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Will “Lincoln” Win the Oscar Vote?

November 23, 2012

Sometimes it takes a truly great actor to give a genuinely terrible performance. Before you start plotting to assassinate me for daring to question the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis, holster your weapons: I’m not talking about Lincoln. Yet. Before I weigh in on Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic, let me dispense with another movie I saw—one that’s being dispensed with itself. That’d be This Must Be the Place, once considered an Oscar contender for Best Actor, based solely, I’m guessing, on still pictures people must’ve seen of Sean Penn done up in Goth drag as a Robert Smith-like rock star who sets out on a journey across America to track down the Nazi war criminal who tortured his dad.

On paper, the movie had a lot of Academy Award signifiers going for it—the Holocaust, two-time Best Actor winner Sean Penn, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand as his (firefighter!) wife and the kind of physical transformation that tends to impress voters. So why did it get dumped into one downtown Manhattan theater by the Weinstein Co., which is betting on Silver Linings Playbook‘s undeserving Bradley Cooper for Best Actor instead? Maybe because This Must Be the Place is a terrible movie—and even more shockingly, Sean Penn is terrible in it.

Penn affects a high-pitched whisper of a voice that sounds like his performance as Harvey Milk on a 45 record slowed down to 33 1/3. Maybe something got lost in translation, but writer-director Paolo Sorrentino clearly didn’t have the meatballs to tell him to cut it out. Then again, even a great performance couldn’t have saved this ridiculous script, which depicts America as a land of grotesque oddballs obsessed with curios like the world’s largest pistachio. As if it’s possible for there to be a bigger nut than Sean Penn in this misbegotten movie.

Maybe Penn knew he didn’t have a shot at Best Actor this year anyway, since Daniel Day-Lewis might as well get his name engraved on it already. I’ve seen several of his major competitors for this year’s statuette—Denzel Washington in Flight, Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson—and as great as they are, they’re not in the same league as Mr. Lincoln. Day-Lewis vanishes into the character, and he’s a virtual shoo-in to win his third Oscar (sorry, Sean).

Even more impressive, his performance is matched in quality by Steven Spielberg’s surprisingly subtle direction—the literate, polished screenplay by Tony Kushner counteracts any possible sentimentality, just as his ruthlessly streamlined script for Munich did—and by a mind-blowingly good ensemble. First among equals are Tommy Lee Jones as radical Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens, James Spader as disheveled political operative W.N. Bilbo and Sally Field as the emotionally volatile Mary Todd Lincoln. But also worthy of recognition are any number of actors: David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook (himself an experienced Honest Abe impersonator), Jackie Earle Haley, Walton Goggins, David Costabile, Michael Stuhlbarg…the list goes on.

In fact, only one dark horse has a shot to take down Day-Lewis: His Lincoln costar John Hawkes could unseat him for the dark-horse candidate The Sessions. He depicts severe physical limitations as movingly as Day-Lewis did in My Left Foot. And if there’s anything Oscar loves more than an actor physically morphing into and indelibly embodying an iconic historical figure, it’s disabled characters. Still, I’m willing to bet my left foot that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln wins this election.

Will Oscar voters cast their ballots for Daniel Day-Lewis? Post a comment!

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