Lincoln: Biopic as Family Portrait–Sally Field

Behind the extraordinary political genius and faith in democracy that led Abraham Lincoln to pass the 13th Amendment was a more private, yet equally fascinating, side. For even as he was confronting foes in the Capitol and the battlefield, he also faced dilemmas at home with his powerful but grief-stricken wife and a son determined to join the very war Lincoln sought to end.

Sally Field

To bring to life the major role that the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, played in her husband’s political and personal life, Spielberg turned to Sally Field, a two-time Oscar® winner for indelible performances in “Norma Rae” and “Places In The Heart.” Here, Field takes on a woman believed to have been as vastly complicated as her more famous husband. Born into a wealthy and politically influential Kentucky family, Mary had identified Lincoln’s potential as a future presidential candidate from the moment she met him and, after a stormy courtship, she married him at the age of 23. (She once said of Lincoln: “He is to be President of the United States some day; if I had not thought so I never would have married him, for you can see he is not pretty.”)

Her husband would be president, yet along with their success, their life together would be rife with tumult, tragedy and controversy. Only one of their four children, all sons, would live to adulthood. Furthermore, as a native of the South, Mary’s family and heart would be torn in two by the divisions of the Civil War. Once she became first lady, she was assailed for spending lavishly to refurbish a White House that had fallen into an embarrassing state of disrepair and pilloried for her personal eccentricities. Her agony reached an unbearable peak with her husband’s assassination. Along with the death of her youngest son Tad, these events would take Mary into a downward spiral. She was briefly committed to an insane asylum before passing away as a recluse whose faded image obscured a truly extraordinary life.

The task for Field would be to bring Mary out of the realm of myth and make her a real wife and mother in the midst of a very challenging marriage. “Sally in many respects had one of the most difficult parts in the movie,” says Kathleen Kennedy. “A lot has been written about Mary’s distress not only over her lost children but at the incredible sadness of the war. Sally could have done something very predictable with that. Instead, she found an illuminating restraint and complexity. You understand that what she was going through was overwhelming, but also you see how hard she worked to pull herself up by the bootstraps to support her husband and be the nation’s first lady.”

Field dove into intensive research about Mary, hoping to get beyond the rumors and half-truths. She read numerous books, toured Mary’s homes and met with historians and memorabilia collectors. “Everywhere I went, I tried to find pieces of who she was,” she says.

The actress came to believe that Mary was criticized so harshly in her day in part because people loved Lincoln so much. “In a way, I think people demonized her because it elevated him,” she observes. “He was a noble man, giving of himself completely in a horrible, bloody war, and I think it was a compelling fable that he was married to a shrew. People liked thinking, ‘That poor man, look at what he has to put up with,’ and there was something to that, but he was no piece of cake, either. Lincoln could be distant and remote. But Mary always believed in his brilliance and she never had any doubt that he was going to change the world. And he did.”

As a Southerner, members of Mary’s family fought for the Confederacy and some politicians even questioned her loyalties. However, she remained staunchly pro-Union and devoted to her husband’s victory on the 13th Amendment. “Most of all, I think Mary was pro-Lincoln,” says Field. “She was a very smart woman but in those times there was no place for a woman at any table except the dinner table, so she was his supporter behind the scenes. She was very politically savvy and had been his confidante from the beginning. But I think once they were in the White House, she lost her place a bit with Abe. Now he had Seward to advise him and her feelings of value and importance to him began to diminish. And then Willie’s death was such a huge blow to her. Her grief was so enormous. But I think she also held on to a hope of renewal with her husband, which you see in the film.”

Field was especially intrigued to have the chance to create the essence of a long and intense marriage, with all its mixed emotions, on screen with Daniel Day-Lewis. Early on, the pair started engaging with one another in a most unusual way: texting back-and-forth in character. “He would send me things like little limericks or notes out of the blue, and we began to build a thread of intimacy,” comments Field.

They met only once before filming began, in Richmond, and in lieu of taking him on a carriage ride as Mary often did with Abe, Field and Day-Lewis went for a stroll, to find that ineffable bond as husband and wife. Though they never formally rehearsed, Field says that from day one on the set, “as far as I was concerned, this was the man that I had been married to for a very long time and was basically driving me crazy.”

Day-Lewis felt similarly. He says: “I think we both trusted completely in the work and in trying to find their relationship. There was never a moment when Sally seemed anything other to me than the person I shared my life with during that time.”

Field notes that the authenticity of every detail in the film’s design and the way Spielberg kept the set as a kind of time capsule without 21st century intrusions further aided this process. “I’ve never done a film with such amazing production detail,” she comments. “It made total sense to stay within that world—and it was the most divine way to work.”

She especially loved collaborating with Spielberg. “I’ve been lucky to work with several very fine directors and Steven is as good as it gets,” she states. “He’s relentless in his vision, but he’s also willing to change if he sees something better. He’s always looking and thinking and seeing different ways to shoot and offering different ideas to the actors.”

Although the film took Field deep into America’s past, she says she couldn’t stop thinking about its relevance to right now. “It feels incredibly current,” the actress observes. “I think the story resonates not just in the U.S., where people have become so entrenched in individual political beliefs, but also in the world at large. The complicated nature of democracy—the difficulty and messiness of it, how hard it is to keep it working—really comes to the fore. It reminds all of us that this noble notion of people governing themselves is something you have to want more than life itself.”

The Lincoln marriage was put under further stress by the desire of their oldest son, Robert, to join the Union Army and make his own contribution to the war effort. At 21 and a promising Harvard student, Robert Lincoln didn’t have to go war like so many young men, yet he felt compelled to be part of this historic moment. His parents felt otherwise. Knowing the staggering mortality rate and still reeling from the death of their son Willie, both tried to keep him a civilian in their own ways.

Portraying the president’s oldest son (and the only Lincoln child to survive to adulthood) is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, known for his roles in “(500) Days of Summer,” “Inception,” “50/50,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Looper.” He tried to place himself into Bob Lincoln’s dilemma. “Being privileged, I think Bob knows he is fortunate—because who wants to fight in this war where so many are dying?” says Gordon-Levitt. “At the same time, because of his circumstances, he’s been taken out of what’s happening in the country. And that’s tough for him because he also really believes in the cause of this war, believes in the rights of human beings, and that makes him want to fight.”