Moments before watching Lincoln (2012), my friend confessed to me that he was unsure whether he could pick Daniel Day-Lewis out of a crowd if he were given the opportunity. This sentiment rang true with me as well. His name signifies one of the greatest working actors to anyone with a big toe dipped in pop culture. You’d think with a reputation like that, his face would be ingrained in the memory of anyone who had seen it. In fact, it is the faces of his characters like Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood, 2007), Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Gangs of New York, 2002), Hawkeye (The Last of the Mohicans, 1992), and more recently Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln, 2012) that hold a permanent place in my memory. This isn’t to suggest that Day-Lewis stands in line with the often-covered faces of Johnny Depp but instead that his performances transcend the actor/character duality that struggles through most performances we see on screen.
This brand of realism in film characters is almost always imperfect because of the constant battle of the actor and the character. This natural duality often undermines any semblance of the “real” in a film. The reason people discuss Spielberg’s Lincoln as a film that transports its viewers to the actual time and place where one of America’s most legendary figures resides is because Day-Lewis’s performance transcends what could have been a celebrity dress-up party. He imbues the film with a living, breathing, reedy-voiced Abraham Lincoln.
Recognizing that Day-Lewis embodies his character unlike most performers is not particularly groundbreaking. His method of acting has been well-documented, and his request that cast members on the set refer to him as “Mr. President” is an often reported anecdote. For Lincoln, though, this allows a different sense of duality to invade the film. The full range of the mythic American president is on display. Most biographical films depicting historical characters struggle to layer their heroes with anything other than virtue. Spielberg’s film portrays a complicated man trying to differentiate his political, public, and private lives.
Day-Lewis reveals a president who acts one way behind cabinet doors and another way behind his bedroom doors with his grieving wife, Mary Todd (Sally Fields). A striking early sequence shows Lincoln bend down to pick up his youngest son and carry him to his room. This one sequence introduces the intricacies of his character: he could appear frail as he leans down, but it’s the subtlest touch that keeps his knees from buckling as he stands back up with the presumably heavy child on his back. Up to this point, he is a man we’ve watched be praised and adored, but we have yet to see any exemplary indication of his strength, and it is through this singularly powerful moment that his character coalesces.
Spielberg uses the period lighting to highlight the dual nature of Lincoln’s character. Natural light often streams through windows and silhouettes his face accentuating the lines and wrinkles on half and shadowing his other side. These scenes usually take place indoors where the political side of Lincoln emerges. We’re able to visually experiences the dual nature of Lincoln’s life as shown by the duality in his face. Day-Lewis in these scenes slightly hunches his back and the presidential persona momentarily retracts back inside the body of the man. This, however, isn’t a show of weakness, it is a physical manifestation of the compromises his character must undergo to accommodate those with inferior morals.
The magic of Lincoln is its ability to exhibit real complications within a man celebrated for his integrity. In public he stands tall and speaks with honest softness, but in private he often has to suppress his rage or disgust in order to appease those around him. His complications are most on display in the interactions with Mary Todd. Never having recovered from the loss of one of her children, Mary Todd criticizes her husband’s approval of sending their oldest son to war. This leads to many conversations that in the hands of lesser performers would have easily become melodrama. Day-Lewis in these scenes reveals Lincoln at his most vulnerable and given to temper. Spielberg’s camera focuses on the changes in his posture as he keeps his camera at a distance and allows the characters to breathe across from each other with the width of the screen between them. It’s in every hand gesture and arch of the back that the often soft-spoken Lincoln counters his wife’s understandable hysteria. His temper often rises with the arch of the back as he utilizes his imposing height. The glimpses of his temper humanize an otherwise mythic American figure and illustrate a marriage strained by loss and politics.
Day-Lewis’s performance also subverts the theatricality of most costume dramas. One lobbyist played by James Spader, mostly mined for successful comedy, is the perfect counterpoint to Day-Lewis. Donning his period costume and extravagant mustache, Spader appears mostly as a cartoon and in a different film could have satirized the image of politicians perfectly. Day-Lewis antithetically recedes into his character’s consciousness and essentially disappears behind another man’s face. This is helped by his drastic use of voice. Lincoln, known only from written records, reportedly had a reedy, high-pitched voice. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Day-Lewis refers to the voice as a “fingerprint of the soul.” This notion reflects the way in which he embodies most of his characters. Almost all of his characters have distinct voices or accents. His characters start literally from inside of his chest and arise through his throat and out of his mouth; this process removes Day-Lewis from the character on screen.
Transformation is the go-to word when describing Daniel Day-Lewis’s many performances, but what lies deeper is how he takes himself out of every character and is able to achieve an otherwise unlikely realism. Even when his characters are larger than life or mythologized like Abraham Lincoln, he grounds them and forces them to feel like real people in a way no other actors can. It’s only through the transcendental aspect of his performance that Lincoln stands as more significant and cinematic than most modern biographical films.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures