Daniel Day-Lewis

Whenever I see that beautiful afro on Viola Davis I am reminded of her subtle rebellion against the need to blend in to appeal to industry voters who really only see one kind of woman.  She did it at the Oscars and she’s done it again last night. Also, Daniel Day-Lewis.  His performance, along with Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s subtle direction, are the essential forces that build Lincoln’s foundation:

After the cut, video of Daniel Day-Lewis from the Santa Barbara film festival.

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Nov. 15, 2012
“We had just watched the movie ‘Lincoln’ in the White House theatre with the director, screenwriter and many of the actors attending. Later, the President invited Daniel Day-Lewis upstairs to see the Lincoln Bedroom in the private residence. Here is Day-Lewis, who had just come to life as Abraham Lincoln, viewing the Gettysburg Address.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Full-size after the cut.

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As person of the year, President Obama was asked about the film, Lincoln:

I wanted to ask you, Mr. President, about the film Lincoln. We know that you gathered a group to see it here. And for me watching that movie, it was as if I had spent three hours with Lincoln. And I wondered how— it was a very emotional experience. And I wondered how you felt watching that movie. What was it like for you to spend that time with Lincoln?

Well, first of all, Daniel Day-Lewis was sitting next to me, or right behind me. (Laughter.) And so, even after the movie, I felt like I was still hanging out with Lincoln. He was masterful in that role. I think it’s well publicized that Lincoln is my favorite President, and so to see an intimate depiction of him in his work and the challenges that faced him even in a relatively compressed period of time was incredibly powerful.

I think it’s generally a good idea for any President not to compare himself to Lincoln. (Laughter.) And so the magnitude of his challenges and the magnitude of his gifts are of a different scope and scale of any subsequent President.

I do think that there are lessons to be drawn. Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you also engage and get your hands dirty. And there are trade-offs and there are compromises. And what made him such a remarkable individual, as well as a remarkable President, was his capacity to balance the idea that there are some eternal truths with the fact that we live in the here and now, and the here and now is messy and difficult. And anything we do is going to be somewhat imperfect. And so what we try to do is just tack in the right direction.

And you do understand that as President of the United States, the amount of power you have is overstated in some ways, but what you do have the capacity to do is to set a direction. And you recognize you’re not going to arrive with — you’ll never arrive at that promised land, and whatever seeds you plant now may bear fruit many years later.

So being able to project across a very long timeline while still being focused on the immediate tug and pull of politics I think is a useful lesson, and an accurate portrayal of how I think about my work day to day.

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Lincoln is now officially the highest grossing film of Daniel Day-Lewis’ career. If you adjust for inflation, it comes in second.

Now, the Santa Barbara Film Fest will honor him with the Montecito Award, which I will hopefully witness in person.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival is proud to announce that it will
be garnering two-time Academy Award® winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis with the prestigious
Montecito Award at the 28th edition of the Festival on behalf of his inspirational performance in the title role of Lincoln, and as a celebration of his overall career. The Tribute will take place on Saturday, January 26, 2013 at the historic Arlington Theatre and is sponsored by Bridlewood Estate Winery.

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1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. There might not be another actor alive who would devote many months just to find Lincoln’s voice. Fewer still who could take what history told us about him, subtract the multitude of falsely deep Lincoln voices because they sounded “more important” and give us the real Lincoln via his unusual and less familiar voice. He was going to take some shit for this choice, as no one was ready to accept a Lincoln with that voice. Take on its own in isolated clips it might at first have sounded  a little strange, but when you witness Day-Lewis immersed in Lincoln’s totality, the actor vanishes. The voice comes alive with thoughtfulness, and that unmistakable color of sadness that Lincoln carried around with him since he was young, when his mother and then his sister died. Somehow Day-Lewis knew how to capture that sadness. He knew that Lincoln was weary — from the war, from the burden of doing what was a right at a time when there opposing forces seemed insurmountable — and weary from his wife’s mercurial disposition, crying or raging, depending on the day or the haunting.

Day-Lewis has captured so much in one breathtaking turn that this becomes, maybe, a bar to which all others might aspire. His head hung to one side, his tall person’s slouch, his lopsided walk. That any group would award someone else for the prize of best performance only illuminates, in many ways, Day-Lewis’ unequivocal work. They can’t say he wasn’t good enough. They can only say they’d like someone else to have a chance to share the spotlight with him. If Oscars are meant to be given out as career achievements, Day-Lewis would easily and handily win his third Oscar. We all know that the Oscars, despite their intentions, do not always award the best. But history should remember Day-Lewis, whether they give him a gold statue for it or not.

The supporting players: Sally Field – for her astonishing work as Mary Todd Lincoln Field gained some weight and reseacrhed the extensive first-hand historical record, as any great actress would, to find out that Mary Lincoln possessed a fiery intelligence, shared a love for reading with her husband, and didn’t have much else to do back then but stand by her man. Field captures Mary Lincoln’s craziness, unending grief and inner battle with depression so well it makes you long for the days when you had to be this good to get into movies. Tommy Lee Jones brings with him the great memory of Thaddeus Stevens, and perhaps the best moment of his role is the conflicted scene when he has to support the notion of freeing slaves but knows he must withhold his feelings in agreeing that they’re equal in all terms. He does this through his teeth, against everything he believes in — but he does it because he knows that tearing down an old sturdy wall is done brick by brick. Other wonderful turns in Lincoln include James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the great Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, self-freed slave who became an author.

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Because movies are mostly disappointing these days you sometimes forget why there are film critics at all, until a movie like Lincoln comes along. It takes awareness of both history and film history to appreciate Lincoln. It takes an attention span and a curiosity about life in general, politics, American history. If none of that works for you, you must know enough about acting, writing and directing to recognize greatness when it comes along.  Most of us have grown up with Steven Spielberg. While he’s out there hunting down projects, making films and waiting for the reaction from the public and critics, we sit back and judge him to our liking. We take a gifted filmmaker like him for granted because he has such a high delivery rate. But just as Lincoln is a moment to stand back and behold just how gifted Spielberg really is, so it is a time to appreciate those writers out there who are enriching film criticism. It is almost as enriching an experience reading these reviews as it is watching the film. I’ve excerpted them here, but you would do well to go back and read all of them.

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir:

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has a lot to live up to, even when you get past the fact that its subject is the greatest of all American presidents and one of history’s most mythologized characters. Its cast members have won at least five Oscars, with two apiece belonging to the odd but compelling duo at the center of the story, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, his tormented and demanding co-strategist and life partner. The two best-known previous films about our 16th president were made by D.W. Griffith and John Ford, who represent exactly the kind of classic American cinema against which Spielberg measures himself.

Then there’s the question of Spielberg’s up-and-down directing career, which includes three Oscars of his own, several of the biggest hits in movie history and a marked propensity for sentimental overreach when he tries to tackle serious drama. (I remain somewhat willing to defend both “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List,” for example, but both are great in parts rather than great as a whole.) Expectations for “Lincoln” could not possibly have been higher, and I’m inclined to think that Spielberg’s biggest challenge in making it lay in overcoming his own worst impulses, in avoiding sweeping oratory, montages of Civil War dead and a slow-motion assassination scene in Ford’s Theatre, all set to a keening John Williams violin score. (“Lincoln” does in fact have a score by Williams, but it’s effective and rarely obtrusive.)

I wanted to take a moment to honor Spielberg’s accomplishment here because it would be easy to overlook it. You don’t think about the way “Lincoln” is directed while you’re watching it, mostly because you’re working through the bristly, challenging language of Kushner’s screenplay, or caught up in Day-Lewis’ portrayal of a dry, angular prairie lawyer, prone to long-winded and semi-relevant anecdotes, who finds himself in the White House at a crucial turning point in the nation’s history. You’ll certainly notice Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous, subdued camerawork, along with Rick Carter’s production design, which captures the muddy streets and rough-hewn, horizontal landscape of 1860s Washington in documentary detail.

Spielberg’s greatest strengths as a director lie in structure and balance – the way he handles main plot and subplot, central characters and supporting characters. Add in Kushner’s remarkable ability to create distinctive characters in a line or two of dialogue and you get one of the richest and deepest casts in recent Hollywood history. Certainly Day-Lewis as Lincoln dominates his scenes, with his angular raven’s frame, the smile that lets you know he’s thinking a step ahead of you, the flattened and slightly ironic Midwestern cadence of his speech. (Obviously no films or audio of Lincoln exist – he was a few decades early for that — but Day-Lewis has clearly studied the many descriptions of his physical and vocal manner.)

But there are so many other vivid characters and scenes in “Lincoln” I cannot possibly list them all. There are major supporting roles, like Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist who had long viewed Lincoln as a sellout, or David Strathairn as the stern but loyal William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state (who played the role of in-house enforcer that a White House chief of staff might play today). There are memorable bit parts, including James Spader as a New York scoundrel hired by Seward to win over wavering Democratic congressmen, or Lee Pace as the pro-slavery Democrat and famous orator Fernando Wood, who gave fulminating House speeches accusing Lincoln of setting himself up as an American Caesar. And then there’s Sally Field.

We don’t have time to unpack all the theories and arguments about why Field – who won two best-actress Oscars in the ‘80s, the only two times she’s been nominated – seemed to drop off the Hollywood radar screen after she turned 50, even as Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep sailed from one triumph to the next. She was more of an ingénue than they ever were, I guess, and I’m aware of the general opinion that a little Sally Field goes a long way. Whatever moment of inspiration caused Spielberg to cast her as Mary Todd Lincoln, it was sheer genius, because this is a role that demands bigness.

By all accounts a feared and respected woman who was not much liked or loved (arguably not by her husband either), Mary was seen by many contemporaries as the power behind the throne, if not something more than that — the fire that drove Lincoln forward. While some biographers have understood her as mentally ill (and that remains a possibility), Kushner presents her, in just two major scenes, as a woman of tremendous agony and pathos, sublimating all her ambition and desire into her husband and her sons. In our own age, Mary Lincoln could have been a politician herself, or almost anything else she could imagine; in Field’s ferocious portrayal, she is a feminist hero many decades before the advent of feminism, who made her own indelible contribution to American history.

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EW’s Owen Gleiberman says Speilberg’s Lincoln, scripted by Tony Kushner, “is one of the most authentic biographical dramas I’ve ever seen.”

As the title character of Steven Spielberg’s solemnly transfixing Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis is tall and elegantly stooped, with thatchy gray-black hair, sunken cheeks, and a grin that tugs at the corners of his mouth whenever he tries to win someone over by telling them a good story (which is often). Day-Lewis looks so much like the photographs of Abraham Lincoln that you don’t have to squint, even a bit, to buy that it’s him. He nails Lincoln’s thousand-yard stare — a gaze directed at once inward (at the whir of his own mental machinery) and outward (at the cosmic hum of history). Day-Lewis’ performance has a beautiful gravitas, yet there’s nothing too severe about it. He gives Lincoln a surprisingly plainspoken, reedy high voice that retains the courtly cadences of the South. That voice — from everything we know, it’s quite accurate — makes Lincoln sound like Will Rogers as a professor of human nature. This Lincoln lives deep inside his own unruly-haired head, yet he loves the people around him, even the ignorant (and racist) common folk, who repay the favor by loving him back. And that’s where he draws his political force.

Lincoln, which Spielberg has directed from a lyrical, ingeniously structured screenplay by Tony Kushner, plugs us into the final months of Lincoln’s presidency with a purity that makes us feel transported as though by time machine. (Kushner is the husband of EW columnist Mark Harris.)

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Over at Gold Derby, Tom O’Neil has seen Lincoln and says the Oscar for Best Actor is over:

Move over, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman. Daniel Day-Lewis is about to join you in the pantheon of Oscar’s second-biggest winners. After previous Academy Award victories for “My Left Foot” (1989) and “There Will Be Blood” (2007), Day-Lewis is now a shoo-in to win for “Lincoln.” He’ll soon be just one statuette shy of four-time champ Katharine Hepburn.

His “Lincoln” rules the screen with authority. It seems like a cinch to be nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Sally Field) and Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner), in addition to Best Actor. There’s also an excellent chance that Tommy Lee Jones is nominated as firebrand abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and that Spielberg’s usual team of craftsman will probably score nods too: composer John Williams, film editor Michael Kahn and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It also may reap bids for art direction and costumes.

As of now, Day-Lewis’ biggest competition is Joaquin Phoenix’s career-best turn in The Master. Given that Day-Lewis has already won two Oscars and Phoenix none I’m giving the edge to Phoenix. But I haven’t yet seen Lincoln so I can’t say for sure. The other name that is bound to cause a stir is Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables. Although he’ll be singing the whole time it already looks like astonishing work.

And then there’s Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock (one Oscar), and Denzel Washington in Flight. Washington has also won two Oscars but only one lead Oscar. He’s such a great actor and there has long been the complaint that when he played good characters he was snubbed but when he played a drug dealer, against type, that’s when he won the Oscar. The against-type thing is a killer every time.

And then there’s Jamie Foxx for Django Unchained. And John Hawkes for The Sessions. Richard Gere for Arbitrage. You can see Best Actor is filling up fast.  But if Day-Lewis or Tommy Lee Jones wins they will make history as the first actors every to win starring in a Spielberg movie.

An aside: Lincoln is the movie with the actors with three names: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Jackie Earle Haley.

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