Elisabeth Rappe December 7, 2010
As everyone wonders whether Day-Lewis will move into a log cabin, split rails, or pilot flatboats in preparation for his role, we already have glimpses of what his Lincoln will probably be like, and that’s some kind of kindly hybrid of Daniel Plainview and Bill the Butcher. We can also spend our waiting time writing lists comparing these awful characters with America’s greatest president. And that’s what I’ve done today! Below are the surprising and shocking ways that Plainview and Abraham Lincoln are alike. Know that this list was probably already written by Day-Lewis, absorbed, and discarded and we mere mortals are simply following in his footsteps ….
1. Lincoln and Plainview are both great orators
Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest speechmakers in American history. While he reportedly had an unpleasant speaking voice, it’s a testament to the power of his words that he swayed the hearts and minds of Americans again and again. Yet if the Gettysburg Address is to be believed, he was dubious that the world would “little note” what he said there. He was simply glad the speech was not “a total failure,” though his political opponents sneered at it as “silly, flat, and dishwatery” and the shame of a nation. Ah, politics.
Plainview never comes up against that kind of scrutiny. But he manages to sell the residents of Little Boston on his oil company, the improvements he’ll make, his son H.W., and his love of children and education. Best of all, it begins with an opening as humble as anything Lincoln might have penned: “As an oilman, I hope that you’ll forgive just good old-fashioned plain-speaking.” It’s a humble act he sells beautifully when he blesses the first oil well, and a persona shattered with his bombastic confession to Eli’s church. The man can speak. Think of what he would have done in politics…
2. They are both dubious of organized religion, and are inscrutable in matters of faith
Abraham Lincoln was a religious man, but a skeptical one. His beliefs are enigmatic, but were deeply personal, spiritual, and superstitious. He never joined a church and spoke very generally about religion, yet cherished the Bible. He kept his distance from organized religion. Historians and scholars are still trying to analyze where his beliefs aligned, and how much of his religious language was heartfelt or simply political.
Plainview is equally evasive when it comes to religion, which pits him in a terrifying battle of wills with Eli Sunday. We never actually know what he believes, except that it’s not in the Church of the Third Revelation. When Paul Sunday asks him what church he belongs to, he’s tight-lipped, private, and politically astute. “I enjoy all faiths, I don’t belong to one church in particular. I like them all. I like everything.” His final demand of Eli — “I’d like you to tell me that you are a false prophet. I’d like you to tell me that you are, and have been, a false prophet and that God is a superstition.” — is more about breaking the pompous preacher than his own feelings. It’s just another part of the mystery that is Daniel Plainview.
3. Both Lincoln and Plainview pulled themselves up by the bootstraps
Lincoln’s background is the stuff of American folk legend. He was born in a one-room cabin, never enjoyed a formal education, and worked odd jobs until he became a lawyer. He was incredibly poor for much of his early life. He was and is the symbol of what the poorest and most humble American can achieve.
Plainview’s background is a mystery. We know from conversations with his imposter brother that they were poor, and that Daniel dreamed of living in an enormous and beautiful house in Fond Du Lac. Henry tells him “you can have anything you like now” so we know Plainview has never been very wealthy or successful in his years as a prospector. He probably worked a lot of odd jobs to make ends meet. Plainview is also impatient and dismissive of Standard Oil’s polished success when they offer to buy him out. “Yeah, you fellows need to scratch around in the dirt and find it like the rest of us instead of buying up someone else’s hard work.” Whatever his poor and desperate origins, he’s a millionaire by the end. But he’s also psychotic. Sometimes, that too is a symbol of the American dream.
4. They’re firm believers in economic liberalism
I know, you were told there would be no math. And there won’t be! This is just philosophy. Economic liberalism is all about laissez-faire economics and the support of private property. It’s based on the belief that if the government doesn’t interfere with the economic actions of individuals, they will (out of pure self-interest) guide themselves to the best possible result.
Lincoln was a firm believer in economic liberalism, and it informed much of his world and political view. Plainview doesn’t express it as concretely, but he certainly doesn’t want anyone messing with him and his work. He’s a firm believer in competition and the free market. (“I don’t want anyone else to succeed.”) He strikes a deal with Union Oil because it’s in his interest, but he would be furious if the government put any kind of restriction on him. Technically, he does steal from Sunday’s land (economic liberalism still has some standards), but how can he help drinking up that milkshake if he owns everything around it?
5. Lincoln and Plainview are both self-avowed family men
Lincoln adored his children. There are thousands of charming anecdotes about what a hands-on father he was (an unusual trait of the time), and how their deaths (he lost three of his four sons) really ruined his mental and physical health. He was especially shaken by the loss of Willie Lincoln, who died in the White House during one of the bloodiest and most horrible stretches of the Civil War.
Plainview’s fatherly feelings are strange, to say the least, but we have to take him at his word. There are times when he seems to genuinely love H.W. He threatens to cut H.M. Tilford’s throat simply for gently suggesting how delightful father-son time would be with Standard Oil’s millions. Is it insecurity? Overprotection? Who knows. He says (rather wistfully) that he wanted a house full of children, but he also loathes people, and doesn’t make an exception for H.W. in his dreams of solitude. It’s perplexing. He does tell H.W. that he loves him and hums him a Gaelic song. He also rescues little Mary from beating after H.W. tells him about her abuse, so there’s some bit of a caring individual there. Perhaps he was simply as broken as Lincoln, but from some loss we just don’t know about.
6. Both love the same dessert: White Almond Cake
OK, I don’t actually know if Plainview loved White Almond Cake. Lincoln did, though. It was his favorite and you can make it from Mary Todd Lincoln’s own recipe. I can’t imagine Daniel turning down a slice of fine white cake such as this, can you? He’s not inhuman!
7. Plainview and Lincoln are both strange, secretive men
While we generally think of Lincoln as “honest Abe” and a thoroughly good and warm man, he remains one of the most mysterious presidents in our nation’s history. Contemporaries describe him as being quiet, reserved, and remote. While Mary Todd Lincoln felt he was too trusting, men who worked with him over his legal and political career all noted that not one person shared the same view. He was complicated and private, and his depression undoubtedly led him to isolate himself from people.
Plainview may be one of the most perplexing and bizarre characters to grace the silver screen. Who is he, really? What drives him? What’s the deal with H.W.? Why does he fling himself so eagerly into a relationship with a shifty half-brother? Why is he so obsessed with crushing Eli Sunday? You could write a dozen essays examining him from every angle, and never arrive at the same conclusion.
So there you have it. It’s an unlikely alliance of characters — Plainview is driven by personal greed, Lincoln was driven by a belief of a greater ideal — but a fascinating juxtaposition. Day-Lewis is legendary for his ability to completely transform into characters as varied as Hawkeye and Newland Archer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Plainview traits work their way into his portrait of Lincoln. We may walk away with a portrait of a president that’s as mysterious and unreadable as the cunning oil man. At least we already know he’ll be quotable!
Categories: No CategoriesTags: Abraham lincoln, Daniel day-lewis, Daniel plainview, Steven spielberg, There will be blood