Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and Tim Blake Nelson in "Lincoln"
I used to live in Central Illinois -- in Decatur, which is 40 miles from Springfield, and just a few miles from the homestead where Abraham Lincoln settled when he first arrived in Illinois, as a 21 year old.
So for me, the most remarkable facet on Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was the accent. He sounded exactly like some of the people I knew Downstate -- and more than a little like Gov. Jim Edgar, who acquired his accent by growing up in Charleston, where his family has lived so long that one of his ancestors saw Lincoln debate Douglas there.
I knew which county of Kentucky he spent his first years of childhood, I knew the county in Indiana where he spent the subsequent years of his childhood and then finally in Illinois as a young man.
Those three states and the counties of those states all have very particular sounds. The national archive, although there are no contemporary recordings obviously, there are some early recordings from the turn of the century.
Most Central Illinoisans of that period had migrated from Southern states, particularly Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. To a Chicagoan’s ears, the local accent still sounds Southern.
Day-Lewis also consulted contemporary accounts of Lincoln, which all agreed he had a reedy voice, for such a big man.
“Many people mentioned the quality of his voice, really only just to say that it was surprisingly high pitched, I suppose because a man of his size and his stature, you would expect him to have a rich baritone, and he didn’t,” he said. “So, that’s a clue.”
If Day-Lewis wins an unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar for playing Lincoln (following his wins for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood), one reason will be that he learned to talk like an Illinoisan.