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Unjustly Forgotten Mini-Series and Performances

10/10
Author: joe-pearce-1 from United States
22 February 2016

It seems incredible that, over 40 years after the making of this mini-series, mine should be the first review of it to appear on IMDb. For a quick introduction, let me say that this is not a typical mini-series, in that its 6 episodes were made and shown over a period of some 20 months between 1974 and 1976, are not sequential, and cover Lincoln only from around the time he met Mary Todd until his assassination. Indeed, the 5th episode covers his activities on the day of his shooting, while the 6th one covers his trip to, and early days in, Washington in 1861. It makes little difference, however, in that each episode is totally self-contained and each is a viewing delight in itself. Production values, screenplay, direction, etc. are simply top-of-the-line throughout, but what makes it truly memorable are the performances of Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson, aided and abetted delightfully by a plethora of wonderful actors like Bert Freed (surely the best thing he ever did on the screen), Ed Flanders, Lloyd Nolan, Ray Poole, Robert Emhardt, Robert Foxworth, Elizabeth Ashley, and many others, including at opposite ends of the time line, Catherine Burns in a lovely performance as the woman Lincoln might have married, and possibly the greatest American character actress of her time, Beulah Bondi, here seen in her last film performance, at 87, as Lincoln's step-mother in a wrenchingly emotional scene. But it is the two leads who are, in the end, most responsible for the total success of the endeavor. Sada Thompson is wonderfully warm and loving, emotionally dependent and vulnerable, and occasionally volatile as the First Lady, fairly seething with resentment over her reception in Washington and, later, at the hints that she harbors Secessionist sentiments because she is from the South, while never failing to support and nearly worship the man she has married. The strain is great, and one can see in this performance the woman who will outlive her husband by decades and be mentally incapacitated as the years go by. She does this without benefit of any special make-up and just by being Sada Thompson, but Hal Holbrook's performance is towering. Indeed, it is both the best performance I have ever seen by Holbrook (and there have been many) and the most perfect realization of Lincoln to be seen anywhere (including those by Daniel Day-Lewis, Raymond Massey, Walter Huston, Henry Fonda and several more). Five minutes into any episode, even when viewed separately with months intervening, Holbrook is totally inhabiting his role. In voice, appearance, personality, etc., he is quite simply the Abraham Lincoln of anyone's best imagination, and even his famous Mark Twain impersonation never rose to this level. The make-up is nearly unbelievable, and you would not recognize him in a million years if his name wasn't in the credits, yet it seems totally 'real' and you never get the impression of someone trying to give a performance through six layers of putty and the like, something especially noteworthy since in the five hours this series takes to unfold, at least an hour of it must be in extreme close-up where Lincoln is concerned. But it is a wonderful performance throughout (it did win an Emmy) and, as much as I have ever seen such, one where you simply 'feel' the greatness of the man who appears before you on the screen. Not the greatness of the actor, but the greatness of the character he portrays. I would ravingly recommend this series for those who love excellence in craft and art on any screen, large or small, and for those who value grand acting in any context. It remains an ongoing tragedy of television that such performances are often forgotten a year or two after they have been seen, whereas if immortalized in a Hollywood film of, say, the 1930s, they would be the Stuff of Legend. Most highly recommended!

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