Sep 11, 2012

Casting That New Lincoln Biopic

I've been following, with some interest, the happenings of the new Spielberg movie, Lincoln, which is supposed to come to theaters in November.  I am, of course, interested in pretty much anything Civil War related.  Also anything presidential-history related.  Also films.  So, this right up my alley.  It's based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which is an excellent book that you should go read right now.

They just released a 45-second teaser for the film; it looks OK.  I want to see more before I make a more substantive pronouncement.  It sounds like Spielberg has given Lincoln an appropriately high and nasally voice, with a slight southern accent (as his contemporaries reported about him):

Casting in biopics is always interesting to me.  I like to see how careful various directors are in finding actors who look like their historic counterparts.  Of course, that can be very difficult to do.  Sometimes, however, they are able to achieve some impressive results.

Lincoln is both really simple and incredibly difficult to cast.  The man's face is so burned into our national consciousness that we'll be able to tell very easily if something is off.  But, it's a unique face: long, with a big nose and deep-set eyes and a high forehead, and--most importantly--the famous chin beard.  There's also his incredible height.  Combined, those characteristics make Lincoln readily identifiable, but hard to perfect.

Originally, Spielberg had cast Liam Neeson for the role of Lincoln.  Not a bad choice on the looks; Neeson is tall (6'3", I believe), and, with a little makeup could easily be turned into a believable Lincoln.  He's a little thick for rail-thin Lincoln, but that wouldn't be the end of the world.

However, Neeson left the project in 2010, saying he was 'too old' (really?).  So, he was replaced by Daniel Day-Lewis.  I think he's a reasonably good choice.  He doesn't have the built-in schnoz or the height of Liam Neeson (he's only 6'1"), but the released photos look pretty good.  The two things I wish they'd do to his face are (1) make his lips a little bigger/droopier (can they even do that?) and (2) give him those deep lines between his nose and his mouth.  Day-Lewis doesn't seem to have those lines at all.  On Lincoln, they were very defined (plus that little mole on Lincoln's right).  Still, that's just me being picky.

Sally Field is playing Mary Todd Lincoln.  The facial structure isn't too bad between the two, but Sally Field is really skinny (especially in the face) and Mary Todd was much rounder:

I'm actually not sure who I would cast instead of her.  Most actresses these days are all really skinny with long faces, big lips, and big eyes.  It seems like a character actress would be proper for Mrs. Lincoln (she was quite the character anyway!). Maybe Edie McClurg?

Or Mare Winningham?

Yeah, I think Mare Winningham, just based on looks.  She is thinner than Mary Todd Lincoln as well, but I think the shape of her face is much better than Sally Field's.  Look at this picture of her from Hatfields & McCoys (the recent History Channel miniseries):

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been cast as Robert Lincoln, which is fine, I guess.  I think that Leonardo DiCaprio would be a perfect fit for Robert (though, in all fairness, Robert was in his early 20s at the time of Lincoln's death, which is much harder for Leo to pull off these days).

Gulliver McGrath looks like he'll make a good Tad Lincoln:

Tommy Lee Jones will play Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Massachusetts Republican.  He doesn't look a ton like him, but I think he'll do a good job pulling off the character.  David Strathairn is playing Secretary of State William Seward, and looks a lot like him:

Ulysses S. Grant is the last one I'll look at (there are like 80 historical characters in this movie, and I'm only going to hit up some major ones).  He's being played by Jared Harris, who has kind of a smooshed face, but should work all right.

I don't expect Grant to make a big appearance in this film, since the events covered are going to be from Lincoln's perspective at a time when Grant was in the field, accepting Lee's surrender.  The surrender at Appomattox will probably not be shown in the film, partially because Lincoln received notice of the surrender on the evening he returned to Washington from conquered Richmond in order to visit recently injured (and soon-to-be-almost-assassinated) William Seward, and partially because there is no one listed as playing Robert E. Lee on Wikipedia.

Events that will probably be covered (at least I hope, based on the casting and Wikipedia page) are the passage of the 13th Amendment in January 1865, abolishing slavery, the Hampton Roads Conference (more on that in a moment), Lincoln's Second Inaugural ("With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."), Lincoln's tour of conquered Richmond, and Lincoln's assassination.

The Hampton Roads Conference sets the stage for one of my very favorite paintings in the White House Collection.  I've spoken of presidential portraits before, and this one ties into that.

The week before the Hampton Roads Conference (the final peace negotiations between the Union and the Confederacy, before the surrender at Appomattox), Abraham Lincoln was in City Point, Virginia, visiting Richmond (which the Union had recently captured) and Ulysses S. Grant in order to discuss how to bring the war to a close.  William Tecumseh Sherman happened to be in City Point at the same time (he was on leave from rounding up Confederate General Joe Johnston in North Carolina, after his famous "March to the Sea").  The three men, along with admiral David Porter, met to discuss the Union's negotiating stance for the conference. Given the Confederacy's utter destruction, their negotiators wouldn't have much leverage, so, like the Versailles Conference of 1919, it was left to the major players on the winning side to get together and determine how the peace would look after the war.  It was the only time the "big three" of the Union Civil War leadership would be in the same place.  Three weeks later, Lincoln would be dead.

George Healy was the artist that painted the now-famous portrait of Lincoln that hangs in the State Dining Room of the White House (which Robert Lincoln called the best portrait he had ever seen of his father).  However, that portrait was actually based on his earlier portrait of Lincoln that was done as part of his painting "The Peacemakers," memorializing the famous meeting of Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and Porter.

It's a beautiful piece, which Healy painted in 1868.  He was actually able to get Grant, Sherman, and Porter in for sittings to make sure their likenesses were properly done.  He used an older live portrait, photographs, and a similarly tall model for Lincoln.

L to R: Sherman, Grant, Lincoln, Porter
Sherman wrote later about the painting:

In Chicago about June or July of that year, when all the facts were fresh in my mind, I told them to George P. A. Healy, the artist, who was casting about for a subject for an historical painting, and he adopted this interview. Mr. Lincoln was then dead, but Healy had a portrait, which he himself had made at Springfield some five or six years before. With this portrait, some existing photographs, and the strong resemblance in form of [Leonard Swett], of Chicago, to Mr. Lincoln he made the picture of Mr. Lincoln seen in this group. For General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself he had actual sittings, and I am satisfied the four portraits in this group of Healy's are the best extant. The original picture, life-size, is, 1 believe, now in Chicago, the property of Mr. [Ezra B. McCagg]; but Healy afterwards, in Rome, painted ten smaller copies, about eighteen by twenty-four inches, one of which I now have, and it is now within view. I think the likeness of Mr. Lincoln by far the best of the many I have seen elsewhere, and those of General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself equally good and faithful. I think Admiral Porter gave Healy a written description of our relative positions in that interview, also the dimensions, shape, and furniture of the cabin of the "Ocean Queen" ; but the rainbow is Healy's—typical, of course, of the coming peace. In this picture I seem to be talking, the others attentively listening. Whether Healy made this combination from Admiral Porter's letter or not, I cannot say; but I thought that he caught the idea from what I told him had occurred when saying " that if Lee would only remain in Richmond till I could reach Burkesville we would have him between our thumb and fingers," suiting the action to the word. It matters little what Healy meant by his historic group, but it is certain that we four sat pretty much as represented, and were engaged in an important conversation during the forenoon of March 28, 1865, and that we parted never to meet again.

The painting is one of the best in the White House collection.  It was formerly in the president's living quarters on the second floor, and can be seen in George H.W. Bush's official portrait:

Currently, it hangs in the president's dining room in the West Wing:

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