Daniel Day-Lewis won a Golden Globe last night for his performance as Abraham Lincoln, and I don’t know one person on the planet who does not think that he deserves it. Already the recipient of two Best Actor Academy Awards, one for My Left Foot in 1989, and another for There Will Be Blood in 2007, it would be no great shock if he won yet again for Lincoln. This film is no mere period piece: he is portraying the one President that both parties in our country deeply admire and claim as representing the best of both political traditions. In an age of profound conflict between the two parties, there is a need to watch how a past leader negotiated the terrain in the bloody War Between the States. Every time this film is shown, viewers cannot escape the question of what it really takes to be a great leader, even in the most tumultuous of times. Day-Lewis is mesmerizing to watch on the screen as he effortlessly moves between the conflicts of the political and professional realm and into the griefs of his personal life. Our stages may be smaller, but his performance reminds us how intertwined those worlds are, even as we obsessively try to separate them for domestic harmony and professional ambitions. Lincoln was great, but he was also human, and Day-Lewis maintains the pathos and dignity of both.
On another level, every time this film is shown, viewers can also think about what it takes to be a great actor. And sometimes, thinking about what it takes to be great in one endeavor helps us think about what it takes to be excellent in any enterprise. Daniel Day-Lewis is the Olivier of our times, but what does it take to be that good?
One might be tempted to default into the wistful thought that he might have had a favorable constellation of genes, and concede that that never hurts. The son of Jill Balcon, an actress, and the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, he was exposed to the world of high drama and lyricism….but since there are plenty of parents who have children that end up being very little like them, this line of credit always wears thin. Plus, this is the thing: you never think you are watching Daniel Day-Lewis, son of a lah-dee-dah Poet Laureate, etcetera, etcetera. That is because Daniel Day-Lewis completely disappears and you are watching Christy Brown in My Left Foot, and no one else.
One thing that helps is that Day-Lewis seems completely uninterested in celebrity. He has maddened the press by being relatively elusive, waiting sometimes years between films, and dodging them so successfully in the nineties that for awhile they had no idea where he was and what he was doing. He simply states that “it was a period of my life that I had a right to without any intervention of that kind.” He does not hang out with Lindsay Lohan, Brad Pitt, or Beyonce. In other words, he doesn’t want to be a celebrity actor, he just wants to act.
Day-Lewis is also a serious method actor, rebelling against the classical training he received at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He approaches his roles with an intensity that is rare: For The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on the novel by Milan Kundera, he learned Czech and refused to come out of character off the set. For My Left Foot, he adopted the difficulties of his handicapped character, forcing the crew to lift him in his wheelchair throughout the filming, and harming his own ribs from assuming a hunched over position for many months. In The Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis reportedly lived in the woods and hunted and skinned his own prey, and for The Age of Innocence he wore nineteenth century clothing around New York City for months, ostensibly preventing Edith Wharton from spinning in her grave. Now that is dedication.
For Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis prepared for a year and read over a hundred books to understand his character. A hundred books.
In contrast, take my beloved George Clooney, who is also a talented actor, but no one ever says he is the Laurence Olivier of his generation. George Clooney is not a bad actor, but when we are sitting in those captain’s chairs eating high-priced Cinemark popcorn, it is because we are there to see George Clooney, in all of his infinite charm, dropped into another dramatic scenario, whatever that scenario might be. Whether he is Up in the Air, or down on the tropical ground in The Descendants, which are both worthwhile films, we love George Clooney, because he is basically doing what his charismatic self would do in real life, whether it be firing people and racking up frequent flyer points, or finding out the truth about his family after a terrible tragedy. We want that character in that script to turn into George Clooney, not the other way around. He is the Cary Grant of his generation.
Daniel Day-Lewis, when I was watching him on that screen Saturday, was Abraham Lincoln, and he was creating the image we will have in our heads for a very long time of that icon in our history and our culture. Just as Olivier created the barometer for performing Hamlet and Heathcliff, from which all other performances of those characters are judged, Day-Lewis will not be followed anytime soon by actors clamoring to out-Lincoln his stunning portrayal. It is sort of like singing “I Will Always Love You” after Whitney Houston–who wants to be part of that smacking of anti-climax? My money is on, well, no one.
Instead, Daniel Day-Lewis employs an almost Keatsian negative capability, meaning he can negate or extinguish his own personality and ego from the screen or the stage, and channel his creativity fluidly into his art, allowing us to see his subject in a new way. The greatness of Lincoln is that we don’t feel we are seeing another dimension of Daniel Day-Lewis. We feel like we are comprehending more about Abraham Lincoln, and it is even more compelling since he was such a complicated man. It is astonishing that someone who is so British and Irish can seem so quintessentially American on the screen. But that, as Olivier once said, is “acting.” In a film like this, which for many viewers will serve as their primary source of history, the stakes are rather high. Daniel Day-Lewis cannot blow it, because that gets so many people off course. Fortunately, our theatrical artistic constructs are great litmus tests for authenticity, and his portrayal of Lincoln is so convincing it borders on the edges of the eerie and heroic, straddling both myth and history.
I don’t think of acting, especially of this caliber, as pretense or fraudulence. On the contrary, I find it an inspiring model for how we might put aside our own personalities and need for attention, and instead focus on adopting the better qualities demonstrated by others, and you could do worse than choose Abraham Lincoln for that enterprise.
But if it takes a year and a hundred books to prepare to act like Abraham Lincoln, how much preparation would it take to actually lead like Abraham Lincoln? Even though we might not be fighting with rifles, sometimes the country seems so divided that it seems like another kind of civil war, but with little civility. What delicious dramatic irony that our quarrelsome leaders could take some important cues from a foreign actor, who dispenses with celebrity, gets down to work, and actually delivers.