Note: posted on History for the Present, March 31, 2017
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 the 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. So, what do I think about Mary Lincoln in Lincoln?
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 as well they inspired her pettiness and hostility towards individuals whom she perceived as enemies. Mary possessed a very fragile psyche and she was high-strung by nature. 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 of their boys.
Now let’s talk 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 in the reception line at the very beginning of the movie. Of course the dialogue is the brilliance of the screenwriter and not based on anything that Mary Lincoln 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 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, 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 hallelujah, Spielberg 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. I also believe that Mary, who loved a good drama, might have enjoyed the performance, too. Although I do suspect she may have been a wee bit touchy about Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln threatening to clap her in the madhouse. But I also think she would have thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt was just adorable as Robert Lincoln; and she sure as hell would be right about that!