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For Your Consideration: A History of Presidential Movies at the Oscars

For Your Consideration: A History of Presidential Movies at the Oscars

Over the years, films about real-life American presidents from Andrew Jackson to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton (whether fictionalized or not) have garnered a total of 36 Oscar nominations and seven wins. That count is essentially certain to grow come early 2013, when Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is all but assured to get a bunch of noms (while another presidential pic, Roger Michell’s FDR-centered “Hyde Park on Hudson,” has an outside shot at a couple nods as well).

READ MORE: 2013 Oscar Predictions

In honor of the former’s wide release this weekend (after a massive limited debut last weekend), Indiewire is running down a basic history of presdential movies at the Oscars. Though a couple of the films indeed fictionalize real-life presidents, only films depicting actual historical figures are included (sorry “Dave” and “The American President”). There are also no TV projects here, despite plenty of quality options (“John Adams,” “Game Change”) — simply because, well, they aren’t eligible for Oscars, so it sort of defeats the purpose.

The Gorgeous Hussy
President: Andrew Jackson
Release: 1936
The Gist:  Directed by Clarence Brown, “Hussy” is a fictionalized account of the friendship between Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) and an innkeeper’s daughter (Joan Crawford).  It was based on the novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams.
Oscar Count: Two nominations for best supporting actress (Beulah Bondi, as Jackson’s wife Rachel) and best cinematography.

President: Woodrow Wilson
Release: 1944
The Gist: Alexander Knox played Woodrow Wilson in this pet project of Darryl F. Zanuck that was directed by Harry (and co-starred Vincent Price as William Gibbs McAdoo!). Though it got good reviews, it was a box office bomb. Its failure actually upset Zanuck to the point where he forbade any of his employees from ever mentioning the film in his presence again.
Oscar Count: A whopping 10 nominations, including best picture, despite its financial failure. Of them, it won 5 (Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Film Editing; Best Sound, Recording; Best Original Screenplay).

Sunrise at Campobello
President: Franklin Roosevelt
Release: 1960
The Gist: Based on the long-running Broadway play with the same name, the film depicts the initial struggle by future President FDR (Ralph Bellamy) and his family when he was stricken with paralysis at the age of 39. It takes place at the Roosevelt family’s vacation home in New Brunswick, Canada. Consider it an unofficial prequel to December’s “Hyde Park on Hudson.”
Oscar Count: No wins, but four noms: Best Actress (Greer Garson, as Eleanor Roosevelt), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color, Best Costume Design, Color and Best Sound.

Give ’em Hell, Harry!
President: Harry Truman
Release: 1975
The Gist: This one man show about the presidency of Harry S. Truman (James Whitmore) was filmed on stage and then released as a film. The title comes from an incident that took place during the 1948 Presidential election when Truman delivered a speech attacking the Republican party. During the speech, a supporter yelled out, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!”.
Oscar Count: A sole nomination, but a big one: James Whitmore competed for best actor against the likes of Jack Nicholson (for “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest”) and Al Pacino (for “Dog Day Afternoon”). Because he was the only actor in the film, the film technically joined “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Sleuth” as only one of three films in which entire on-screen billed cast received acting nominations.

Secret Honor
President: Richard Nixon
Release: 1984
The Gist: Robert Altman directed Philip Baker Hall as President Nixon in another one man show based on a play (though filmed separately, as opposed to “Harry!”). A fictional account of Nixon alone in his study, dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder, it was filmed entirely at the University of Michigan, where Altman was a professor at the time.
Oscar Count: Nada.

President: John F. Kennedy
Release: 1991
The Gist: The first of three Oliver Stone films on this list (and inarguably the better one), “JFK” is not about the President so much as it is about the events leading his assassination and the alleged cover-up that followed. Kevin Costner (as former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison) leads an incredible cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, Joe Pesci and John Candy (the President himself is only seen in real archival footage and is not played by an actor).
Oscar Count: The second most nominated film on this list after “Wilson,” “JFK” got 8 Oscar noms, including best picture and best director. It won best film editing and best cinematography.

Jefferson in Paris
President: Thomas Jefferson
Release: 1995
The Gist: James Ivory’s film is a semi-fictional account of Jefferson’s tenure as the Ambassador of the United States to France prior to his Presidency, and his alleged relationships with artist Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) and slave Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton). Starring Nick Nolte as Jefferson (and a young Gwyneth Paltrow as his daughter), the film premiered to mixed reviews at the 1995 Cannes Fim Festival.
Oscar Count: None.

President: Richard Nixon
Release: 1995
The Gist: Oliver Stone’s fascination with presidents continued with his epic (192 minutes!) depiction of the the political and personal life of Richard Nixon. Starring Anthony Hopkins (controversially, as the studio wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson) and Joan Allen as Richard and Pat Nixon, the film is — according to the disclaimer that comes before it — “an attempt to understand the truth […] based on numerous public sources and on an incomplete historical record.”
Oscar Count: No wins or best picture nod a la “JFK,” but four Oscar nominations for Hopkins and Allen’s performances, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Oliver Stone’s screenplay, plus John Williams’ score.

Primary Colors
President: “Bill Clinton”
Release: 1998
The Gist: Alright, so this sort of shouldn’t count because it’s about “fictional” president Jack Stanton (John Travolta) and his wife Susan (Emma Thompson), but everyone knows Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” — based on the book by Joe Klein — is about Bill and Hillary Clinton and their campaign to win the 1992 Presidential Democratic Primary. However, Thompson said she did not base her performance on Hillary Clinton, while Travolta said he based his on several presidents, but mostly on Bill Clinton.
Oscar Count: 2 noms for Elaine May’s screenplay and Kathy Bates’ supporting performance.

President: Richard Nixon
Release: 1999
The Gist: Andrew Fleming’s hilarious, underrated fictional comedy stars Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as two lovely (but not so bright) teenage girls who somehow wind become the legendary ‘Deep Throat’ figure partly responsible for bringing down Nixon (played by Dan Hedaya). Will Ferrell and a pre-fame Ryan Reynolds also star
Oscar Count: None, though it was never expected (even though a screenplay nod would have been well worth it).

Thirteen Days
President: John F. Kennedy
Release: 2000
The Gist: Another JFK movie with Kevin Costner, except this time the president is actually in it (and played exceptionally by Bruce Greenwood).  Based on the book “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” the film is a dramatization of the Kennedy administration (Costner plays a key member) and its struggle to contain the crisis in October of 1962.
Oscar Count: Greenwood was in the conversation for a supporting actor bid, but it never happened (and neither did any other nomination).

President: Richard Nixon
Release: 2008
The Gist: Nixon, again! Apparently the president with the most cinematic narrative is the one who has the most corruption associated with his legacy. Ron Howard’s film — based on Peter Morgan’s 2006 play — stars Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as British television broadcaster David Frost. It depicts the story behind the famous Frost/Nixon interviews of 1977.
Oscar Count: Langella followed Anthony Hopkins as the second actor to get an Oscar nom for playing Nixon, and the film recieved 4 additional nominations, including best picture and best director.

President: George W. Bush
Release: 2008
The Gist: The third and final Oliver Stone take on a U.S. President is unique in that it was released while that President — George W. Bush — was still in office. Exploring his life and presidency, the film starred Josh Brolin as W., Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush and James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as George Sr. and Barbara.
Oscar Count: The third time was not the charm for Oliver Stone, as the film received mixed reviews and zero Oscar nominations.

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