I want to start out this article with a spoiler alert. If you want to be surprised at who wins the Best Actor Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards do not read any further. For everyone else you can just mark down Daniel Day-Lewis on your Oscar pool ballot right now and know that you’ll get at least one category correct. Day-Lewis is not just a lock to land his third Best Actor award. He’s a promise. And deservedly so. Lincoln is the kind of tour de force that happens when the greatest actor of a generation takes on an iconic role like Abraham Lincoln and nails it.
The bigger question for me is whether anyone else could have tackled the role and been as successful. It isn’t that Lincoln has never been portrayed in film before. Walter Huston played Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s epic take on the 16th President of the United States in 1930 and playing the title role in 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln is considered by many as Henry Fonda’s breakout role.
But while Abraham Lincoln, as a character, has appeared in many productions since those early days in everything from the TV’s “The Simpsons” to this year’s disastrous feature Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, few portrayals have stood out since those early films. That all changes with Day-Lewis’ take on the great man.
I attended the press conference for the film a couple weeks back and asked director Stephen Spielberg if he could have even considered making his film without Day-Lewis, since at one point Liam Neeson was also attached to the film. Here was his response…
You’re a filmmaker who’s worked on certain films for years. After watching the movie I can’t imagine someone else playing this role, no knock on Liam Neeson. I read that at one point you were talking to him. Is there sometimes, a fortuitous time to make a film even though you’ve been working on it for many, many years.
SPIELBERG: Yes, and that’s not up to me. Whether it’s fortuitous is something you realize after you’re done. So, I think a lot of planets lined up in a good position, but that was out of my control, and that was not even on my mind at that the time. At that point I had just accepted the fact I would make Lincoln if Daniel decided to play him, and I would not make Lincoln had Daniel decided not to play him. It was as simple as that. It had gotten to that point with me.
My mention of Liam Neeson did get a later response from Day-Lewis, however.
DAY-LEWIS: I would love to say just something I feel I have to, because Liam is a friend of mine, and Liam was committed to Lincoln for a period of time working with Steven, and it was, you know, there came a moment when for reasons that —
SPIELBERG: We both decided —
DAY-LEWIS: — were clear to both of them —
DAY-LEWIS: — that Liam needed to do other things. Steven was going to do other things, but Liam, you know, for that period whilst Liam was committed to that project, of course, it wouldn’t haven’t occurred to me to consider it.
From the moment that Liam decided it was no longer something he would be engaged with he has been in touch with me about it since, and has given me incredible encouragement, in the most generous possible way. And [he] encouraged me when I was undecided about whether I should do it.
DAY-LEWIS: I should say that.
SPIELBERG: So, the timeline was simply — I approached Daniel first to play Lincoln. He turned me down. That was about eight, nine years ago. And then Liam and I had a very healthy flirt about possibly doing this together. Then we both decided to do other things. Then I came back to Daniel. So, that’s the timeline.
DAY-LEWIS: And I can say unequivocally that I know for a fact that Liam’s Lincoln would’ve been something I would’ve wished to see. Um, you know, these things are haphazard. You ask about timing. It worked out this way. It could easily have worked out the other way, and I think Liam would’ve been quite wonderful.
I understood why Day-Lewis felt he had to stand up for Neeson. They are friends and fellow actors. But I simply don’t believe the film would have the same buzz surrounding it had anyone else played the title role. Daniel Day-Lewis became Lincoln in a way I don’t believe Neeson could have matched, or anyone for that matter, which brings me to my question to you…
Can you think of any films in recent memory so tied to the lead actor that it would be almost inconceivable to see another actor in the role?