Lost amid all the iron being pumped inside gyms and near-zero-calorie diets being consumed far away from Hollywood’s most exclusive restaurants is what may well wind up being the most successful example of an actor reinventing himself for a role in 2012. If by successful you mean honors, kudos, awards and recognition of a job greatly done. Daniel Day-Lewis may not have gone on a drastic diet like Anne Hathaway, inflated his muscles like Tom Hardy or packed on poundage of a more flabby nature like his “Lincoln” co-star Sally Field, but he most definitely reinvented himself to play America’s 16th President.
Not that anyone should be surprised. Daniel Day-Lewis is perhaps the epitome of the Method Actor who completely immerses himself in a role at the expensive of his own personality. He famously refused to leave his wheelchair even when off the set while filming “My Left Foot.” The actor’s immersive preparation for “In the Name of the Father” as a prisoner included nights spent locked in solitary confinement and staying awake for three straight days in advance of filming a particularly intense interrogation scene.
The last performance for which Daniel Day-Lewis picked up a Best Actor Oscar was oil prospector Daniel Plainview in “There Will be Blood.” Anyone watching “There Will be Blood” and “Lincoln” back to back will immediately recognize one of the keys to the way that Day-Lewis reinvents himself for a role that even some of those actors who go to such extreme lengths at the dinner table or inside the gym overlook. Indeed, watching the actor’s portrayals of Plainview and Lincoln is enough to put a significant damper on the talent of one Hollywood’s biggest legends.
Two men played by the same actor who sound nothing at all alike. Daniel Plainview speaks in a low, full-bodied, commanding voice that instantly reminds any fan of classic movies of the director John Huston. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, speaks in a much higher register dominated by a brittle delivery that often seems on the verge of breaking apart.
Daniel Plainview was born in Wisconsin. Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky. If Daniel Day-Lewis can make these characters raised in essentially the same general geographic region during the same century sound completely different, then why on earth couldn’t Katherine Hepburn make a woman living in San Francisco in 1967 sound different from Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th Century?
The manner in which Day-Lewis reinvented the very sound of his voice for “Lincoln” is made all the more impressive by virtue of the fact that we don’t have a recording of the way that Lincoln actually sounded. As a result, most actors have constructed how that voice should sound on the basis of legacy and legend. Lincoln accomplished great things, so therefore his voice should be commanding…or so the thinking went. Historical records have indicated that far from having what we think of as a “Presidential” voice, however, Lincoln probably sounded very much like the voice that issues from Daniel Day-Lewis.
Transforming the sounds that issue forth from one’s mouth may not be quite as impressive as changing one’s physique, but the seemingly inevitability of Daniel Day-Lewis picking up his third Best Actor Oscar for “Lincoln” indicates that the manner in which he reinvented himself had a bigger payoff than those who spent so much time reinventing their bodies.