Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is, on the face of it, a standard "great man" biopic. Basked in a honeydew light, overflowing with sage advice, Daniel Day-Lewis' Great Emancipator is depicted as constantly and self-consciously speaking to the ages well before he belongs to them.
But let us now praise the film's not-as-famous women. For what rescues "Lincoln" from bombast are the slier and subtler performances by a trio of fantastic and often under-utilized actresses — Sally Field, Gloria Reuben and S. Epatha Merkerson.
Each one uses her limited screen time to etch a devastating portrait of the limitations that faced women in a male-dominated society. After all, if the legislators debating the merits of the 13th Amendment in the movie fret openly that abolishing slavery will begin a slippery slope to black enfranchisement, they seem even more horrified at the prospect that it one day might lead to granting women the right to vote.
Though some critics have griped about Spielberg's penchant for speechifying in "Lincoln," there has been near universal praise for Day-Lewis and for Tommy Lee Jones' work as the wily Thaddeus Stevens. Field's take on First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln — a woman Louis C.K. quipped on "Saturday Night Live" recently was "historically insane" — has been more divisive.
In TheWrap, for instance, Steve Pond wrote, "Sally Field may well be nominated for Supporting Actress for her Mary Todd Lincoln, but to me her hysteria was one of the least-successful parts of the film."
Yet Field's work is in many ways more revelatory than that of Day-Lewis. True, the Irish-Anglo acting god daringly gives the 16th president a historically accurate high voice and indelibly paints a picture of a great orator with an outhouse sense of humor, but his modifications are slight tweaks to the Lincoln myth. Field's interpretation is a whole-scale reinvention.
Field's Mary is privately unhinged, true. But she is also a smooth Washington operator, comfortable sparring with Stevens over her White House redecorating and forcibly pressuring her husband to carry the 13th Amendment to the finish line while wielding little more than a fan.
Even her mania is rooted in the death of her young son Willy; an empathetic anchor that keeps Mary from becoming simply the backwoods, social-climbing hysteric she's been portrayed as in the past.
In screenwriter Tony Kushner, Field finds an eager co-conspirator. As Kushner confessed on NPR, the Lincolns had a turbulent relationship in part because of Abraham Lincoln's emotional coldness.
"People always think about Mary as being difficult and she absolutely was, but Lincoln wasn't easy either," Kushner said. "He was remote and complicated and rather interestingly fond of telling her things that would upset her horribly, like these dreams that he kept having and he would leave her kind of in a state night after night, telling her that he was having these kind of scary dreams. It's an enormously complicated relationship and the family is a tragic family."
The only false note in an otherwise galvanizing portrayal, is having Mary deliver a line that is a too historically self-aware.
"All anyone will remember about me was that I was crazy and ruined your happiness," Mary says at one point — to which my companion let forth a large guffaw.
Field who packed 25 pounds onto her slender frame and allowed the camera to scan her creased face is a revelation — it's a reminder that the plucky star of "Norma Rae" is good for more than Boniva ads.
But Mary Todd Lincoln isn't the only female who elbows her way into this big screen men's club. Gloria Reuben's Elizabeth Keckley is also a marvel.
Dramaturgically it's a thankless role with Reuben's freed slave seamstress frequently used as a stand-in for all-antebellum African American suffering. Yet Reuben grounds the performance in a simmering fury and heartbreak, using her eyes to register the pangs of hurt that greets the racist slights Keckley is exposed to on a daily basis.
Her conversation in the White House portico with Daniel Day-Lewis about the meaning of emancipation is a bravura moment — a reminder of just how long a walk to freedom 19th century blacks faced.
Likewise, S. Epatha Merkerson's Lydia Smith is perhaps the greatest master class in doing a lot with a little since Judi Dench captured a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1998 for her eight-minute cameo in "Shakespeare in Love."
Smith, the housekeeper and (spoiler alert) common-law wife of Thaddeus Stevens, has two fleeting scenes. In one, she gently removes Jones' coat as he enters their Washington, D.C., home after the amendment passes, in the other she reads the constitutional addition aloud in bed to her secret-paramour. It is, in the words of another Kushner play, a reminder that "the world only spins forward."
Indeed, the entire film represents a major step forward for Spielberg whose earlier boy's adventures were largely all-male affairs. Aside from Embeth Davidtz's frightened maid in "Schindler's List," Whoopi Goldberg's martyr-like Celie in "The Color Purple" and Karen Allen's fiery adventurer in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the Spielberg women are a weightless bunch. Even great actresses like Julianne Moore in "The Lost World" are given gossamer thin screen time.
Here, transported by Kushner's words, he allows these women to step forward out of the shadows and into history. Next time maybe he'll let them take center stage.