the past in pop culture

Tag: Oscars

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dress: Material Made History

Mary Todd LincolnPhoto Credit: Library of Congress

Mary Todd Lincoln
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

There’s a reason that costume designers are nominated for Academy Awards. It takes nothing away from Sally Fields’ performance to say that Mrs. Lincoln’s dress animated Lincoln almost as much as its wearer. The dress—ok, the dresses—nearly had a life of their own. In the receiving line at the White House, Mrs. Lincoln’s ball gown makes her a force of nature not to be ignored and when she sinks to the floor to plead with Lincoln the way her everyday dress nearly engulfs her suggests exactly how her emotional mess threatens to swamp him. While designer Joanna Johnston certainly deserves credit for her thoughtful attention to Lincoln’s love for his shawl, just as the hairdresser did for Thaddeus Stevens’ wig, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses stole the show. Fields, as the Mrs., seems at times to be a daguerreotype come straight to life. Lincoln’s dramatic dresses surely owe something to the fact that the script was partly based on the book Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Elizabeth Keckley was Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and friend but you’ve probably already heard the news that her career as a powerful business woman and powerbroker in the African American community of Washington D.C. didn’t quite make it into the movie. In defense of these and other omissions of black people (cf: post on Frederick Douglass below), the film’s makers point out that the movie is a work of historical fiction.

And so it is. How, after all, can one make a satisfying movie about a man whose voice was never recorded nor moving image ever filmed? This is the conundrum of the past: some of the things we most want to know are unknowable. Imagination helps to fill that void even as it insists on authenticity. That Johnston prohibited the use of plastic buttons even where invisible for any of the film’s 140 or so cast members’ costumes speaks to this. Abraham Lincoln looms too large in the American imagination for anything less to be acceptable. And since the movie is so very talky, we have plenty of time to look at the details and wonder at how vividly real it all seems. The truth about the 13th Amendment and how it came to pass surely lies elsewhere; the emotional satisfaction of seeing and hearing a convincing illusion of 1865 makes even two hours and thirty minutes seem short.

In this, Lincoln’s love of accuracy in all things material calls to mind hardcore Civil War reenactors. These often misunderstood enthusiasts first came to the attention of the wider world with the publication of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998). Robert Lee Hodge, dressed as a Confederate soldier and photographed with period technology, graced the cover of the book. Hodge took Horwitz on a tour of the hardcore underground where reenactors eschewed the least anachronism. They slept on the ground and spooned together for warmth, ate semi-rancid food out of common pots, and endured the blisters brought on by long marches in ill-fitting boots made to match a time period that did not distinguish left feet from right. Most memorably, Hodge so immersed himself in his quest for authenticity that he developed a marketable specialization: imitating the rigor mortis and bloating typical of dead soldiers in Civil War battlefield photographs.

People often find this level of obsession a little freakish, so much so that one recently engaged woman felt driven to write a light-hearted but also heartfelt explanation of the subculture titled, “So I’m Marrying a Reenactor.” The freak factor was still sufficient for National Geographic to do a one-off reality show titled “Extreme Civil War Reenactors.” (The word “hardcore” presumably sounded a little too much like the adult film industry.) The reenacting community remains divided on whether the hardcores are ruining or saving the pastime, but they march on regardless of mainstream ridicule. So it’s ironic that Daniel Day-Lewis is revered for his rigorous insistence on method acting that has led him to sleep out in the fields of Alabama and survive only on what he shot to prepare for Last of the Mohicans or to have fellow cast members spoon feed him while he played a disabled man in My Left Foot. And hardcores might teach Johnston a thing or two about buttons: they get just the right patina on their uniform buttons by peeing on them.

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln-Lewis

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Given that Daniel Day-Lewis is known to inhabit his roles deeply—even texting Sally Fields as Abe—one wonders whether he feels like today is his birthday, too. It would be a well-deserved celebration. His Lincoln seems a daguerreotype come so to life that it is uncanny. Nor is this all. In Lincoln there are ghosts of other films and shades of other performances. With Daniel Day-Lewis as the lead these haunt the imagination. He has inhabited other roles and been especially at home in movies about the past.

Given the Civil War setting, his Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York most immediately comes to mind. Bill was no Lincoln fan and the scene in which he throws a knife at a Lincoln poster seems mostly funny in retrospect. More striking is the other Lincoln in Gangs: the costumed actor from the cast of Uncle Tom’s Cabin who is suspended above the stage and directs the actions of the characters. As he proclaims, “And Topsy, dear little Topsy, cradle Uncle Tom’s head,” the Lincoln performer nervously eyes the audience. And with good reason—the play doesn’t so much end as erupt when the very tough crowd starts pelting the stage with rotten fruit. This, truly, is a performance of Lincoln in extremis. It’s this other Lincoln, this vaudeville hack who points to the greatness of Day-Lewis’s performances. The rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Gangs is supposed to be bad theater and audiences of the time generally were that rowdy. But it’s the faux-Lincoln’s declamation that steals the scene because it’s so marvelously bad. Sometimes it takes a dose of bad acting to set the real thing in relief.

In Gangs, one such moment comes when Bill rejects the notion that the Irish immigrants can become a part of America. He doffs his stovepipe hat—tall as Lincoln’s, but a good bit filthier—to reveal the greasiest case of hat head imaginable and explains that his father gave his life for this country, “murdered by the British with all of his men on the twenty-fifth of July, anno domini, 1814.” In another echo, and another reversal, a father murdered by the British also steps out of the past from Day-Lewis’s early role as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father. Day-Lewis, as Conlon, must come to terms with his relationship to his father who is unjustly convicted for a role in an IRA bombing and dies while both are in a British prison. In Gangs, Leo DiCaprio seeks to understand his Irish father’s death at Bill’s hand. Got that? Day Lewis has played a Lincoln hater and Lincoln, an Irish victim and an Irish persecutor. Yet the role of the father, and of the son, resonates across each of these films. It’s Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln as a father who has lost one son, and who refuses to lose another, that makes the man real. That the father is then martyred makes it transcendent. Hats off to Lincoln-Lewis.

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