Over the 89-year history of the Oscars, seven actors have earned nominations for portraying real-life United States presidents. However, just one has taken home the Oscar. This year, Woody Harrelson could well contend for his transformation into the 36th Commander-in-Chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson in Rob Reiner‘s “LBJ.” Harrelson, a two-time Oscar-nominee for “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996) and “The Messenger” (2009), portrays the Texas politico at the height of his power, from his commanding position as Senate majority leader, through his selection as vice president to John F. Kennedy and his assumption of the presidency following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
The first actor to score an Oscar nomination for portraying a real-life U.S. president was Raymond Massey, recognized for his take on Abraham Lincoln in John Cromwell‘s screen adaptation of the Broadway play “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940). Massey, who had performed the role in the 1938 stage production, did not triumph on the big night, falling short to James Stewart (“The Philadelphia Story”).
Four years later, Alexander Knox contended for his work as Woodrow Wilson in Henry King‘s lavish biopic “Wilson” (1944). While the picture won five prizes, including Best Original Screenplay, Knox lost to Bing Crosby (“Going My Way”). Knox did, however, win a Golden Globe for his performance.
More than three decades later James Whitmore was recognized for his star turn as Harry S Truman in Steve Binder‘s “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” (1975). This videotaped version of Whitmore’s one-man performance of the stage show in Seattle holds the distinction of being one of only three films [alongside “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) and “Sleuth” (1972)] to garner Oscar nominations for the entire credited cast. Though Whitmore would go on to win a Grammy Award in Best Spoken Word Recording for this performance, he was bested by Jack Nicholson (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) at the Oscars.
In the 1990s, Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins landed two Oscar nominations for portraying U.S. presidents. First was his role as Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone‘s “Nixon” (1995). This was followed two years later by his portrayal of John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg‘s “Amistad” (1997). Hopkins did not, however, prevail on either occasion. Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”) scored the Best Actor prize in 1995, while Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting”) was victorious in Best Supporting Actor in 1997.
Frank Langella reprising his Tony Award-winning portrayal of the 37th U.S. president in Ron Howard‘s screen adaptation of the play “Frost/Nixon” (2008). Like Hopkins before, Langella was not victorious in Best Actor, losing the race to Sean Penn (“Milk”).
In 2012, an actor finally triumphed at the Oscars for portraying a U.S. president. For his work in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Lewis steamrolled through the awards season, picking up the Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA Award and Screen Actors Guild Award, among other trophies. This marked the actor’s record third Best Actor Oscar.
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