The Academy Awards are next month, and since yesterday was President’s Day, I thought it might be fun to explore Hollywood’s Golden Age to see who earned Oscar nods for playing a chief executive. Remember, last year was the initial instance an actor won a statuette as a commander-in-chief; Daniel Day Lewis in the title role of Lincoln. Bill Murray also received consideration as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson. Other recent accolades include Frank Langella’s turn in 2008 in Frost/Nixon; a 1997 nomination for Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad; and James Whitmore in a one man tour-de-force in 1975 as Truman in Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! Paul Giamatti additionally earned an Emmy for his performance as John Adams; as well as, Tony recognition in 1972 for William Daniels (also as John Adams) in 1776.
Only two actors offered Oscar-worthy performances during the Studio Era. Raymond Massey was one of 124 actors who has portrayed Abraham Lincoln, and the first recognized by the film academy. Four years later, Alexander Knox appeared in the title role in Wilson, produced by 20th Century Fox.And, Peter Sellers captured a nomination in 1964 as a fictional president, one of his three parts in Dr. Strangelove.
1940 was a complicated year in the selection of Best Actor. The year before, James Stewart and Clark Gable were heavy favorites for their roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind. Plus, Laurence Olivier was a stylish choice in Wuthering Heights. Henry Fonda was aced out of any chance for Oscar consideration when he played Honest Abe during Hollywood’s greatest year. The winner was Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips. The following season, voters at the Academy were determined to correct this surprising decision. Stewart and Olivier received a nomination. But, The Philadelphia Story co-star (Stewart) campaigned for Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. Massey hoped for just an Oscar nod. The result… James Stewart took home a statuette in essentially a supporting role. Later in his fine career, Fonda played unnamed presidents in Fail-Safe and Meteor; and the son of Theodore Roosevelt in The Longest Day.
Wilson was a sweeping 1944 bio-pic that Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to bring to the screen. Woodrow Wilson’s story included a wife who died while he was in office, the Great War, and an eventual stroke by the lead character. The story had all the makings of a bonafide classic. But, Zanuck hated the completed production, and instructed all who worked at Fox to ignore the five nominations by the Academy, or risk termination. His decree worked… Alexander Knox lost to Bing Crosby in Going My Way.
By the way, two actors who I’ve written about in Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History have been presidents in movies; Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Jackson in Lone Star, which starred Clark Gable and Ave Gardner; and Van Heflin in Tennessee Johnson, when the actor headlined as the chief executive who succeeded Lincoln in the White House. Barrymore also appeared in the latter film as Andrew Johnson’s nemesis, Thaddeus Stevens.
One thespian who should have received award consideration was Ralph Bellamy, also playing FDR in Sunrise at Campobello. But, the adapted stage play takes place just as Roosevelt contracted polio. It ends just after Franklin placed in nomination New York Governor Al Smith as the Democratic standard-bearer for president during the 1920 campaign. Smith would go on to lose the election to Warren Harding, a chief exec who has NEVER been portrayed on celluloid.
And, so it goes...
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Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History and Son of Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History shares America's story through the eyes of actors from Hollywood's Golden Age.
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