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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