Oct 15, 2014

Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois


As with the third recipient of the Best Actor Academy Award, Raymond Massey too was an actor whose career-defining work came from playing a famed government leader. And in reference to Massey's performance as the legendary Abraham Lincoln, the New York Times exclaimed that "you will simply think of him as Lincoln, while you think of all the rest...as members of a notable troupe who have played their roles excellently." In my opinion, that's a rather futile proclamation, considering no onenot even New York Times reviewer Frank S. Nugentcould possibly know enough of what Lincoln was like to warrant the assertion of someone just being him...it's not as if we have YouTube videos of Lincoln dating back to 1860. If anything, we can only make base judgments on all film Lincolns based on how closely the actors look like Abe, the rest being up in the air for our own imaginative figurings. But in any case, Massey certainly does look the part, and despite being in a stifling film he still turns in some solid work.

Not long after Daniel Day-Lewis snatched up an Oscar (and several other accolades) for playing the same role and thereby raising the bar on what it means to be Lincoln, it might seem like a viewing of Abe Lincoln in Illinois would be a backpedal of sortsit's a fairly forgotten film starring a fairly forgotten actor, made during a time when films were sappy and biopics weren't yet a formulaic science in demonstrating how much (or well) an actor can act. Abe Lincoln in Illinois isn't a look at Lincoln's presidency but rather a look at his life before the presidency, thus we're forced to watch the 16th U.S. President dirt wrestle a town bully, blush and aww-shucks his way around a pretty girl, and chasing convict pigs. The movie wants to remind us that Lincoln was just like us before he became an extraordinary man, but where's the magic in watching a poor country boy with a heart of gold? There is no magic as I would find out, and because of that a solid 50% of Massey's performance never really registered with me as being anything more than average. He's a sweet "Christian gentleman", as Ann Rutledge would call him in the film, but by the halfway point Massey's self-deprecating jokes get a little old. Things don't really start kicking into gear until after he meets Ruth Gordon's Mary Todd, who'll prove to be the catalyst that lights not only his professional aspirations but his relaxed manners as well. Massey handles Lincoln's brief implosions in character quite well, demonstrating with effective restraint how even the most graceful and genial people can lose their cool at times. And his speechesthe House Divided speech and his final monologueare absorbing, commanding, and quite a contrast from the awkward and quiet Lincoln we're first shown. Massey seems very much in his element throughout these speeches, and only then did I ever feel as though he was really given the chance to transform into somebody else (it is alleged that Robert Todd Lincoln had seen Massey perform and was amazed by how similar Massey's speaking voice was to Abe's). Overall, this is a performance that at times I quite liked and at times I was underwhelmed by. Is Massey my quintessential Lincoln, the filmic representation that upholds what I imagine him to be like? No, not really...but it's a great impression and effort nevertheless.

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