If you think the Presidential election ends today, think again.
Although America will cast its vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney today, the other campaign that really matters is for the Oscar, and there’s a strong Presidential flavor brewing. That’s true particularly in the Best Actor race, where one of the early frontrunners, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (to be released Friday), could find himself squaring off against Bill Murray playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park On Hudson (12/7). And yet another President, Jimmy Carter, could have a positive impact on the tight Best Picture race. Or in a less direct way, maybe even on Barack Obama himself.
Scores of actors have played Presidents over the course of cinema history, but few have scored at the Oscars with those portrayals. In fact, no one has managed to win an Oscar for actually playing a President — real or fictional. (This year, campaigners for Day-Lewis and Murray are determined to change that fact.) Even nominations for actors playing real Presidents have been hard to come by: Richard Nixon provided the best opportunity winning a Lead Actor nomination for Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), and for Frank Langella in 2008’s Frost/Nixon. Hopkins also got a supporting nomination in 1997 as John Quincy Adams in Amistad.
The first actor nominated for playing the Chief Executive was Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln In Illinois (1940), then Alexander Knox in 1944’s story of President Woodrow Wilson, Wilson. And James Whitmore pulled off a nod in 1975 for the filmed version of his one-man stage show about Harry S. Truman, Give ‘Em Hell Harry. John Travolta played Jack Stanton, a thinly veiled Bill Clinton in Primary Colors (1998), and James Brolin did an uncanny George W. Bush in Stone’s W (2008), the only film to be made directly about a President while they were in office (1963’s PT 109 was about then-President JFK’s wartime exploits, not his presidency). None managed to snag an Oscar nod for their efforts despite campaigns on their behalf.
So even though Hollywood is very involved in real-life Presidential politics, it doesn’t pay off to actually play a President when it comes to their own uber-important campaign season. Until this year that is? Two-time Oscar winner Day-Lewis is winning high praise for his remarkable take on Lincoln in the final months of his life as he tried to get the anti-slavery 13th Amendment through Congress. And Murray surprised festgoers in Telluride and Toronto with his unexpected turn as Roosevelt in Hyde Park, a movie about the unusual relationship between Roosevelt and his distant cousin played by Laura Linney and set during a 1939 visit to the U.S. by the King and Queen of England. These kinds of roles are ready-made to impress Oscar voters since the historical figures they are playing are so iconic. In Murray’s case, playing against his own comedic image can also be a plus. Even he didn’t initially see himself as Roosevelt. “I don’t think I ever thought of myself as FDR. I was a little surprised to be asked”, he told me when we spoke at the Toronto Film Festival. “I thought they were reaching here, maybe, but then I read the script and thought. ‘You know, I can do this!’ “
Come January 10th, when Oscar nominations are announced, we will find out if a new Presidential election will be taking place at the Dolby Theatre, the first opportunity ever to see two actors playing real-life Presidents squaring off against each other at the Academy Awards.
In another Presidential twist to this year’s race, President Jimmy Carter himself turns up at the end of Ben Affleck’s commercial and critical Oscar-buzzed hit Argo. In a way it is sweet revenge for Carter, who lost his bid for a second term (ironically to former actor Ronald Reagan) in no small part due to the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran the film depicts. Of course the heart of Argo is about the successful attempt to fake a movie production in order to get six Americans hiding at the Canadian Embassy safely out of the country without the radical Iranian government detecting them. The CIA mission was top secret and never talked about until it was declassified in 1997. Affleck was able to get Carter to agree to talk about it for the film and that audio interview is heard at the end credits (a video version will be on the DVD).
“There’s a kind of irony in the movie. He’s funny and self-deprecating and as he says at the end of the movie, ‘I wish I had been able to take credit for some of this stuff’. It probably would have helped but his presidency was kind of run aground by the larger hostage crisis and the Kennedy primary challenge was very damaging,” Affleck told me. “I didn’t put his photo on there because at the end I didn’t want it to be ‘and it’s really about Jimmy Carter and a referendum on the Carter Presidency’, but I love the fact that you get the President of the United States from that time to say, ‘Yes, this story is true’ “.
Having the credibility of a President validating a stranger-than-fiction story like Argo can only help it as it continues in the race for the top Oscar. On another front, there is no evidence, yet maybe some controversy, regarding Oscar-winning filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s top-secret Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden — a film that was in the works even as the real bin Laden was captured and killed. The script obviously had to be updated at that point. Obama is reportedly not a character in the film but may figure in some way. Whether the Presidential connection has any impact on its Best Picture prospects when Sony releases the film December 19th remains to be seen, but clearly this Oscar season is a big one for American Presidents and their impact on the contenders.
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