Spielberg’s 'Lincoln' leaves some scratching their beards

Portrayal of Abe's voice creates mixed feelings among impersonators

November 16, 2012

By Rebecca Kruth

Steven Spielberg’s new biopic Lincoln, which opens nationally today, is raising a few eyebrows.

The film explores the final months of the enigmatic 16th president’s life. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis gives voice to the bearded “Great Emancipator.”

It might not be the voice you’re expecting to hear:

The British actor’s characterization of Lincoln’s voice has critics using words like “scratchy,” "high-pitched,” and “reedy.”

Years of James Earl Jones smoothly assuring us that “This is CNN” and Walter Cronkite calmly telling us “That’s the way it is” have cemented our idea that great orators have deep, rich voices.

Yet Lincoln the movie, and history itself, challenge that view. Some historians say that Day-Lewis' portrayal is accurate: Lincoln, one of our greatest orators, did indeed have a voice that was higher and more thin than what we'd expect by modern standards. Back in the day, his voice was described as projecting over the crowds like a trumpet.

So what does this new portrayal mean for men who have made their lives' work impersonating Lincoln?

Since the film opened in selected Chicago theaters this week, we thought we’d check with some experts. In Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” there are at least 16 Lincoln impersonators, just counting those who belong to the Association of Lincoln Presenters.

Max Daniels, Patrick McCreary and Michael Krebs collectively have more than 60 years of experience bringing the man on the penny to life. They each have their own interpretation of how Honest Abe would have sounded.

Along with different portrayals of Lincoln, they also have their own feelings about Day-Lewis’ portrayal of our former president. 

Krebs enjoyed Day-Lewis’ performance.

“They played him very quiet, because we’re dealing with the last four months of Lincoln’s life, and they were very careful to show that the man is literally washed out. We’re starting to see the shell of the man,” Krebs said.

But Daniels had mixed feelings. He thinks the scenes where Lincoln speaks in a quiet, conversational manner are accurate, but the scene where the president is heard addressing his Cabinet, which can be seen in the above trailer, is over the top.

“He (Day-Lewis) was almost shrill. I have never found in all my reading where Lincoln got angry to that degree,” Daniels said. "He was more of a calm, thoughtful, talk-it-out kind of person as opposed to someone who is almost forcing themselves to get things done."

All three men did agree on one thing. Day-Lewis’ characterization would have little if any effect on their own. McCreary said though there may be certain details he would have portrayed differently, he still feels Day-Lewis did a phenomenal job capturing Lincoln’s character.

“When it comes right down to it, an inspired performance is an impression, it’s not an impersonation,” McCreary said.

 

To hear Michael Krebs' complete version of the Gettysberg Address, listen to the audio below: