Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Look at Lincoln at the Academy Awards

Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln
On this day in history, the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln was born. While most presidents come and go without much fanfare, Lincoln continues to remain an iconic and inspiring figure not only in politics, but in pop culture. On what would have been his 206th birthday, it is important to account for his influence to the United States and its growing tolerance. He was even depicted in cinema's first blockbuster The Birth of a Nation a century ago and has only become more prevalent as the Oscars have become the standard for cinema. The following is a list of Oscar nominated, and some winning, films that have depicted the man in some capacity.

*NOTE: This list will only include Academy Award nominations that directly apply to Lincoln. This includes any acting performance or script and not any movie that features a subsidiary performance receiving a nomination instead of Lincoln's.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Performer: Henry Fonda
Oscar Nominations: 1
- Best Original Screenplay (Lamar Trotti)

The first depiction of Abraham Lincoln to receive an Oscar nomination came from this John Ford film that depicts his early years before rising to presidency. The story follows his rise as a lawyer and early romance with Mary Todd, who would later become his wife. 

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)

Performer: Raymond Massey
Oscar Nominations: 2
- Best Actor (Massey)
- Best Cinematography

The first depiction of Lincoln to receive an acting nomination. This performance, while forgotten compared to the other entries, also focused on the young man's life prior to his presidency. This story follows his life growing up in Illinois as he helps his neighbors and campaigns. The story ends with him departing for Washington D.C. to become president.

The Face of Lincoln (1956)

Performer: None
Oscar Wins: 1
- Best Short Subject (Two-reel)
Oscar Nominations: 1
- Best Documentary (Short Subject)

The first Oscar win for something inspired by Lincoln and the only short subject documentary to make this list. This long forgotten winner (which can be seen on Youtube here) focuses on how the iconic president's face has changed and evolved over the years as based on a lecture by Proffessor Merrell Gage. Using clay, he explores the evolution in a fascinating 20 minute special based around this figure.

How the West Was Won (1962)

Performer: Raymond Massey
Oscar Wins: 3
- Best Original Screenplay (James R. Webb)
- Best Sound
- Best Film Editing
Oscar Nominations: 5
- Best Picture
- Best Cinematography (Color)
- Best Art Decoration/Set Decoration (Color)
- Best Costume Design (Color)
- Best Original Score (Alfred Newman, Ken Darby)

The first depiction of Lincoln to be featured in a Best Picture nominee. It also features the second appearance on this list of Raymond Massey in an epic western that features the best of the best actors such as James Stewart, John Wayne and Gregory Peck; and directors (second appearance on this list by John Ford, who co-directed) such as Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. The story followed a family over several decades and spanned everything over several decades and included the Civil War and building of the railroads. Lincoln has a small role in the film.

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

Performer: John Anderson
Oscar Wins: 1
- Best Supporting Actor (Walter Mathau)
Oscar Nominations: 3
- Best Original Screenplay (Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond)
- Best Cinematography
- Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Black and White)

This Billy Wilder romantic comedy featured the insatiable duo of Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon, the former of whom won. This film focused on a lawyer trying to get his brother-in-law to fake an injury to get a lot of money. While the movie is beloved for its lead duo's chemistry, the film also featured a small and uncredited cameo of Lincoln.

Lincoln (2012)

Performer: Daniel Day Lewis
Oscar Wins: 2
- Best Actor: Lewis
- Best Production Design
Oscar Nominations: 10
- Best Picture
- Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones)
- Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field)
- Best Director (Steven Spielberg)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner)
- Best Film Editing
- Best Costume Design
- Best Original Score (John Williams)
- Best Sound Mixing

What is more impressive is that despite being far from the first depiction of Abraham Lincoln, it is the first time that an actor has won for his depiction of the iconic figure. It is also the film with the most Oscar nominations, barely beating out How the West Was Won. This biopic that focused on the legalities and troubles of Lincoln's life proved to be what the Academy was looking for with what is considered to be one of the best depictions of one of the most influential presidents in history. 

While he has some other depictions that didn't make the cut, it is amazing to note that after 206 years, he remains such an iconic figure who impacts our daily lives with appearances on currency and in our cinema. While there have been some exaggerated performances (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure), his influence remains strong. Here's to an excellent president and may he continue to be represented in cinema for many decades to come.

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