Opening this week, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is the latest screen incarnation of the 16th U.S. president's life, in this case the final few months of that substantial life, with the Civil War near the end and the passage of the 13th Amendment foremost on the great man's mind.
Daniel Day-Lewis is extraordinary as Abraham Lincoln. For a while there, when all anybody had to go on was the coming-attractions trailers, speculation ran rampant about the actor's decision (based on the available Lincoln research, which is plentiful) to capture what many historical accounts characterized as Abe's reedy tenor speaking voice.
As movie audiences we're trained from childhood to associate solemnity and noble authority with a rumbling basso profundo, less human than meteorological, an oratorical instance of rolling thunder. (Nixon's voice, an intrinsic part of his bizarre anti-charisma, probably helped him get re-elected.) You know the sound. The sound of vowels drawn out to the snapping point in phrases such as "Four score and seven years ago ... " There's plenty of authority in Day-Lewis' mercurial, crafty characterization of Lincoln, but it's a relief to hear a performance this good at locating what may well be (we'll never know) an approximation of the real man's speaking voice, in all its "backwoods hick" naturalism.
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Several years ago Spielberg, working from an draft-in-painstaking-progress of Tony Kushner's mellifluous screenplay, originally cast Liam Neeson as Lincoln. If that had come to pass, Neeson's performance, driven by That Voice, would've inevitably thrown his Lincoln and "Lincoln" in general back to another era of Abes on screen. In the sound era of film the major Lincolns began with ...
Walter Huston in "Abraham Lincoln" (1930), directed by D.W. Griffith. The great silent director dealt with Lincoln's assassination in his notorious "Birth of a Nation" (1915); in contrast, little in this rather static biopic (co-written by poet Stephen Vincent Benet) caught the public interest, though Prohibition-era audiences surely would've nodded in agreement at Huston's Lincoln, in a New Salem, Ill., sequence, refusing a shot of liquor with the assurance: "I don't regulate nobody's drinking. Just my own."
Huston's performance, like so many of the early sound era, is more theatrical than cinematic, with a stand-and-deliver attack, lugubrious in its rhythm. Still, the film is rather better than its marginal reputation, and the scenes between Huston and Una Merkel's Ann Rutledge capture a tender affection.
Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939), directed by John Ford. Victorian-era theatrics vanish with Fonda's graceful, easy portrayal, and there is enormous charm in the image of Fonda's Abe, reclining on the ground by a river with his feet resting against a tree, poring over a law book. Every screen Lincoln must resolve the question of dealing with a monumental figure while attempting, at least, to make the monument live and breathe the same air we do. Fonda's natural reticence as a screen performer suited this role utterly. And he doesn't orate, even when Lincoln is orating; he simply says it like he means it.
Raymond Massey in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1940), directed by John Cromwell. Massey originated the role of Lincoln on Broadway in Robert E. Sherwood's 1938 play; he looks the part, God knows, and Sherwood's take on the man goes pretty far in painting Lincoln as a melancholic, even self-loathing mope, whose marriage to Mary Todd (Ruth Gordon) was entirely (in this version) about an uncertain man of uncertain ambition finding his destiny through a ferociously ambitious wife. Massey's Olympian vocal delivery makes Huston in "Abraham Lincoln" sound like Minnie Mouse.
There were other Lincolns, on film and on television. And then came ...
Benjamin Walker in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (2012), directed by Timur Bekmambetov. In the spirit of Harrison Ford's fictional U.S. president in "Air Force One," the one who threw the terrorist played by Gary Oldman offa his plane, Walker's ax-wielding, zombie-slaughtering Abe was a true hands-on executive, unwilling to delegate the dirty work to others. The film never found much of an audience, and it isn't much, really — but Walker's Lincoln has his amusingly tortured moments. I mean, Mary Todd's tricky psychological makeup, the slavery issue, the war — and the undead on top of it all? How much can one man endure?
Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln" (2012), directed by Steven Spielberg. It takes a good actor to capture what we know of Lincoln: the humility, the seeming indecision, the lover of yarns and leisurely anecdotes. It takes a great one to suggest the greatness of the man underneath without turning the performance into a series of set pieces and historical talking points. Spielberg can't resist a few iconic flourishes, in homage to Griffith and Ford, when he frames Day-Lewis, in or out of his stovepipe hat, in such a way as to cement The Man, The Legend for all time, in yet another landmark moment. But the movie's a surprising success because it's modest in scope, homey in its details, revealing in its glimpses of Lincoln's burdensome but paradoxically convivial life, that of an isolated man existing in public, watched by the masses. And the thinnish voice, full of variety nonetheless, works. It sounds like Lincoln the man, rather than Lincoln the legend, narrating his own book-on-tape for the ages.