumph—and due in part to the fact that he is now the only man to ever take home three Oscars in the lead actor category—is being hailed as the greatest actor of our time, perhaps of all time, and his performance as Lincoln is being trumpeted as the acting performance of the ages.
But for me, the bigger question is this: Is Day-Lewis’ Lincoln even the best Lincoln? My answer is….no. It isn’t.
What??? That’s blasphemy you say! After all, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is not only being hailed as the quintessential Lincoln, but also as maybe the greatest acting performance since Bill Clinton’s first Lewinsky press conference. He’d been guaranteed the Oscar months ago. In fact, his being awarded filmdom’s highest honor even before the film premiered was something that should never happen; i.e. it was a foregone conclusion. He was a bigger pre-Oscar favorite than Nixon over McGovern. A bigger slam-dunk than Crazy Horse over Custer.
But I’m here to tell ya, there very well might have been one better Abraham Lincoln on film.
The thing about Lincoln is that it is a role that good actors almost always do a good job with, because there is so much material to work with. Lincoln’s log cabin roots, his humble homespun humor, his wry witty quips, his relentless climb up the political ladder, and his getting the very lucky break (historically at least) of getting to play out his hand during an exhausting gut-wrenching Civil War and then getting shot, well, it all makes for wonderful building blocks in the constructing of a memorable movie character. I’ve seen pretty much all the good Lincolns on film. Gregory Peck did a good job as Lincoln. Henry Fonda did a good job as Lincoln. Royal Dano did a good job as Lincoln. Frank McGlynn did a good job as Lincoln. Hal Holbrook did a good job as Lincoln. Walter Huston did a good job as Lincoln. Even Sam Waterston did a good job as Lincoln. My God, even Kris Kristofferson did a good job as Lincoln. You get the idea….
Which brings us to the best of the pre Day-Lewis Lincolns. Raymond Massey.
The Canadian-born Massey was, beyond dispute, a talented actor. In addition to playing the man who ended the Civil War, Lincoln, he also played the man who helped start it, the fanatical abolitionist revolutionary John Brown. Furthermore, in the 1955 release “Prince Of Players”, Massey played the father of the man who shot Lincoln, Junius Brutus Booth. Note the elder Booth’s middle name, Brutus, the man who assassinated Julius Caesar. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right—the whole thing is pretty creepy.
Massey played Lincoln three times. In 1956 he starred in “The Day Lincoln Was Shot” on T.V., co-starring Jack Lemmon (of all people) as John Wilkes Booth. In 1962 he reprised his Lincoln in the mega-pic spectacular “How The West Was Won”. But it was his portrayal of the Great Emancipator in the 1940 screen classic “Abe Lincoln In Illinois” which won him everlasting praise.
I watched “Abe Lincoln In Illinois” just last week (for the umpteenth time) in preparation for the writing of this column. It is just terrific. You have to make sure you see it. Go to Net-Flix, Amazon, the Internet, TCM, eBay, piracy….I don’t care how you do it, just see it. And then, when I tell you that Ray’s Abe was possibly better than Dan’s Abe, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
There are two principal areas where Massey’s Lincoln trumps Day-Lewis’. The first area involves a basic naturalness. Day-Lewis is smooth and natural for the most part, but there are a few times, not many but definitely a few, where you can see the wheels turn, where you can tell it‘s an actor crafting an epic “performance”. Conversely, Massey is so thoroughly Lincolnesque that you are never aware he is acting at all. It’s like watching Abraham Lincoln black-and-white home movies. The 44-year-old actor plays Lincoln from age 23 all the way to age 52, and you buy every minute of it. In other words, Massey is Lincoln.
The other area where Massey outshines Day-Lewis isn’t really Day-Lewis’ fault. Rather, it’s merely a lucky break for Massey. It’s a question of looks. Massey is UGLY! And I mean really ugly. You know….like Abraham Lincoln. Conversely, Day-Lewis is a very good looking man. Remember a few years back when all the chicks flipped over him in “The Last Of The Mohicans”? Same guy. And he’s still a hunk. Spielberg did a good job of uglying him up for the Lincoln role, but it’s not the same as starting out ugly. That was Fonda’s problem when he played Lincoln. Too good looking. Plus Fonda’s voice sounded too much like, well, Fonda…..
I’ll give Day-Lewis credit for one thing. He did a great job of giving us a window into Lincoln’s personal shortcomings. His temper, his slapping his son in public, his compromising his principals once in awhile in order to ram a bill through Congress, etc. He does a great job demythologizing our most mythical historical character. So give him credit for that.
But in our so-called modern world, when analyzing greatness, people are always too quick to anoint the now over the then. Whether we’re talking about movies or music or sports or women or whatever. Old fashioned throwback that I am, I tend to take the opposite point of view. Old is usually more real, more natural, and better, than new. Especially with regard to motion pictures.
Anyway, make sure you see BOTH “Lincoln” and “Abe Lincoln In Illinois” before anointing Daniel Day-Lewis as either the greatest actor ever or the greatest Lincoln ever. Hell, you might wind up picking Day-Lewis anyway. Or you might wind up picking Massey, as I am doing right now. But either way, it’s close.
All I’m saying is that this isn’t the no contest Day-Lewis’ Oscar win was. This isn’t Las Vegas declaring “no line” for Crazy Horse vs. Custer at Little Big Horn. It’s not a slam dunk.
Brad Eastland, our “Dr. of Ancient Filmology”, is a movie buff and film historian, as long as the film was made before 1985 or so. (So if you want to hear about new-release films, ask somebody else.). Flashy special effects and gratuitous anything have no place in his celluloid world. Primarily a fiction writer, Brad has written four novels* and over 20 short-stories. Scroll through the link below to find some examples of his very best yarns, all of them taken from his “U.K. JOURNAL” collection:
*To pick up a copy of Brad’s modern-day ‘epic’ novel of life at the racetrack, WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for it (using the author’s full name, C. Bradford Eastland) on amazon.com, iUniverse.com, or bn.com….his most recent book, “L.A. JOURNAL”, is also available through amazon.com and bn.com.