In my opinion, Hal Holbrook was and is the best mimic in the business. A few decades ago, this speech teacher became famous for making up and dressing up like Mark Twain and he did so brilliantly. Apparently he listened to a rare recording of the great humorist’s voice and got it down perfectly. He was more like Mark Twain than Sam Clemens ever was (ha ha). But it is not easy to portray historic figures. It is very difficult.
An on-line image of Confederate States of America Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, for example, reveals that the casting office for the new Lincoln film knew what it was doing when it cast Jackie Earl Haley in that role. The resemblance is striking. I would say Jackie Earl Haley looks much more like Alexander Stephens of Georgia than Daniel Day Lewis looks like Abe.
I had not read much about the movie Lincoln before I saw it, so it was a delightful surprise when Haley came onto the screen late in the show. I remember him as Kelly Leak, the great pitcher and batter in Bad News Bears. I remember him as Moocher in that wonderful Indiana movie about bicycling, Breaking Away. And, in Lincoln, Haley nailed the Georgia accent, even though he is a California native. He looked, moved and sounded very much like what Vice-President Stephens would have. Most actors just can’t quite get the Southern sound and cadence. I don’t know what the dialect coaches do wrong, but even Southern actors like Reese Witherspoon sound phony when they are in Southern roles. Tommy Lee Jones talks just the same in every role he plays, kind of like John Wayne did.
I was interested in finding out more about Haley, so I looked up some information on him. I learned that he got out of acting for a season after his brother died of an overdose. He turned to directing and made commercials in San Antonio, where he still lives. He is a close friend of Sean Penn, who talked him into returning to film. Among other roles, he is the new Freddie, the villain in Nightmare on Elm Street.
Be that as it may, I thought his brief but careful portrayal of the Confederate leader was sincere and as accurate as any actor could have made it. There was, however, something insincere about some of the other portrayals in the film. As much as I like Tommy Lee Jones, I found his work stagnant and overblown. Sally Field was too much of a modern woman for the role of lanky Abe’s wife. And most of the minor actors such as David Strathairn and even the great Hal Holbrook were mere caricatures or stand-up comics.
But seeing Jackie Earl Haley, hearing him patiently explain to the Union delegation that Reconstruction would not reconstruct anything, was like seeing and hearing an old friend who has grown much older and wiser. His face contained all the agony of defeat and yet there was something auspicious in his demeanor. He was, in short, a fine actor in a mediocre movie.