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Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln makes unstoppable Oscar force

Daniel Day-Lewis celebrates after winning the Best Actor award for "Lincoln" at the British Academy of Film and Arts (BAFTA) awards ceremony
Daniel Day-Lewis celebrates after winning the Best Actor award for "Lincoln" at the British Academy of Film and Arts (BAFTA) awards ceremony

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If there is one sure bet in this roller coaster movie awards season, it is that Daniel Day-Lewis will take home the Best Actor statuette at the Oscars on Sunday.

Day-Lewis, known for his meticulous preparation, would become the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars, and awards pundits say it's not hard to see why.

The tall, intellectual actor has swept every prize in the long Hollywood awards calendar for his thoughtful, intense portrayal of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."

"No-one has emerged to take him on. I don't think he has lost a single (pre-Oscar) race. We have 25 experts and every single one is betting on Daniel Day-Lewis," said Tom O'Neil of awards website Goldderby.com.

More surprising perhaps is that Day-Lewis will also be the first person to win an Oscar for playing a U.S. president. And it has taken a Briton with dual Irish citizenship, portraying one of America's most revered leaders, to do it.

Although "Lincoln" started the Oscar race with a leading 12 nominations, its Best Picture front-runner status has dimmed in recent weeks with the ascendance of Iran hostage drama "Argo."

But Day-Lewis's star has only risen with Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and British BAFTA trophies, along with a slew of honors from film critics.

LINCOLN FOR A NEW GENERATION

Day-Lewis, 55, plays Lincoln in the last few months of a life cut short by his 1865 assassination in a film that focuses on the president's personal commitment to abolish slavery and end the bloody four-year U.S. Civil War.

He's not the first actor to play Lincoln on screen. Yet his quiet assurance, his adoption of a high-pitch voice rather than the booming tones associated with Lincoln, and the movie's focus on complex political debates have shone new light on a man that many Americans thought they already knew well.

"It's a performance that is subtle. It's not the Lincoln you expect. It's a different interpretation of Lincoln than we have seen and we feel, wow! This could be the way Lincoln was," said Pete Hammond, awards columnist at Deadline.com.

"We are seeing a real human being played out here for the first time and that is extraordinary. Day-Lewis is bringing the character to life in a way we haven't seen in years," Hammond told Reuters.

It took Spielberg three attempts to convince Day-Lewis to play the role. Explaining his decision last month to take the part, Day-Lewis noted that "it was an actor that murdered Abraham Lincoln. Therefore, somehow it's only fitting that every now and then, an actor tries to bring him back to life again."

The London-born actor threw himself into the role with the same devotion that marked his Best Actor Oscar-winning performance as quadriplegic Irish writer Christy Brown in "My Left Foot" in 1989, when he spent weeks living in a wheelchair.

In "Gangs of New York," he sharpened knives on sets between takes to capture the menace of Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, earning another Oscar nomination, and in 2008 he won his second Best Actor Award at the Oscars for his turn as a greedy oil baron in "There Will Be Blood."

TEXTING LIKE LINCOLN

Sally Field, who plays his screen wife Mary Todd Lincoln, said Day-Lewis sent her text messages that were completely in character and in 19th century vernacular over a seven-month period prior to shooting "Lincoln."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays Lincoln's son Robert, said he didn't get to know Day-Lewis until after production wrapped.

"I never met Daniel in person," Gordon-Levitt told reporters. "I only ever met the president, only ever heard the president's voice. I called him sir, and he called me Robert."

With four Academy Award nominations and two wins before "Lincoln," Day-Lewis appears to have barely set a foot wrong in his 30-year career. Yet there have been missteps, including the box-office flop of star-laden musical "Nine" in 2009.

"He was sorely miscast as Guido, the adorable gigolo, and he was not convincing at all. He brought the whole film down," recalled O'Neil. "'Lincoln' is a spectacular career rally for him after that disaster."

While others are betting on Day-Lewis to take home a third Academy Award on Sunday, the actor has been modest about his chances.

"Members of the Academy love surprises, so about the worst thing that can happen to you is if you've built up an expectation. I think they'd probably be delighted if it was anybody else," he told reporters after winning the Screen Actors Guild trophy in January.

Those "anybody elses" in the running are Bradley Cooper for "Silver Linings Playbook," Denzel Washington's alcoholic pilot in "Flight," Joaquin Phoenix for "The Master" and Hugh Jackman in musical "Le Miserables."

(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Todd Eastham)

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