For President’s Day, we’re going to call out our favorite portrayals of historical commanders in chief.
There’s no shortage of big name actors who have jumped at the chance to play the president. This week we’re going to select our favorite performances from films that played it by the (history) book. Here are our top picks for best performances from actors playing real presidents.
Next week we’ll get ahistorical as we round up our picks for great performances by actors playing fictional heads of state.
Best Movie Presidents – Historical.
Played by: Daniel Day Lewis.
The top spot on our list goes to multiple Academy Award winner Daniel Day Lewis. He took home his third Oscar for his turn as Abraham Lincoln in a biopic that focused on Lincoln and his fight to pass the 13th amendment and abolish slavery. While the film is a touch ponderous in its legal wranglings, Lewis shines as Lincoln, giving a somber and psychologically powerful portrayal to the war time president.
Played by: Frank Langella.
After the scandal of Watergate forces Nixon to resign the presidency, he agrees to a series of interviews with a British journalist and TV personality David Frost. Believing that Frost was a pushover, the Nixon team believed that they could use the interviews to rehabilitate Nixon’s image in the public mind and to make a ton of money in the process.What ends up happening is that Nixon’s cagey manipulation of the early interviews inspires Frost to nail him on Watergate, and a battle of wills ensues, perfectly brought to life by veteran actor Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost. Of the many fine actors to play Nixon, Langella gives the most nuanced and insightful performance, a multifaceted tour de force.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Played by: Woody Harrelson.
Sadly overlook this year for many awards programs, L.B.J. is a must see film due to the powerhouse performance from Harrelson. Much like Lincoln, the drama is minutely focused on the passage of key legislation, this time the Equal Rights Act.While it does cover the weeks leading up to JFK’s assassination, the real meat of the drama is the internal struggles of Johnson, an oversized character haunted by a need to be admired. Harrelson gives us a terrific turn as Johnson, living up to his bombastic nature while also revealing his inner life. The Academy may have looked the other way, but I think its one of the best films of the year.
John Quincy Adams
Played by: Anthony Hopkins.
Hopkins narrowly missed making the list twice, thanks to his performance as Richard Nixon in the aptly titled Nixon being edged out by Frank Langella’s take on the disgraced politician. In Amistad, he gives a grandiloquent turn as the often irascible John Quincy Adams, now retired from the presidency. His council helps to move forward a legal case involving a group of African men who were taken as slaves and brutalized upon a Spanish ship before carrying off a successful mutiny.Instead of sailing to freedom, they are caught by a US warship and tried in court where they face either being sent back to Spain as slaves or executed as mutineers. Adams gives an impassioned speech in the supreme court for their freedom, allowing Hopkins to do what he does best – give an oration that will make the hairs on your neck stand up.
Hyde Park on Hudson
Played by: Bill Murray.
Hyde Park on Hudson is not a great movie, but the movie doesn’t have to be astonishing to allow a good actor to sink his teeth into a role. Here Bill Murray gets so deep into character that you’d hardly believe it’s the same ghost busting, groundhog hating, Christmas botching funny man. His mannerisms, diction and overall bearing feel lifted from old footage of FDR, giving us a surprisingly astute impersonation of the first multi-media president.