Questions for the Audience

Daniel Day-Lewis is Lincoln: What Other Films Benefit or Needed a Certain Actor?

Spielberg says he wouldn't have tackled his dream film without the British actor's involvement

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Photo: Dreamworks Pictures

I want to start out this article with a spoiler alert. If you want to be surprised at who wins the Best Actor Oscar at this year's Academy Awards do not read any further. For everyone else you can just mark down Daniel Day-Lewis on your Oscar pool ballot right now and know that you'll get at least one category correct. Day-Lewis is not just a lock to land his third Best Actor award. He's a promise. And deservedly so. Lincoln is the kind of tour de force that happens when the greatest actor of a generation takes on an iconic role like Abraham Lincoln and nails it.

The bigger question for me is whether anyone else could have tackled the role and been as successful. It isn't that Lincoln has never been portrayed in film before. Walter Huston played Lincoln in D.W. Griffith's epic take on the 16th President of the United States in 1930 and playing the title role in 1939's Young Mr. Lincoln is considered by many as Henry Fonda's breakout role.

But while Abraham Lincoln, as a character, has appeared in many productions since those early days in everything from the TV's "The Simpsons" to this year's disastrous feature Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, few portrayals have stood out since those early films. That all changes with Day-Lewis' take on the great man.

I attended the press conference for the film a couple weeks back and asked director Stephen Spielberg if he could have even considered making his film without Day-Lewis, since at one point Liam Neeson was also attached to the film. Here was his response...

You're a filmmaker who's worked on certain films for years. After watching the movie I can't imagine someone else playing this role, no knock on Liam Neeson. I read that at one point you were talking to him. Is there sometimes, a fortuitous time to make a film even though you've been working on it for many, many years.

SPIELBERG: Yes, and that's not up to me. Whether it's fortuitous is something you realize after you're done. So, I think a lot of planets lined up in a good position, but that was out of my control, and that was not even on my mind at that the time. At that point I had just accepted the fact I would make Lincoln if Daniel decided to play him, and I would not make Lincoln had Daniel decided not to play him. It was as simple as that. It had gotten to that point with me.

My mention of Liam Neeson did get a later response from Day-Lewis, however.

DAY-LEWIS: I would love to say just something I feel I have to, because Liam is a friend of mine, and Liam was committed to Lincoln for a period of time working with Steven, and it was, you know, there came a moment when for reasons that --

SPIELBERG: We both decided --

DAY-LEWIS: -- were clear to both of them --


DAY-LEWIS: -- that Liam needed to do other things. Steven was going to do other things, but Liam, you know, for that period whilst Liam was committed to that project, of course, it wouldn't haven't occurred to me to consider it.

From the moment that Liam decided it was no longer something he would be engaged with he has been in touch with me about it since, and has given me incredible encouragement, in the most generous possible way. And [he] encouraged me when I was undecided about whether I should do it.


DAY-LEWIS: I should say that.

SPIELBERG: So, the timeline was simply -- I approached Daniel first to play Lincoln. He turned me down. That was about eight, nine years ago. And then Liam and I had a very healthy flirt about possibly doing this together. Then we both decided to do other things. Then I came back to Daniel. So, that's the timeline.

DAY-LEWIS: And I can say unequivocally that I know for a fact that Liam's Lincoln would've been something I would've wished to see. Um, you know, these things are haphazard. You ask about timing. It worked out this way. It could easily have worked out the other way, and I think Liam would've been quite wonderful.

I understood why Day-Lewis felt he had to stand up for Neeson. They are friends and fellow actors. But I simply don't believe the film would have the same buzz surrounding it had anyone else played the title role. Daniel Day-Lewis became Lincoln in a way I don't believe Neeson could have matched, or anyone for that matter, which brings me to my question to you...

Can you think of any films in recent memory so tied to the lead actor that it would be almost inconceivable to see another actor in the role?

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  • Cosmin

    - Peter O'Toole = Lawrence of Arabia
    - Clint Eastwood = Unforgiven
    - Robert de Niro = Taxi Driver

    • jo

      Many of the comments focused on performances by actors who played fictional characters. What Day-Lewis accomplished was to bring an historical giant to life in such a way that the movie seemed almost like a documentary ressurected from some early, previously unknown technology that actually filmed Lincoln in life. It was so extraordiinary that this performance will not only win an Oscar but will be listed as one of the greatest performances ever filmed.

      • Veronica Rodriguez

        Gary Oldman in, well, everything he does. If we are just focussing on historical characters then I have to highlight his portrayal of: Sid Vicious (Sid & Nancy), Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears), Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK), Beethoven (Immortal Beloved).

        Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose

        Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in THE DOORS

        Meryl Streep as Julia Childs (Julie & Julia) and Margaret Tatcher (The Iron Lady).

        Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues

        Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Capote

        That's just off the top of my head

  • Ron

    Heath Ledger as The Joker, or doesn't that really count as lead actor? The role is very tied to the actor atleast. Can't think of any other at the moment.

  • Jack

    Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Same with Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think Phoenix deserves to win the Oscar this year, one of the best performances in years. I honestly couldn't imagine Renner as Freddie. Great actor, but it's Phoenix's baby. Hoffman was always supposed to play Dodd, but it was a role he was born to play.

  • Ron Oneal Fresh

    Sellers - Dr. Strangelove
    Brando - The Godfather
    Pacino - The Godfather films
    De Niro - Raging Bull
    Nicholson - The Shinning, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest

    Schwarzenegger - Terminator films
    Serkis - Lord of the Rings films

    I willing to bet that DDL won't win. He was very good in Lincoln but he didn't exactly chew up scenery. I think (as a internet commentator) that's what the Academy goes for when choosing Best Actor. I could be wrong.

  • Luire

    I think the film would have had plenty of buzz (as it did!) with Liam too. At some point Day Lewis clearly became Spielberg's vision.

  • Ron Oneal Fresh

    Phoenix had the best performance I've seen this year.

    • G-Man

      You should check out Lincoln

  • cary

    Johnny Depp - Jack Sparrow (But I truly hope that he'd stop playing this role.)
    Robert Downey Jr.- Tony Stark / Iron Man (Basically, he plays himself. Who can play RDJ better than RDJ?)
    Christian Bale - Patrick Bateman, American Psycho

    • goodfella676

      love Bale in American Psycho, amazing performance

  • murtada

    I think last year Viola Davis elevated The Help with her performance and made that film so much better than it had any right to be. She imbued the role with calm dignity, weary resignation and ultimately steely resolve and anger making the movie about her character, whether the filmmakers intended that or not.

  • Nick

    Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa. I firmly believe Tarantino when he says he wouldn't have done the film if he hadn't found an actor for the part.

    Also, no matter my opinion of the movies themselves, I have to admit that Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. owned Jack Sparrow and Tony Stark respectively to such an extent it's impossible to separate them from the characters now. Of course, the first film in both franchises is the best example - the characters were at their most unexpected and layered at that point, and I still believe that Jack Sparrow in "Curse of the Black Pearl" is the best, most inspired original movie character of the 2000's.

  • adu

    Brad, not considering predictions, do you think DDL brought more to the table than Joaquin Phenix did in The Master? Just curious about your opinion.

  • G-Man

    Will mention some others have mentioned:

    Heath Ledger - The Joker
    Jack Nicholson - The Shining
    Joe Pesci - My Cousin Vinny

  • Andrés

    Daniel Day-Lewis in "There will be blood" and Jeff Bridges as the Dude in "The Big Lebowski".

  • Randall P McMurphy

    Kevin Spacey in American Beauty
    Joseph-Gordon Levitt in Mysterious Skin
    Jack Nicholson in The Shining
    Al Pacino in Carlito's Way
    Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver
    Charlize Theron in Monster
    Mel Gibson in Braveheart
    Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet
    Nicolas Cage in Adaptation
    Edward Norton in American History X

    those are pretty much my favorite performances of all time, I don't believe any of those films would be as great without them.

  • Arjuna

    I dont know for me I find that most performances that one best actor are hard to picture someone else in the role....Hoffman in Rain Man or De Niro in Raging Bull or even lesser wins like Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

    • Arjuna


      and i think that once you've seen a performance it leaves an indelible mark in many of the cases where the actor won an oscar for it and it becomes hard to picture someone else, I'm sure many others could of played Anton Chigurh because he's a great character but once you've seen Bardem its hard to imagine anyone else but it doesn't mean that the film couldn't of worked without him it means someone else would of left that mark if it turned out good

  • David Baker

    Marion Cotillard-La Vie en Rose (although this is in relation to mostly American/British actors that I know, of course, so I'm sure there were some others qualified for the role who were actually French as well; nonetheless, a remarkable performance, as almost every role she portrays is.)

    • RagingTaxiDriver

      It looks like other people already had the same thoughts as I did on De Niro with Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

      • RagingTaxiDriver

        Didn't mean to make this post as a reply.

  • jacklaughing

    In addition to many of these mentions:
    Brad Pitt in Fight Club.
    Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars
    John Travolta in Pulp Fiction
    Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs
    Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks
    Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet
    Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange
    Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces
    Anthony Perkins in Psycho
    Cary Grant in North by Northwest
    James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
    Betty Davis in All About Eve

    I could go on for hours.

    • matto

      It's funny that you mention John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, DDL wanted the role of Vincent Vega.

  • Ryan

    I have to say Gary Oldman is my favorite actor with a close second being Daniel Day-Lewis, and Oldman's performance in last year's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could never be copied by any other actor live today. Sorry, but I just can't see anyone, not Lewis, not Hopkins, not nobody.

  • Jimmy Diamies

    Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone
    Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction
    Uma Thurman as The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill
    Brad Pitt as Mickey O'Neil in Snatch
    Bruce Willis in Die Hard

    also agree with previous commenters saying DeNiro, Jamie Foxx as Ray, Heath Ledger as The Joker, and Jeff Bridges as The Dude

    • Angel

      Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, YES. When I saw Dennis Quaid's version I was hugely disappointed because I kept comparing him to Kilmer. Quaid is a fine actor, but VK's Doc Holliday was incredible, IMO.

  • The Jackal

    Marlon Brando - Don Vito Corleone, Colonel Kurtz
    Harrison Ford - Han Solo, Indiana Jones Jr.
    Jamie Foxx - Ray Charles
    Heath Ledger - The Joker
    Helen Mirren - Queen Elizabeth II
    Peter O'Toole - T.E. Lawrence
    Bruce Willis - Detective John McClane
    Arnold Schwarzenegger - T-800
    Ian McKellan - Mithrindil aka Gandalf the Grey/White
    Sylvester Stallone - Rocky Balboa
    Vivian Leagh - Gone With the Wind
    Judy Garand - Dorothy
    Kevin Costner - Liutenant John Dunbar
    Denzel Washington - Malcolm X
    Morgan Freeman - Red
    Tom Hanks - Forest Gump
    Liam Neeson - Michael Collins
    Anthony Hopkins - Dr. Hannibal Lecter

    To name but a few. I also imagine Mufasa or Darth Vader voiced by anyone other than James Earl Jones. Can you imagine?

    Thems the facts

  • pjuth

    I'm thinking Denzel Washington in Training Day

  • pjuth

    oh, and Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta. Maybe a more low-profile performance (not mentioning a complete lack of facial expression), but his dialogue had a vibrancy and eloquence (I'm getting wordy) that brought something so unique to the film

  • tombeet

    More recently films:
    -Bill Murray for Lost in Translation
    -Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
    -Michael Fassbender in Shame
    -Jay Davidson in The Crying Game
    -Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry
    -Robin Williams in Aladdin (just kidding)

  • Quickslay

    Those come to my mind:

    - Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lector...
    - Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley
    - Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy
    - Clint Eastwood as The Man with no name
    - Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones
    - Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu in Nosferatu
    - Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

  • Sadman

    How about John Hawkes for The Sessions? I don't want to turn this into an Oscar conversation, but I just thought that 90% of that movie works because of the earnestness and the humour he brings to it (similar to how a much compared Colin Firth in The King's Speech).

    I guess it's just a shout out to one of the year's best - like Silver Linings Playbook - that is being slowly forgotten.

  • Newbourne

    I have a better question. Which films would have worked had a CERTAIN actor played the role instead??

    • Randall P McMurphy

      Joseph-gordon levitt in the butterfly effect instead of ashton kutcher

  • G-Man

    How did I forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko?

  • Rick

    Adam Sandler in Billy Madison. He did his thang up there!

  • Aroncido

    On the Waterfront would be nothing without Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. They do something wonderful there.

  • rafael

    Emily Watson as Bess McNeill in Breaking the waves
    Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien movies
    And I think that everyone in the Big Lebowski was perfect

  • Jack

    Liam Neeson for Schindler's List.

  • gary james

    Some strange choices on here i must say ,for me many roles could easily be played by different actors but what i think separates them in the minds eye is when an actor can physically embody the part they play to the extent that you really cant envisage anybody else doing it.Here's my six pennies worth.
    Russel Crowe - Gladiator
    Day Lewis - There will be blood
    paul newman - Cool Hand luke
    robert shaw - jaws
    ian mckellen - lord of the rings
    charlton heston - el cid

  • gary james

    I'd like to add one more,vigo mortensen also for lord of the rings,thought he was perfect

  • Rolocop

    Gene Hackman in THE CONVERSATION
    Alec Baldwin in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
    Robert Downey Jr. in NATURAL BORN KILLERS
    Samuel L. Jackson in JACKIE BROWN
    Elliott Gould in THE LONG GOODBYE
    Robert Duvall in APOCALYPSE NOW
    Robert Shaw in JAWS
    Dustin Hoffman in LENNY
    Kurtwood Smith in ROBOCOP
    David Carradine in KILL BILL
    Clint Eastwood in DIRTY HARRY
    Sean Penn in CARLITO'S WAY
    Peter O'Toole in THE STUNT MAN
    Robert Carradine in REVENGE OF THE NERDS

  • ei

    (in recent memory – that excludes classics like casablanca, gone with the wind, ben hur, or psycho with anthony perkins...)

    ron oneal fresh, i agree,
    and, besides andy serkis: could you imagine sean connery as gandalf?
    a clockwork orange without malcolm mcdowell?

    could anyone imagine:
    the graduate – anne bancroft; dustin hoffman (replaced by doris day; robert redford)
    dr. no – sean connery replaced by cary grant (i guess there would be no skyfall celebration this year...)
    star wars – harrison ford (tom selleck/christopher walken)
    the matrix – keanu reeves (will smith)
    men in black – tommy lee jones; will smith (clint eastwood; david schwimmer)
    the gladiator – russel crowe (mel gibson)
    x-men/wolverine – hugh jackman (russel crowe)
    pulp fiction – john travolta (michael madsen)
    forrest gump – tom hanks (john travolta)
    sister act – whoopi goldberg (bette midler)
    pretty woman – julia roberts (molly ringwald/daryl hannah)
    basic instinct – sharon stone (julia roberts; or 13 others who refused)
    wall street – michael douglas (warren beatty)
    dead poets society – robin williams (mickey rourke)
    the wrestler – mickey rourke (nicholas cage)
    the silence of the lambs – jodie foster; anthony hopkins (michelle pfeiffer; jeremy irons/gene hackman/sean connery)
    interview with the vampire – tom cruise as lestat (johnny depp)
    american psycho – christian bale, basing his interpretation on tom cruise’s friendly appearance “with nothing behind the eyes“ (or johnny depp again)

    what would be:
    crazy heart – without jeff “the dude“ bridges
    the dark knight – without heath ledger...

    vice versa, “my“ frankenstein’s monster is boris karloff, “my“ dracula will always be christopher lee. (and, to a lesser degree, max schreck. bela lugosi? never!)

    -- recent example of horrible miscast:
    j. edgar – leonardo dicaprio (wrong actor with the wrong physiognomy and probably the wrong values)

  • Chris138

    It's kind of funny, because initially I could easily envision Liam Neeson as Abraham Lincoln while I had a hard time being convinced about Daniel Day-Lewis in that role until I saw the first photo of him in makeup a few months back. I saw the film earlier tonight and I agree that he is terrific, and it was nice of him to stand up for Neeson here. DDL is a class act.

    The thing I am most glad about with Lincoln is that it didn't turn out to be this year's J. Edgar, which I feared it would be when the first trailer came out. That has got to be one of the worst biopics I have seen with a woefully miscast DiCaprio in the lead role.

  • Albert

    Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind". I will never be able to accept anyone else in the role, and the same goes for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara.

    Not to mention Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca".

    Or Sydney Greenstreet (the Fat Man) in "The Maltese Falcon".