Time Magazine recently called Daniel Day-Lewis the “greatest living actor” thus calling up the obvious comparisons to Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall and Sean Penn. There is indeed something very great about the work of Day-Lewis, who takes on a film only when he believes in it, choosing not to be part of the Hollywood world, and making clear to his director he works a certain way and expects to be able to do so. So demanding is he, he once walked off stage during a performance of Hamlet, sobbing uncontrollably, unable to continue nearly ruining his career yet making clear his fierce dedication to his craft for right or wrong.
What I find extraordinary about the actor is not only is there a definite change in his personality from character to character, but also a complete physical change. There is no trace of the actor from role to role, ever. His Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007) could not exist in the same world as his John Proctor from The Crucible (1996). His vicious Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York (2002), wielding corrupt power, fueled by hate and violence, is light years away from his gentle but firmly powerful Lincoln (2012), and so it goes throughout his impressive career. With preparation that is now legendary, while making The Last of the Mohicans (1992) he refused to eat anything, cook or eat anything he did not shoot himself, living off the land. When making The Crucible (1996) he built a log cabin in the woods to better understand the hardships of the characters, and he became a lethal boxer for Jim Sheridan in The Boxer (1995). During the shooting of My Left Foot (1989) he remained in character throughout, never leaving his wheelchair, relying on others to help him in and out of bed, a complete immersion into character. During Lincoln he would send Sally Field hand written notes signed, “A” and refused to commit to making the film unless he had a full year to prepare.
The actor goes deeper into his role perhaps more than any such artist I have ever encountered, leaving no trace of Day-Lewis the man, and confounding us each time with his quiet genius. After seeing Gangs of New York (2002) for the first time, a day later I was sitting across from the man who brought such ferocity to Bill the Butcher, and yet there was no trace of the character…at all. Intelligent and soft-spoken, he is one of those talents who cannot really articulate what it is they do, they just do it. It is rather extraordinary to encounter such talent. Streep has it, certainly Brando had it yet wore it like a weight that dragged him down. Day-Lewis has it, but unleashes it only when he feels the part is worthy of his work, and we the audience are the better for it. Had he taken every film he was offered, would he not lack the mystery he possesses now? Would he not be less of an actor? As it is, he is among the greatest to ever grace the screen, and though I am not sure he is the greatest living actor, not with Nicholson, Streep, Penn and Duvall still with us, but he certainly stands tall in their presence and is without question one of them.
And he might be, he just might be.
1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)…His towering performance as Daniel Plainview recalled the great director John Huston’s beautiful speaking voice and the worst traits of his personality. Could this be the young Eli Cross of Chinatown (1974)? A man at war with the rest of humanity, there is little good in Plainview as he conducts himself with the sole purpose to gain, to have, to have more than his brothers. He covets, and he conquers, without mercy, and seems incapable of love, though he wants to give the appearance of being loving. Is he an evil man? Perhaps, but he does not see himself as such, instead looking at his reflection and seeing a wise and ruthless businessman. He acts with a cruelty that is vicious in its depth, and when finally face to face with his nemesis, the weak Eli, he acts out what he has wanted to do since the preacher humiliated him years before. He drinks far more than his milkshake, he drinks Eli’s life. This might be the greatest single performance in the history of the cinema, just astounding. He won the Oscar and countless awards for this, and deserved each and every one of them.
2. MY LEFT FOOT (1989)…As Christy Brown, the Irish artist born with devastating cerebral palsy, leaving him control of his left leg (partly) and his left foot, his family thought him mentally handicapped for years until he displayed his fierce burning intelligence. In his poor twisted, spastic body was a mind, a creative independent mind that his working class father hailed as “genius”. To the credit of this poor Irish family they treated the boy as one of the family in every way, his brothers and sisters taking him out to play soccer, where he developed a deadly kick and used his head to tend goal. As he grew, it became clear he was an artist with words and he wrote his story, the title of this film. Day-Lewis is superb in the role, his eyes burning with a fierce intensity, challenging the world to treat him different and thereby earn his wrath. It is a miraculous performance that earned the actor an Oscar and several critics awards. Like There Will Be Blood (2007) one of the screens’ greatest performances.
3. LINCOLN (2012)…Day-Lewis could win a third Academy Award for Best Actor for his magnificent performance in Lincoln (2012), a powerful American film that explores the last few years in the life of the man many consider to be the greatest of Presidents. Speaking in a high reedy voice, said to be historically accurate, Day-Lewis does more with his presence in the film than any other actor in the film. He is a sad man, driven to end the war but also to end slavery in the nation, meaning he must allow the war to go on before he can get the 13th Amendment signed. I walked out of the screening believing I had not sen an actor as Lincoln, but seen the man himself, as though Spielberg plunged his cameras into a time machine and into the past. Day-Lewis is simply perfect in the role, a performance for the ages.
4. THE CRUCIBLE (1996)…At the beginning of the awards season 1996, the cover story of Entertainment Weekly’s fall movie preview was The Crucible (1996) and inside it was said the film could conceivably be nominated in every category except visual effects. December came and Fox dropped the ball in releasing the film, not allowing enough people to see it to build interest. Day-Lewis finished second in balloting for the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor, but the film disappeared from the race. Sadly, one of his finest performances, as the decent, flawed John Proctor who sees the Salem Witch Trials for what they are, a pretense has been seen by too few people. The actor captures the shame of the man for his adultery, but also his ferocious fight for his name, to allow him to keep his good name. When he goes to the gallows, a good man, he does so without any regrets knowing his wife forgives him and he dies an honest man. It is a superb performance as the actor brings to life one of the 20th century’s most famous male roles to utter perfection.
5. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993)…Jim Sheridan’s powerful film, a true story about the wrongly accused petty crook, hell raiser, and party animal Jerry Conlon, jailed for a bombing that took the lives of innocent people brings an intensely brilliant performance from Day-Lewis. The film is as much the story of a father and son as it is an exploration of a terrible miscarriage of justice and corruption within the police department to find someone and lay blame. Down into the pit of self-pity, drugs and rage falls Day-Lewis, eventually climbing out when he sees his fathers sheer decency, and comes to understand the only reason the older man is in jail is because of his relationship to his son. Though he is innocent, it never occurred to him that his father is even more of an innocent. The torture sequence is alarming in its realism and raw power. Day-Lewis reportedly stayed up three days straight to capture the realism of it all.
6. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)…Though he walks a dangerous line of perfection and going over the top, he too fine an actor to allow himself to slip into caricature, and Bill the Butcher remains one of his best performances. Spitting out each line as though spewing venom, needing to be heard, he is a dangerous force in the Five Points, and everyone knows it because Bill wants everyone to know it. He moves through the film like a larger than life Shakespearean character, his confidence balanced only by his hate for all those he feels beneath him (which is nearly everyone) and dispatches those he hates with his deadly knives. He won several critics awards for the performance which remains iconic.
7. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992)…Not only is this a great piece of acting it is a great physical performance that gives audiences a keen idea of the transportation of time, running, walking or horseback. As Hawkeye, a white man raised by Indians, Day-Lewis is a ripped wonder, with flowing locks, and the look a pure matinée idol who is also the raw and strong hero of this excellent film. Fighting vicious Indians who have conned the British, Hawkeye rescues two sisters and falls in love with the eldest, taking them with him into the dense forests to lash back at those who have betrayed him. Michael Mann directed the film and I think it is his finest work.
8. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)…In Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, where manners are everything and the raising of an eyebrow can mean a betrayal, the challenge for the actors in the film was holding back the emotions, keeping them under their skin, barely allowing them to surface. As Newland Archer, a rising star in the New York society of the late 19th century, Day-Lewis is excellent, engaged to one woman but in love with another. The film in many ways resembles the work of James Ivory, which Day-Lewis knew well, and he drew back everything in his work to give a haunting performance of a man in love, betrayed by those closest to him without ever knowing it.
9. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE (1988)…As the gay gang leader Johnny, Day-Lewis is electrifying, in love with a Pakistani man running a laundry. The first time they meet, we expect fireworks but instead they greet each other warmly and it is clear there is something between them. After seeing the actor in period drama, it was refreshing to see him in something so modern, and using his good looks in a part that worked with them. Gritty, and an honest depiction of a seedier side of England, including the racism against East Indians, the film was well received when released. One of his lesser known performances, edgy and strong, and no less brilliant.
10. THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988)…Phillip Kaufman’s beautiful adaptation of the famous book about a doctor who seduces women during the political troubles in Czechoslovakia in 1968 is a stunning work to look, erotic and deeply dramatic. While political without being dull, the eroticism in the film over powers everything else, and the characters are all too human, frail and struggling with their own many flaws (as we all do). When Day-Lewis levels his gaze and instructs a woman to take off her clothes, it means so much more than merely a medical instruction. Critics adored this film, audiences stayed away.
I wanted so much to include The Boxer (1997) on the list but try as I might I could not make it happen without tying one of the performances, which I did not believe strongly enough to do. From the moment he won that first Oscar for My Left Foot (1989) I have awaited each new performance anxiously because he shows us something different each time out, very few actors can claim that.