Tag Archives: Young Mr. Lincoln

An Honest Review of Abraham Lincoln Portrayals

by Rick Bretz

A recent viewing of Raymond Massey’s portrayal of Abraham Lincoln brought on a recollection of the actors trying their craft being Lincoln on the screen.  Many actors have attempted to flood the screen with the essence and character of our sixteenth President of the United States.  Three films stand out for capturing Lincoln’s personality on film.

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Raymond Massey, a Canadian actor, in the movie “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and released in 1940,  shows the young politician’s ability to relate to people from every social and financial status.  Massey’s Lincoln tones down the ambitious side of the rising potential of the young lawyer in favor of his agreeable nature and storytelling expertise. He’s almost the reluctant politician in this movie.

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The death of his first love interest, Ann Rutledge, is an important part of the movie and makes the audience aware of how important an event the death had on him for the rest of his life.

The selection of a young actress Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd Lincoln is perfect.  She realizes the young Lincoln will go places and understands him from the beginning.  Gordon gives the audience and idea of how the relationship between the two must have been and how Lincoln handled his equally ambitious wife. Massey’s voice is deeper than Lincoln’s from what historians have written, but the actor’s gangling frame gives the movie audience a sense of how he moved and how coordinated he was socially and physically. The movie ends after Lincoln is elected President as he and his family boards the train to Washington, DC, to begin the long, stressful work dealing with a rebellious south and a civil war.

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Another movie has Henry Fonda showing us how effective a public speaker and lawyer Lincoln was during his travels in Illinois as an attorney.

Henry Fonda's Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln“, released in 1939, has Lincoln defending two suspects accused of murder.  It also introduces Ann Rutledge and Mary Todd as his love interest and future wife but the story centers on Fonda’s playing Lincoln in the courtroom. It seems when producing a movie about Lincoln it is mandatory to show his storytelling skills.  This movie is no exception but this movie also demonstrates his ability as a critical thinker and in the courtroom while cross examining witnesses on the stand.  Fonda captures Lincoln’s affable personality while also giving us a hint of his ambitious nature.  Fonda’s Lincoln has more confidence and the feeling that he is destined for great things and that he is in control of his surroundings.

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The third and recent version of Lincoln is performed by Daniel Day-Lewis as “Lincoln“, released in 2012.

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Day-Lewis, from what historians gather, has Lincoln’s voice close to the real Lincoln pitch.  He gives a performance showing a worn down Lincoln, after shouldering the responsibility of a long civil war, and enduring the grief of losing two of his children.  Day-Lewis shows Lincoln managing the many personalities of his cabinet as well as anger and other emotions that come with being the President of the United States.

Daniel Day-Lewis said of playing Lincoln, “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. And that’s, I think, probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people that take the time to discover him… I wish he had stayed (with me) forever.”

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The three movies show the many facets of Lincoln’s personality and ability to relate to people. It’s daunting task to take on a role from history’s greatest figures.  If you overplay it or make a mistake in the acting, then it misses the mark or worse, you can look foolish on screen.  The actors hit the mark.

 

Honorable Mention:

Walter Houston-Abraham Lincoln-1930

 

Notable Links:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/abraham-lincoln/

http://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-0400631

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/will-the-real-abraham-lincoln-please-stand-up-3431/

Eight Great Presidential Performances

By Rick Bretz

In recognition of the inauguration this week, I have listed what I consider the best presidential portrayals on film and the small screen.  My criteria are simple.  Did the actor capture the spirit of the President’s personality?  And, was I able to watch the presentation without being aware that someone was trying too hard to play that particular president? Most of the performances on this list present a narrow window in a President’s life.  The more difficult portrayals involve playing the person over a lifetime.  A good example of this is Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of John Adams and Barry Bostwick’s performance in the George Washington miniseries. Below is the actor followed by the President portrayed and then the  film or television title.

1.  Kenneth Branagh-Franklin Delano Roosevelt-Warm Springs

I was skeptical before making time to see this show that the actor could pull it off.  I was wrong.  Kenneth Branagh captured the force of Roosevelt’s personality and his physical and emotional fight with the crippling polio disease.  He also does a great job of relating to the people who have the same disease while rehabilitating at Warm Springs.  His supporting cast is terrific and he shows us why Roosevelt related to so many people.

2.  Daniel Day Lewis-Abraham-Lincoln-Lincoln

Enough has been written about Lewis’ choice concerning how Lincoln sounds when he speaks compared to other portrayals. If you watch Henry Fonda’s “Young Mr. Lincoln”,  the voice pitch comes close to what Lewis used in Lincoln.  What cannot be disputed is that he does capture Lincoln’s modest confidence and his sharp political mind.

3.  Paul Giamatti-John Adams-Johns Adams

 Paul Giamatti captures Adams from all directions.  He is spot on in his portrayal in many aspects.  His love for his wife Abigail, his mercurial temper, his difficult personality, his love for his family, his ego, and most of all, his sense of duty, fairness, and love for his country. Giamatti’s choices show the president from all sides while weaving his multi-layered personality into the presentation of Adams. He also plays him as he ages from a young man to his death which is difficult to accomplish.

4.  Frank Langella-Richard M. Nixon-Frost/Nixon

 Langella’s acting puts a human face on Richard Nixon in this Ron Howard directed film.  He sparred with David Frost through a majority of the movie and showed Nixon’s toughness, intellect, political savvy and his personality weaknesses.  This performance is remarkable because it keeps the audience interested despite knowing the outcome.  It explains history without getting into the minute details so the audience’s eyes don’t glaze over like sitting in 9th grade history class memorizing dates.

 5.  Jeff Daniels-George Washington-The Crossing

 Jeff Daniels does a terrific job showing people what it must have been like serving under George Washington.  Daniels gives us a performance that shows Washington cool under fire, a master at finding quality people to serve under him and how to manage them, and how to get soldiers to fight for him in the most extreme circumstances. Daniels as Washington shows the General as calm leader looking to find answers instead of assessing blame.

6.  Anthony Hopkins-John Quincy Adams-Amistad

 My favorite scene in this movie is when Adams is supposedly sleeping during a congressional session.  Then the speaker asks him to comment on the previous discussion. Adams speaks up immediately repeating the last exchange and giving his own caustic opinion about the matter and the current session itself.  Hopkins is a master at losing himself in roles and this is one.  His other Presidential portrayal of Richard Nixon is good as well but this one is fascinating especially with the final summation in court at the end.

7.  Randy Quaid, Lyndon B. Johnson, LBJ; The Early Years

 Randy Quaid shows Lyndon Johnson with his loud voice, over-the–top personality and his energy to accomplish his own goals and fix what needs to be fixed.  This is another performance that shows the actor aging through several years from a young man to his days in congress.  Quaid gives an outstanding performance showing how Johnson dealt with people and how Johnson used his force of personality to get his legislation passed when he was a leader in congress.

8.  Henry Fonda-Abraham Lincoln-Young Mr. Lincoln

This movie was released in 1939 and it shows a young Henry Fonda at his best. Fonda gives us the Lincoln personality in the salad days of his lawyer career.  He takes on a case early in the movie that everyone believes is a lost cause.  Throughout the movie, Fonda shows the audience the Lincoln wit and his art for storytelling.  He shows us why Lincoln became President while  using his political savvy and intelligence.  Fonda’s acting also shows us an underlying sadness to his personality and an innate understanding he might be destined for great things.

Those are my favorites.  Do you agree? Leave a comment?

 More great characterizations:

David Morse-George Washington-John Adams; Edward Herrmann-Franklin Delano Roosevelt-Eleanor and Franklin; Barry Bostwick-George Washington- George Washington (The Mini-Series);  Bill Murray-Franklin Delano Roosevelt-Hyde Park on the Hudson; Gary Sinise-Harry S. Truman-Truman;  James Whitmore-Harry S. Truman-Give ‘Em Hell Harry; Raymond Massey-Abraham Lincoln-Abe Lincoln in Illinois; Brian Keith-Teddy Roosevelt-The Wind and the Lion