Tommy Lee Jones received his fourth Oscar nomination for portraying congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.
There is something strange I noticed well watching this performance though was how it was set up in the film to be a best supporting actor winner. In his first scene the camera takes his point of view, until a dramatic ease in on him, almost just to add to the importance of his character in the film. Similarly the film always gives him his little reactions constantly much more than any other character in the film, just to always remind you of his existence. Then he gets all his scenes where he gets to talk down to the various pro-slavery congressmen, or spineless ones that seem to be there for his Oscar scenes.
To top it all off he gets a final scene that seems to forced in its
sentimentality just for this performance again, which is unfortunate
because that is the only scene where Spielberg indulged in his problems
as a filmmaker. Well this whole character seemed to be
created to give Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar, as Thaddeus Stevens should
have had important scenes but the film really overdid it to a certain extent.
Putting that aside though for a moment, how really is his performance?
Well if I would have to say it is a tad one note for the most part. Tommy Lee Jones note
is the note of an impassioned crusty, of course, crusader.
Jones is good in being his note of angry passion, and he delivers all of his lines with a certain intensity that works for the character. He is passionate as Stevens and that works particularly in his yelling scenes in the middle of congress. In his quieter scenes with Lincoln Jones still plays Jones in the same fashion just quieter. He is still impassioned still crusty, still saying little one liners, just at a lower volume. Jones is certainly entertaining in all of these scenes to a certain degree becuase Jones does throw himself full force into every line, but still there is nothing incredible about what he does.
There are of course his scenes where he has his little reactions which are either little smiles, or looks of understanding toward Mary Todd Lincoln. There is not anything special about the moments, but he handles them well enough. He hits a slightly different note when Stevens is basically being interrogated about his views which are considered radical, and he is forced to hold himself back. Jones is good in this scene by being quiet and loud at the same time in his usual passionate crusty method. He does this scene properly, but still it does not amount to anything absolutely incredible.
Eventually though there is the scene where he takes the written amendment home to show to his biracial housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkenson) who clearly is more than that as they share a bed, and he addresses her as "my love". This scene is terrible frankly, and I liked the film, there are two reasons why. One is Jones seems lost in this scene which is the only time he takes away the anger from Stevens, but he does not make it work because he has no chemistry with Merkenson, the two do not suggest any history between the two. They seem forced together, and the scene fails. It fails even more because than Smith reads the amendment which just hammers in the point to an unnecessary degree.
That scene which is his worst scene is not a great way to end his performance, even though the scene seemed tailored made to be all poignant and moving. The problem is the scene was too tailored to be all poignant and moving and came off as ham-fisted due to that. This is the showiest performance in the film but it is not the best. David Strathairn is more interesting by creating William Seward as a caring friend for Lincoln, but also very forceful in questioning some of his friends methods. James Spader is a lot of fun and very entertaining in his creation of a sweaty but intelligent political operative. Both create more compelling characters than Tommy Lee Jones and his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens which is entertaining but never as substantial as it should be.