By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com August 24, 2012 at 12:22PM
With festival season getting underway in only a few short days, we're about to see which actors will gain traction for the awards season ahead of us. But there's at least one major performance that we won't know about for a few months yet (or until we see a trailer), and it's one that's probably been the presumptive front-runner ever since the film was announced: Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," the director's biopic of Civil War-winning President Abraham Lincoln, focusing on the last few months of his life before his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.
After all, it's one of the most lauded actors of modern times, who last won in 2007 for "There Will Be Blood," in the kind of transformative historical figure role that always pays dividends with Academy voters, and working for the first time with America's most beloved filmmaker, a two-time Best Director winner. Once Day-Lewis came on board, many assumed that they might as well start carving his name on the statue. But will that really be the case? Looking at history a little more closely, it becomes clear not only that Spielberg's not necessarily the Oscar favorite that he's made out to be, but also that a win for Day-Lewis would be unprecedented on a number of levels. So before people decide that it's already sewn up based on a poster that debuted this week, let's look at the stats. It's certainly true that Spielberg's films have been frequent visitors to the Academy. Twelve of his movies have been nominated for four or more awards, and three got more than ten.
But when he picked up Best Director for the second time, for "Saving Private Ryan," the film lost Best Picture to "Shakespeare In Love." And perhaps even more importantly, no Spielberg film has won an Oscar since. "Munich" got five nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, and "War Horse" got six, including Picture (but not director). But it's fifteen years since a film by the director actually picked up an Oscar. And perhaps more importantly, no actor or actress has ever won an Oscar for a performance in a Spielberg film.
There have been plenty of nominations: Melinda Dillon for "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind"; Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey for "The Color Purple"; Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes for "Schindler's List"; Anthony Hopkins for "Amistad"; Tom Hanks for "Saving Private Ryan" and Christopher Walken for "Catch Me If You Can." But none actually converted it for a win, and maybe it's because there were more deserving winners, or maybe it's because Academy voters have never quite shaken the view that Spielberg is a master technician first and foremost. But it's a fairly bleak precedent for Day-Lewis, as well as Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones, who are said to be the supporting players to keep an eye on, as Mary Todd Lincoln, William Seward and Thaddeus Grant respectively.
Furthermore, Day-Lewis also has another disadvantage. If he wins, he'd be the first performer in history to win three Best Actor Academy Awards. Jack Nicholson has two, plus a Best Supporting Actor prize for "Terms Of Endearment," and Walter Brennan has three Supporting Actor wins, for "Come And Get It," "Kentucky" and "The Westerner." If he wins for "Lincoln," he'd be essentially anointed as the greatest actor in Hollywood history. And given that it's only five years since his last victory (for a performance that would be the peak of most actors' careers), it may be that the Academy won't quite be ready to make that step, especially in a year that looks like it won't be lacking in strong competition -- Joaquin Phoenix, John Hawkes, Bill Murray, Hugh Jackman, Clint Eastwood and Denzel Washington all have serious potential, at least this far out.
None of this is to say that the film, and central performance won't be a major player. It's a match of source material, director and performer that happens once in a blue moon, and should be firmly in the Academy's wheelhouse, even if the movie disappoints -- certainly, when Spielberg has taken on subject matter like this, he's been rewarded in a big way. But if one is to look at the record books, it may have a trickier awards season fight on its hands than many have anticipated. We'll find out when the film opens on November 9th. But what do you think. Does DDL have the juice to take it all the way?
Let us know below and check out this week's Best Picture Chart on page two.