Abraham Lincoln is ready for his close-up. After years of starts and stops, and the coming and going of leading man Liam Neeson, who recently admitted that he probably is now too old for the part, director Steven Spielberg finally will bring Lincoln to the big screen. Daniel Day-Lewis has just signed up to take on the role of the 16th U.S. president, and his Englishness aside, I can’t think of an actor with the look, the temperament, the chronological years (53), and the skill to better capture the essence of Lincoln during the Civil War era. (Let’s just hope the famously Method actor doesn’t start a civil war on set to help him stay in character.)
The big question is what took so long to bring one of the greatest stories ever told to the screen? Meanwhile, that other presidential legend, father of his country George Washington, is still waiting for a splashy biopic to call his own (Note to potential producers: Focus on his Revolutionary War years, which were far more exciting than his two-term presidency), as are so many of his 42 successors.
British monarchs have been monopolizing the big screen for years, earning the actors who portray them numerous Academy Award nominations (next in line: Colin Firth as George VI in The King’s Speech). Hollywood stars are forever wooing U.S. presidents, trying to influence public policy, while countless films feature fictional presidents. So why aren’t there more major theatrical releases about the country’s real-life Commanders-in-Chief? I suspect that many filmmakers might be wary of being branded too liberal or too conservative (which is far less likely when dealing with long-dead monarchs or figureheads like Elizabeth II), but what about telling a great presidential story without a glaring political agenda, and letting public opinion fall where it may?
Sure some presidents have gotten shots at onscreen glory. Anthony Hopkins was Oscar-nominated for playing both John Quincy Adams (post-presidency, in 1997’s Amistad, also directed by Spielberg) and Richard Nixon (in 1995’s Nixon, directed by Oliver Stone), so was James Whitmore as Harry S. Truman in the 1975 one-man play-turned-film Give ’em Hell, Harry!, and most recently, Frank Langella got the nod for his own take on the 37th president in Frost/Nixon. Every black actor of a certain age will no doubt be angling to play Barack Obama in the biopic that will no doubt go into production as soon as he exits office (if it hasn’t already), but unlike British monarchs, the role of a U.S. President doesn’t come with a virtual Oscar guarantee.
Nick Nolte had little commercial or critical impact as the third president in the 1995 Merchant-Ivory production Jefferson in Paris, as did John Travolta and Dennis Quaid as, respectively, fictional and non-fictional versions of Bill Clinton in, respectively, Primary Colors (1998) and The Special Relationship (2010). And since George W. Bush is still around to entertain and horrify us, Josh Brolin as Dubya in 2008’s W., probably never stood a chance of being much more than a modest success. Perhaps W. director Oliver Stone’s straight-biopic approach was all wrong: I’d camp out overnight for a shot at tickets to Dubya vs. Kanye: The Musical.
John Adams, the second U.S. President, had to settle for HBO (where, with Emmy winners Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his wife Abigail, he still triumphed more than he ever did as president), as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who brought the U.S. through The Great Depression and most of World War II, in Warm Springs. Ronald Reagan also got the HB0 treatment, in the 2003 miniseries The Reagans, and the 40th president reportedly will get a $30 million biopic in 2011, but casting has yet to be announced. Hopefully, he’ll play a bigger role than John F. Kennedy did when he made it to the big-screen in 1991’s JFK (directed, again, by Oliver Stone), and appeared, for the most part, in name only.
The 35th president surely once again will be relegated to the sidelines in the just-announced Legacy of Secrecy, an upcoming drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an FBI informant investigating the JFK assassination. Will we have to wait for the upcoming Jackie Kennedy Onassis biopic to get JFK as more than a spectre? It was supposed to star Rachel Weisz, and Darren Aronofsky was set to direct, but now that they are no longer a couple, God knows how long it will spend languishing in development hell.
Now I’m not saying that Chester Alan Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes are deserving of the big-screen, big-budget treatment, but The Passion of James Buchanan (our only bachelor president, who most likely was gay) might make for 90 minutes of riveting cinema. Andrew Jackson’s soap operatic story (which featured sickness and health, duels and death, drunkenness and alleged adultery) was brought to the screen in 1953, with Charlton Heston as the 7th president, and is practically begging for an update. Then there is our little-remembered 14th president, Franklin Pierce, an enigmatic historical figure who led the country during some of the most pivotal — and bloodiest — pre-Civil War years.
Pierce was handsome, alcoholic and racist, and he lost all three of his sons before they reached their teens. The youngest of them was killed in a railroad accident in front of Pierce and his wife, Jane, months before Pierce took office in 1853, creating a Grand Canyon-size rift between the soon-to-be U.S. president and First Lady. This stuff is pure dramatic gold. If Johnny Depp is looking for a role to finally win him an Oscar (I’d cast Lisa Kudrow as his bitter, broken better half), Pierce, one of our great loser presidents, just could be his winning ticket.