Top 10: Best Daniel Day-Lewis Performances in Honor of ‘Phantom Thread’


Few actors are as committed or talented as Daniel Day-Lewis. The actor remains famous for his use of the method acting technique. Contemporaries, such as Jared Leto and Jim Carrey, have also explored this tactic, but to mixed results and plenty of on-set mishaps. However, Day-Lewis’ professionalism and skill set him apart from the rest. Day-Lewis’ three-decades-long career has resulted in three Oscar wins (“My Left Foot,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Lincoln”). The actor worked very rarely, only having four roles in the past eleven years. However, his selective process has helped give us so many masterful performances.

Daniel Day-Lewis returns to work with Paul Thomas Anderson (the man behind his Oscar-winning performance in “There Will Be Blood”) with the film “Phantom Thread.” The film follows a famed dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), and his relationship with a young woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes his muse. “Phantom Thread” (opening Dec. 25 in limited release) also appears to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance before retirement.

As the reign of Daniel Day-Lewis comes to an end, let’s take a look back at ten of his best performances:

10. Newland Archer – “Age of Innocence”

Day-Lewis is best when he blends the Oscar-winning dramatist version of himself with his early day romantic icon. Martin Scorsese‘s first film with Day-Lewis casts him as Newland Archer, a lawyer who embarks on an affair with his fiancee’s cousin. Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer (as Countess Olenska, the woman he is having an affair with) have terrific chemistry. His piercing eyes lock in on her and one can feel the heat. It’s a great contrast to his relationship with May (Winona Ryder), his fiancee. The central trio are the beating heart of a film that, often times, comes off a bit cold and wooden.

9. Hawkeye/Nathaniel Poe – “The Last of the Mohicans”

You can’t beat that hair, can you? Daniel Day-Lewis tried his hand at being a bona fide matinee idol in this action/adventure romance. The film is set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War. Hawkeye joins his Mohican father to rescue kidnapped daughters of a British colonel. Day-Lewis commands the screen with a fiery presence and bubbling sexuality. His relationship with Cora (Madeline Stowe) is as sexy as it is tragic. The film proves that Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t just a great actor, but can also be a terrific star.

8. Guido Contini – “Nine”

From Johnny Depp (“Sweeney Todd”) to Pierce Brosnan (“Mamma Mia!”), modern musicals have seemed to forget that one should hire an actual singer. Day-Lewis won’t be headlining on Broadway any time soon with his voice. Make no mistake, his voice is merely shaky yet serviceable. Not a Russell Crowe (“Les Miserables”) travesty. What makes this performance so high is his ability to dramatize the tough character of Guido. He’s a directionless playboy in search of a movie and life path. It takes a commanding actor’s presence for a large ensemble to orbit around. “Nine” remains one of the more underrated musicals in recent memory. It’s messy and unkempt, but looks as finely coiffed like Day-Lewis’ hair. The degree to which the picture works is because of Day-Lewis’ trademark level of commitment.

7. John Proctor – “The Crucible”

There are few literary roles as famous as the ones in “The Crucible.” In many ways, Daniel Day-Lewis is the obvious choice for John “It Is My Name” Proctor. For what its worth, he proves why the role is unequivocally his. Day-Lewis delights in sparring at high volume with Winona Ryder’s Abigail, the witch accuser whom he had an affair with. With so many loud courtroom scenes with accusations being thrown around, Day-Lewis is given plenty of opportunities for grandiose speeches. For all the histrionics inherent to the role, Day-Lewis is particularly strong in scenes with Oscar nominee Joan Allen as his accused wife, Elizabeth Proctor. He conveys this undercurrent of grief and guilt that makes his character’s sacrifice much more affecting.

6. Johnny – “My Beautiful Laundrette”

Before “Call Me By Your Name” there was “My Beautiful Laundrette.” Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Johnny, a charming outsider who falls for Omar (Gordon Warnecke), an ambitious Pakistani who takes over his family laundrette. If only the internet had been around, they would have eaten up some of the more gif-ready aspects of his performance. Day-Lewis equips himself well as a romantic figure. It’s refreshing to see one our most serious thespians in a sweet and emotionally vulnerable romantic role. His performance shows great promise for what was to come.

5. Christy Brown – “My Left Foot”

Day-Lewis won his first Oscar for this film. It represents a shocking upset against American heartthrob Tom Cruise in the Oliver Stone epic “Born on the Fourth of July.” In many ways, this win signaled certain tropes that would be synonymous with Oscar wins. Day-Lewis famously went method to portray the handicapped artist Christy Brown. In fact, he even broke a few ribs with all of the time he spent in Christy’s wheelbarrow. All of these performance gimmicks surely helped Day-Lewis prevail at the Oscars for the small film. However, behind the method is an unflinchingly honest film about a man who used his handicap to make great works of art. Day-Lewis never panders to the “great man” narrative. Instead, he opts to make Christy a complicated and engrossing figure.

4. Bill “The Butcher” Cutting – “Gangs of New York”

Who doesn’t love a good grandstanding? Day-Lewis chops and chews up every bit of scenery in Martin Scorsese‘s epic, “Gangs of New York.” He doesn’t just prop up the film, he is the film. Bill is a brutal anti-immigrant man in 1860s New York who exercises his control strategically and violently. Even as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to avenge his Father’s death, he finds himself drawn further into Bill’s world. Day-Lewis is best as an actor when he is flexing his magnetism. Scorsese wisely understands this and gives Day-Lewis free reign to go as big as possible.

3. Gerry Conlon – “In the Name of the Father”

Daniel Day-Lewis knows how to chart an expansive character journey. Gerry starts out as a reckless hippie who falls into jail when he is embroiled in an IRA bombing. The film expertly stages this fight for justice, led by the impassioned Gerry and aided by his lawyer, Gareth Pierce (Emma Thompson). However, the true strength of the movie is in the Father-Son relationship between Gerry and his Father/cellmate, Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite). Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite have this innate chemistry that feels lived in, difficult and heartbreaking. Gerry learns how to talk to and appreciate his Father as the two are wrongfully imprisoned together. Day-Lewis gives his most heartfelt and tear wrenching performance during the scenes of them together.

2. Abraham Lincoln – “Lincoln”

Few things sound more like Oscar bait than Daniel Day-Lewis appearing as Abraham Lincoln in a Steven Spielberg film. Often times, we associate this type of “oh duh” casting with boring dramas that exist only to pick up statues (looking at you, “Invictus”). What’s so magnificent about Day-Lewis here is he sidesteps concerns that this will be your expected performance. Yes, he nails all of Lincoln’s speeches in their grand nature. However, he makes this historic figure a fully three-dimensional character. We see wonderful moments of humor and tenderness, particularly in scenes with Sally Field‘s Mary Todd. As his fight for the 13th amendment looks more bleak, Day-Lewis unearths Lincoln’s anger. It’s not a loving recreation of a historical figure. It’s a complicated, engrossing and irreproachable performance.

1. Daniel Plainview – “There Will Be Blood”

Day-Lewis’ performance as sinister oilman Daniel Plainview ranks among the best performances of all time. Paul Thomas Anderson‘s distressing opus to greed wouldn’t work without Day-Lewis surrendering himself to Daniel’s worst qualities. As we enter the story, we both see the sliminess behind Daniel’s motives, but are also charmed by his zeal. Even as the film exposes more of the dark underbelly of this monster, we are drawn in. The final moments are sickening. Not only has Day-Lewis taken Daniel to new depths of hell, but we as an audience have followed him there. The film and performance will always be a tough sit. The reason for the success of the film rests squarely on Daniel Day-Lewis and his frightening ability to bring any character to life.

What are your favorite Daniel Day-Lewis performances? Share with us in the comments.