Entry 9: A Tale of Two Marys

Lincoln Movie Poster

Lincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner.

Release Date: November 16, 2012.

I decided early on that I would occasionally invite friends and fellow scholars to write entries for this blog, especially if the subject is something I’ve written about elsewhere. In the case of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, not only have I already commented on it (mainly here, but also during my 15 minutes of fame here), I also have an excellent reviewer: my friend and colleague, Stacy Pratt McDermott. As the Assistant Director for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and the author of a recent biography of Mary Lincoln, Stacy provides a unique and informed perspective on one of the film’s less-discussed characters and I’m just as interested as anyone to read what she has to say. So, without further ado, I’ll turn things over to Stacy…

The Real Mary Lincoln and the Movie Mary Lincoln

I spent the better part of two years researching and writing a biography of Mary Lincoln that provides historical nuances of the life and legacy of our country’s most controversial first lady. Yet all the public really wants to know is what I think about Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Oh well. I have not yet grown so old and stodgy that I reject a pop-culture question such as this one; and I certainly appreciate the fact that Lincoln inspired interest in Abraham and Mary Lincoln, subjects to which I have devoted my entire professional career. I am actually excited to answer the question and grateful to my colleague Christian McWhirter for giving me the opportunity to put it in writing.

First, let’s talk about the real Mary Lincoln:

The real Mary Lincoln was highly intelligent and sharp-tongued.

Mary enjoyed an extraordinary formal education unheard of in her era. Her ten years of study and her father’s encouragement of her political passions fueled her spirit and contributed to her personal and intellectual confidence. Her deep interest in and impressive knowledge of party politics was an important part of her relationship with her husband and it was central to who she was a person.

The real Mary Lincoln was emotional and passionate.

These personality traits inspired her intense love for, devotion to, and constant worry over her husband and her children. They also inspired her pettiness and hostility towards her perceived enemies. Mary possessed a very fragile psyche, she was high-strung by nature, and she was a complicated woman, but she was not insane.

The real Mary Lincoln was a companionable mate for her husband.

Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd were married because they liked one another and were in love. Their marital relationship was based upon common interests in politics, literature, and the theater, upon mutual intellectual respect for each other, and on a shared adoration for their boys.

So, what DO I think about the movie Mary Lincoln?

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to state that I am not one of those historians who holds Hollywood to the same historical standards that I hold my fellow historians. Movies are an art form, and I do not begrudge artistic license to those brave enough to make popular movies about historical topics. Therefore, my evaluation of the movie Mary Lincoln is more about how the movie captures the spirit and essence of Mary Lincoln and less about niggling historical details.

The movie Mary Lincoln is smart and has a sharp wit.

I absolutely adore the exchange between Mary Lincoln and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in the reception line at the very beginning of the movie. Of course the dialogue reflects the brilliance of screenwriter Tony Kushner and is not based on anything that Mary actually said, BUT this scene is delicious for two important reasons. First, it shows Mary’s intelligence and her confidence in her own opinions. Second, it reveals Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) willingness to let Mary have her say. In another fantastic scene, Mary tells Lincoln that despite the fact that he has not confided in her, she is well aware of the administration’s behind-the-scenes efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed in the U.S. Congress. Whispering in the couple’s private box at the opera, she asks her husband: “When have I ever been so easily bamboozled?” She goes on to impress upon him that he needs to do whatever is necessary to succeed, because she has faith in his belief that passage of the amendment will end the war. And for Mary, the end of the war will keep her beloved Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is now in the army against her wishes, out of harm’s way. “If you fail to acquire the necessary votes,” she glares at her husband, “woe unto you, sir, you will answer to me.” Glorious, I say, just glorious; and Mary’s furious shaking of her fan makes it all the better.

These two scenes, and several others like it, demonstrate Mary’s intelligence and understanding of politics. They also illustrate the intellectual, as well as the emotional, relationship between Mary and her husband. And they portray the first lady as a three-dimensional character. The real Mary was a complicated woman, and the movie Mary is complicated, too.

The movie Mary Lincoln is emotional and fragile.

A long, long, long run of Lincoln biographers have portrayed Mary Lincoln as mean and crazy, and praise Jesus and halleluiah, Spielberg and Kushner did not go down that same interpretive path. Instead, the movie portrays Mary as a grieving mother with emotional instabilities. Yes, there is the scene where Lincoln rages that he should have “clapped” her in the mad house because she couldn’t stop crying after the death of Willie, but the power of that scene is not about Mary’s insanity. Instead, the scene portrays two desperately grieving parents who have suffered the loss of a cherished child and are grieving in very different ways. Necessity forced Lincoln to internalize his grief, but without his responsibility to the Union, he would have been no better off than Mary. Mary is not crazy. Rather, she is grieving the loss of one son, she is terrified she will lose another, and, unlike her husband, she has the luxury to indulge her grief and her terror.

I love this scene for its emotional intensity and for its tenderness, and I think it captures a moment in the Lincoln marriage that rings true. Lincoln internalized emotions. Mary wore emotions on her sleeves (and what wonderful sleeves they were!). And here in the movie we see how such different sensibilities may have played out in their marriage. Yet despite their personality differences, the Lincolns did have a strong bond to each other; and this scene depicts that as well. It ends with Lincoln telling his wife that she must let him bear his grief alone and that she alone “may lighten this burden or render it intolerable.” Perfect.

The movie Mary Lincoln is a life mate to her husband.

So many scenes in the movie show the Lincolns as a married couple with common interests and tenderness for each other, despite their struggles and difficulties. The movie depicts various scenes of the couple in their private quarters in the White House. They discuss the meaning behind a dream he has had. He helps her unlace her corset. But my favorite scene is at the end of the movie when the couple is riding in a carriage, sharing some private time on that fateful Good Friday. They smile and tease one another, they discuss their plans to travel after the war, and she frets over the toll the war has taken on him. “All anyone will ever remember of me,” Mary says quietly to her husband, “is that I was crazy and ruined your happiness.” This, of course, is a tipped hat to all those historians who have reduced Mary’s historical legacy to being crazy and ruining Lincoln’s happiness. Ah, but it is Mr. Lincoln who has the last word on this nonsense, when he responds to his wife: “Anyone thinks that doesn’t understand, Molly.”

So it should now be clear that I rather like the movie Mary Lincoln. I think the film was fair and captured the essence of who she was. I am not completely convinced that Sally Field fully embodied the spirit of Mary Lincoln in the same way that Daniel Day-Lewis embodied the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, but I think she did a damn fine job of it.

Additional Dispatches

  • There is no documentary evidence that Mary Lincoln attended the Congressional debates on the Thirteenth Amendment, but I kind of like the scenes of her and Elizabeth Keckley, Mary’s black dressmaker, in the gallery listening intently and taking notes. Here is some artistic license that provides an opportunity to show the two women engaged in the pressing issue of their day and adds drama as well.
  •  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is adorable as Robert Lincoln. Just sayin’.
  •  Does it mention slavery? Well, of course! The entire film is about the Thirteenth Amendment. But there are three points in the movie that I find particularly poignant on this subject. Tad’s possession of the glass slides with images of slave children brings home slavery through the eyes of a child. Keckley discussing with Lincoln her acceptance of the loss of her son for the great cause of the war, emancipation. And, oh my, those black soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address at the beginning of the movie is what artistic license is all about, right? It’s ridiculous of course, because the Gettysburg Address did not become an important document in American identity until long after Lincoln was dead. But, you have to admit this scene, more than any other, really cued up the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in our ears and moved us all to tears.

Next Entry: Our American Cousin




  1. satchel29 · April 10, 2015

    You mention near the end, “I am not completely convinced that Sally Field fully embodied the spirit of Mary Lincoln in the same way that Daniel Day-Lewis embodied the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, but I think she did a damn fine job of it”. Indeed, it would be hard (if not impossible) for Field to embody Mary in the same way when you consider that Day-Lewis remained in character both while filming, and then again off-set, for three months. It is rumored he even remained as Lincoln when in public and had the cast and crew (including Spielberg) refer to him as “Mr. President” at all times. Personally I think they both did an excellent job, but that kind of dedication is in a league unto itself.

  2. edabney · April 7, 2015

    Reblogged this on Interpretive Challenges and commented:
    I had to direct my readers’ attention to this important post. I am often asked about Mary Lincoln and how Sally Field portrayed her. I really enjoyed Sally (I am biased) take on the role of Mrs. Lincoln.

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