Sunday, December 9, 2012

Charles McGrath: Abe Lincoln as You’ve Never Heard Him

Abe Lincoln as You’ve Never Heard Him
By Charles McGrath
The New York Times

“Now he belongs to the ages,” Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, said at the president’s deathbed. “And to the studios,” he could have added.

The latest in a long parade of screen Abes, coming right on the heels of Benjamin Walker’s ax-swinging, martial arts version in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” is Daniel Day-Lewis, who, though he grew up in England and Ireland and had to learn about Lincoln almost from scratch, plays the lead in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which opens Friday.

Mr. Day-Lewis, 55, has already won two best actor Oscars, and his performance here, tender and soulful, convincingly weary and stoop-shouldered, will almost certainly earn him a nomination. He’s neither as zombified as Walter Huston in D. W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic “Abraham Lincoln,” nor as brash and self-assured as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), nor as stagy and ponderous as Raymond Massey, a year later, in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” in which he sounds, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a lot like the television evangelist Harold Camping proclaiming the end of the world once more.

Tall and thin, with big hands and a long neck, Mr. Day-Lewis physically resembles Lincoln more nearly than many of his predecessors — more, certainly, than Kris Kristofferson, who in the 1995 television movie “Tad” had to wear platform shoes to boost him to Lincolnesque stature. Yet the first time Mr. Day-Lewis opens his mouth in the movie, he’s also a little startling. His Lincoln speaks not in Massey’s stentorian baritone, or in the echoing, ballpark-announcer tones of the Disneyland animatronic Lincoln first heard at the 1964 World’s Fair, but in a voice that is high, earnest and folksy.

Mr. Day-Lewis is famously fussy about what parts he takes, sometimes waiting years between films while spending time in both Ireland and America with his wife, Rebecca Miller (the daughter of Arthur Miller, whom he met while filming “The Crucible”), and their two sons. (He has a third, older son with the actress Isabelle Adjani.) For a while he seemed to give up movies altogether and apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker and a cobbler.

Mr. Day-Lewis is even fussier about what he calls “the work”: his process of preparing and then inhabiting a part. For “The Last of the Mohicans” he taught himself to build a canoe, shoot a flintlock and trap and skin animals. For the opening scene of “My Left Foot,” about Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy, he taught himself to put a record on a turntable with his toes; he also insisted on remaining in a wheelchair between takes and being fed by the crew.

He learned to box, naturally, for “The Boxer,” in which he played a prizefighter and former member of the Irish Republican Army and in the process broke his nose and damaged his back. To play the gang leader Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York,” he took butchering lessons, and to play Abraham Lincoln he half-convinced himself that he was Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Day-Lewis, who has a deep voice and a British accent, not in the least Lincoln-like, prefers not to talk much about his method of acting. He doesn’t entirely understand it himself, he says, and doesn’t want to. “There’s a tendency now to deconstruct and analyze everything,” he said during a recent interview in New York, “and I think that’s a self-defeating part of the enterprise.”

He added: “It sounds pretentious, I know. I recognize all the practical work that needs to be done, the dirty work, which I love: the work in the soil, the rooting around in the hope that you might find a gem. But I need to believe that there is a cohesive mystery that ties all these things together, and I try not to separate them.”

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