Off-Camera ‘Lincoln’

Until mid-November, I was afraid to see the film “Lincoln.” Even though I’d heard advance favorable reviews, I reserved judgment until I arrived at the annual Lincoln Forum symposium in Gettysburg, Pa. I’d missed the private viewing of the film by many Forum members the previous evening, but the glow was still with them the next day. Words like “masterpiece” and “classic” were repeated by all the experts.

It was such a relief to Lincoln fans like me. I’d grown up with the faces and voices of Raymond Massey and Henry Fonda, who had seemed so perfect for their roles in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and “Young Mr. Lincoln.” Could Daniel Day-Lewis compare with the images of Lincoln that had seemed so ideal when I was young?

After the general sessions, I joined a small group that met with Harold Holzer, author/editor of some 43 books and articles about Lincoln. I felt certain that Steven Spielberg had consulted with him before beginning the filming of “Lincoln.”

Harold began by telling us that several years ago, he had received an invitation from Spielberg to join a few other Lincoln scholars, Tony Kushner (screenwriter), and him in New York for an entire, all-expenses-paid day at the Essex House Hotel. A chance to provide input to a new film on Lincoln — especially one planned by Spielberg — was a rare treat. Holzer agreed to act as advisor on the script to check for historical accuracy.

The group answered questions from Spielberg and Kushner non-stop, an entire day of Lincolniana. “How did he walk?” for instance.

Harold wanted to know how Spielberg would film the “Gettysburg Address.

“Oh, I might shoot it from the edge of the crowd, with maybe a boy and a dog running around,” he said.

Holzer told us how Doris Kearns Goodwin (author of “Team of Rivals,” the book upon which the film was loosely based) had accompanied Day-Lewis on visits to famous Lincoln sites, how Day-Lewis stays in character while acting, almost to a point of being obsessive.

I asked Harold if Day-Lewis spoke the way Lincoln’s voice was described by his contemporaries, that I had read he pronounced “Mr. Chairman” as “Mr. Cheerman” in his Kentucky pioneer accent.

Harold answered, “I’ve heard that he also said, ‘Mr. Charman.’”

I remembered the melodious, lilting voice of Massey and the slow, Midwestern drawl of Fonda, both the way I’d imagined Lincoln sounded.

“Lincoln had a high-pitched voice … like a tenor’s,” said Harold. He added that Day-Lewis is Lincoln.

When asked if Spielberg had made any historical mistakes, Holzer said that a few times Spielberg, as a creative filmmaker, had taken “poetic license” for greater cinematographic effect.

During the three-day Forum, I heard Catherine Clinton, author of a fine biography of Mary Lincoln, mention how outstanding she thought Sally Field was in this role. There were kudos, too, for Tommy Lee Jones, who portrayed Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and an ardent advocate of civil rights for freedmen.

I was eager to see “Lincoln” after the Forum ended. The theatre was crowded, the audience was as rapt as I was throughout the entire film, and everyone applauded at the end.

“Lincoln” has my vote for a host of Oscars.