Wednesday, October 18, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Ennobling History

Mary Todd Lincoln.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Re-Thinking a Controversial First Lady — Mary Todd Lincoln. Also, "The Deuce" Soars, "Ray Donovan" Sinks, and Ivana should NOT be boasting.   

“MARY TODD’s ambition was colossal. She had from early childhood said she expected to marry a man who would someday be president of the United States, and she seemed to have a prophetic vision that this would be realized.  But what was there in Mr. Lincoln to encourage such ambition and expectation? Apparently nothing!”

Click to order A Self-Made Man.
Such was the opinion of one of the contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln and his often-maligned wife, Mary. 

Because the state of current American politics is in such disarray — not that it has ever been tidy — I’ve been attempting to comfort myself with ennobling history.  Sidney Blumenthal’s “A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln,” for example. As always the 16th president is an endlessly fascinating, complex subject. 

But in this book, I found the portrait drawn of his intelligent, “high-strung” wife, Mary, equally intriguing.  Mary, of the legendarily lavish spending and notorious short temper, was — as Blumenthal points out — the most intelligent woman Lincoln had ever courted.  (His previous adventures in romance had ended badly; one rejection appeared to have nearly driven him to a breakdown.)

But Mary Todd, of a distinguished family, saw something in the rough-hewn, often melancholy Lincoln that other women — and even men who admired him — did not.  Her own often acerbic, always on-target, frequently expressed views on politics and issues of the day, intrigued other men, offended some women, and eventually captured Lincoln.  (He jilted her once, but she bided her time.)

Another source of the era commented: “His wife made him president.  She had the fire — will and ambition.  Lincoln’s talent and his wife’s ambition did the deed.”  And a close friend of the president, Joshua Speed, also remarked: “If he had married another woman ... Lincoln would have been a devoted husband and a very domestic man. Lincoln needed driving.”
A young Mary Todd.
Thinking of Mary in this light, it occurred to me that there has never been a motion picture in which she was the focus.  Mary generally pops up as the vastly irritating, half-mad creature who gave Lincoln so much trouble.  (Her emotions were always on edge and tumultuously close to the surface.  After Lincoln’s death, her mental state would decline precipitously.)   But she was clearly more than a thorn in his side to be ministered to, a “Cat without a Cause” as one detractor claimed.  They married for love, and shared an intelligent passion for politics.

I think it’s time for Mary to get her due.  Let’s put her in the forefront, for once.  (Perhaps there has been a play, or an opera devoted to Mary?  I searched, but if I missed something, I know my intelligent readers will duly inform.)
I know Sally Fields’ performance in 2012’s “Lincoln” is considered the most dignified and sympathetic portrayal of Mary.  But, I have to admit, I found Steven Spielberg’s film less than riveting, overall, and that includes the Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. (I felt oddly removed from something I wanted to be totally engaged in.)  It’s been some years, but I think I recall the 1988 TV mini-series based on Gore Vidal’s great book, as the superior effort.

Okay, writers, producers, directors — let’s redress the sins of representing Mary as the crazy lady who drove poor Abe to distraction.  He was no bundle of laughs himself.  Her own movie, her own life — so brimming with triumph and tragedy — her own powerful childhood ambition: “Someday I will be married to the president of the United States.”  She made it happen.

... THE tacky carnival atmosphere that these days so often surrounds the highest people in the land was made even tackier with the comments of Ivana Trump recently, as she plugged her new book.  The first wife of our president was amusing and even impressive back in the day when she ran the Plaza Hotel, which her then husband owned. And of course she was wildly newsworthy as a sympathetic figure — the good wife jilted in such spectacularly public fashion (for Marla Maples, the second Mrs. Trump.)
"I'm basically first Trump wife. I'm first lady, okay?"
But there was nothing amusing about dissing the current Mrs. T., Melania, or crowing about what a good job she did raising Eric, Don Jr. and Ivanka. (I must say, for all our issues with the president, he looks good compared to his offspring, especially Ivanka/Evita.)  It’s too bad Melania Trump — or her spokesperson — felt compelled to respond to Ivana’s childish remarks in any way.  Although this first lady does not appear to be having a great time (eh, what wife of the commander in chief actually has a good time?) she is conducting herself in a dignified manner. Well, somebody has to!
The real First Lady staying above the fray.
... HBO’s “The Deuce” continues along at a brilliantly acted, but languidly lurid, slow-burn pace.  A lot happens, but unfolding with a tightly-wound tension that is hypnotic to watch.  Every performance and storyline seems to meld seamlessly into the whole, and the 1970’s New York City vibe is astonishing in its realism. James Franco has never done anything better, and Maggie Gyllenhaal — wow!  I’ve heard some complaints that the show “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.”  I disagree. It is going somewhere, but it is taking its sordid, neon-lit time.  Where else have you got to be on Sunday night?
Two James Francos for the price of one.
Gyllenhaal definitely does the tricks.
... ON the other hand, WAY too much happens on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” a series about a Hollywood “fixer” (Liev Schreiber) that began  terrifically but plunged into absurd melodrama after season one.  Nothing and no one makes the slightest sense, even in the world of fictional characters and suspending disbelief.  Worse, there’s not a single appealing or sympathetic character. Or anybody with even half a brain. (Schreiber — a wonderful actor and so sexy — has lurched around drunk, miserable and usually beaten up, in almost every episode for four years.)
Michael Desmond/Showtime.
I will say that Jon Voight alone has covered himself with glory, playing the monstrous but oddly appealing Mickey Donovan, father to Ray and his brothers.  (Voight took a Golden Globe in 2014, for his performance, but has rightly deserved Emmy recognition.) 

So far no word on a 6th season, and I hope the finale, coming up soon, has the entire Donovan family jailed for life or swallowed up in a sinkhole. Time to let all these good actors off the hook.
Michael Desmond/Showtime.
ENDQUOTE:  “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages,” said General George Washington, during the darkest days of the American Revolution. 

I found this in re-reading David McCullough’s powerful and illuminating history,“1776.”  

I have printed it out and stuck it to my TV set. It comes in handy while watching the news.
Contact Liz here.