Nothing trumps Lincoln, but…

Valjean

When I saw Lincoln on the screen last year, I felt like a kid on the last day of school. There was so much to look forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. It was the movie of a lifetime for this ardent Lincoln buff, who was born up the road from where Lincoln lived, and carries Lincoln’s name with me everywhere I go.

I was blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation into the man on the penny and the $5 bill. It felt like I was witnessing Lincoln, in a way that I never expected I would. And it felt like the Oscar for Best Actor was the very least that he was owed for this performance. I believe it still.

But yesterday I went to see Les Miserables in a theater. Hugh Jackman’s performance as Jean Valjean was perhaps the grandest acting turn I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. So now I’m conflicted about who will win the best Actor award. It’s a pity that only one of them can win.

Les Miserables was the first professional play experience that I ever had, back in 1989 at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. I loved the rotating stage, and the music, and the costumes, and all of it, really. “Lay Miz” didn’t become the phenomenon that it was for nothing.

At the end of the show, when the actors came out for their curtain calls, the final call–and the heartiest cheers–were for Jean Valjean. The audience really does become emotionally invested in him, as he raises Cosette and runs from Javier and becomes more than just 24601. Valjean must be an actor’s dream role, because he’s the beating heart of the show.

Not every actor could play the part of Valjean. It requires a gargantuan presence on the stage to carry it off, even if all of the showstopping numbers go to the other actors onstage. At the end of the show, it’s clear that Valjean represents the desire in all of us to do the best we can, no matter the obstacles in front of us. When he sings, with his dying breath. the line “To love another person is to see the face of God” it’s an emotionally draining end to an emotionally draining show. That’s a very high bar for any actor to reach. And Jackman fills the role as well as any actor could.

So I’m torn. Lincoln or Valjean? I feel as though I’ve been privileged to see both performances, and it’s a shame they have to compete against each other. I still think Lincoln will win, since real-life American hero (as played by an Irishman) trumps fictional Frenchman (as played by an Australian). But both performances, and the movies that they carry on their backs, remind me of how vitally important the arts are in our society. For a short amount of time, if we’re able and willing to spend $10 or so for a ticket, we can be transported to a place where stories are told and love, in its all of its many forms, wins the day. As it must.

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