The method behind the madness

examine the career of a retiring legend of the silver screen

Image: Paramount Vantage/Miramax

Alas, the time has come to bid farewell to a giant of cinema. After just 20 films in the last 36 years, and a mere six this century, Daniel Day-Lewis is off. Perhaps he’s tired of the film industry; perhaps his heavy dedication to his roles has begun to take its toll; perhaps he’s going to turn his hand to another art form. We’ll never know, but for one reason or another, Daniel Day-Lewis is riding off into the sunset, taking three Oscars and a whole heap of praise with him.

Throughout his career, Day-Lewis has played an array of characters of varying degrees
of obsession and, perhaps, madness. From the outrageous greed of Daniel Plainview to the artistic exactness of his latest creation, Reynolds Woodcock, his characters are so often driven by a desire to achieve, and may trample others in the pursuit of their goal. Despite this trend, these characters are wildly different, ranging from monstrous to inspirational in their journeys. It is a testament to Day-Lewis’ continued skill as an actor that he has been able to inhabit such a variety of people with astonishing authenticity.

This is no accident, of course. One of the few actors in the current era known for method acting, Day-Lewis’ (in)famous preparation for his roles must be viewed as a large part of his success. He is said to never break character on set or indeed off it, with two-time collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson having said that he will sometimes stay in character for months. This approach allows Day-Lewis to fully become his subject for a period of time. Such an intense, demanding acting style may explain why Day-Lewis is so selective with his roles. Yet it has brought magnificent results, each decidedly individual character as well-drawn as the last.

Image: Working Title/Orion Pictures

He started out with a small role in Richard Attenborough’s biographical epic Gandhi, before drawing attention in a starring role in the Stephen Frears-directed My Beautiful Laundrette, which offers a glimpse into where Day-Lewis’ career might have gone – that of a romantic lead. Although even as a romantic lead he was willing to challenge conventions with a very understated performance as a gay, working-class, ex-skinhead who falls in love with a young Pakistani upstart. The film follows the couple as they set up a laundrette together, and showcases Day-Lewis’ charisma as a performer. Unlike his future Oscar-winning roles which allow him to show off the full extent of his abilities, his performance here is not the centre of attention; he simply gives his character a depth and nuance that a lesser performer may have reduced to caricature. However, the route of romantic lead was not where his career would take him. In the same year he also had a supporting role in James Ivory’s A Room with a View playing a posh dandy in complete contrast to My Beautiful Laundrette, demonstrating his range as an actor.

Then came his first big success. Jim Sheridan’s 1989 film My Left Foot told the true story of Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy who learnt to paint and write using the only part of his body he had physical control over – his left foot. For his performance here, Day-Lewis grabbed his first Oscar by showcasing a complete transformation into the heroic and courageous Christy. From the first moments of the film, Day-Lewis’ heavy breathing – conveying determination, frustration and great effort all in the simplest of sounds, shows us just what life is like for Christy. He is a man who is determined to succeed to prove a point; and almost never seems satisfied with what he has. Assumed to be mentally, as well as physically, disabled from a young age, Day-Lewis is superb at showing a man embittered by this injustice, but warm enough to connect with the large family around him.

Perhaps because of his far-reaching abilities, the more basic skill of accents could perhaps be a forgotten part of Day-Lewis’ filmography. Yet throughout his career he shows off a range of accents, helping him to fully embody his role. This is perhaps most impressive in My Left Foot, as Day-Lewis had to master the guttural sounds of Christy’s voice, and overlay it with a Dublin accent. It is in all respects an impressive work and can be seen as the earliest marker of Day-Lewis’ ability. It is a performance with some tour-de-force moments that crucially never allows Christy’s disability to define his character.

Image: Miramax

Day-Lewis would go on to work twice more with Jim Sheridan, more than any other
director. His low number of film roles means that Day-Lewis has worked with remarkably few directors, but he did find time to work with the alright Martin Scorsese, collaborating with him on both The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York and acting opposite a young Leonardo DiCaprio in Leo’s first collaboration with Marty. Unfortunately he’s out-acted at every opportunity by Daniel Day-Lewis’ moustache, in one of his many fantastic displays of facial hair. Day-Lewis seems to be having a lot of fun as a larger-than-life Dickensian style villain, who wields butchers knives as his weapon of choice. He commands the audience’s attention just as his character runs the Five-Points area of New York. Though his performance arguably strays occasionally into ‘chewing the scenery’ territory, the over-the-top style of performance perfectly suits the character and helps elevate one of Scorsese’s weaker pictures. Tales of his method acting style also surrounded this performance, including getting his nose broken by DiCaprio during a fight scene and carrying on despite this, as well as learning to tap his prosthetic eye lens with the tip of a knife.

More big, eye-catching acting and nastiness came in Day-Lewis’ first collaboration with another American auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson, in There Will Be Blood. Probably the greatest film Day-Lewis has starred in, it is still regarded as a high watermark for the 21st century and once more took Danny Boy to the Oscars. While the film was roundly beaten by the Coen brothers’ masterpiece No Country for Old Men, the Academy could not ignore Day-Lewis’ blistering turn as a late 19th century oil man. Consumed by ambition and greed, Daniel Plainview is by most measures a horrible man, but in Day-Lewis’ hands there is enough humanity to keep him engaging.

Perhaps what is so great about him as an actor is that despite the differing nature of his characters, he brings a wit and charm to all of them. Daniel Day-Lewis is seen as a very serious man, who plays serious people in serious films, but there is a glint in the eye that brings the necessary levity to his incarnations. It helps him pull the audience in and take us with him wherever he chooses to go.

Image: 20th Century Fox

This characteristic wit was also lent to the historical behemoth that is Abraham Lincoln. Working with another heavyweight director in Steven Spielberg, Day-Lewis was as convincing as ever in Lincoln. Excellent hair and make-up work helped, but Day-Lewis’ embodiment of the iconic president owed a lot to his physical transformation. Much more subtle than his work on My Left Foot, here Day-Lewis arched his back and gave the impression of a wiry, wise man who could still become physically imposing when needed. The most impressive part of his performance (which of course won him another Oscar) was simply in his line delivery, however. A superb historical drama that is deeply interested in the workings of 19th century politics, Lincoln could so easily have become a dry chore of a film, but yet again, there’s that glint in the eye, a wry smile and a charm to Daniel Day-Lewis that keeps us hooked. When reciting anecdotes and parables to his associates, Day-Lewis makes the President a raconteur of the highest order.

All of these films show an actor in complete control of his craft, ranging from subtle emotion beneath a cold surface in Lincoln, to the theatrical fireworks of There Will Be Blood. In his final film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, he is in more restrained mood. Bringing together obsession, charisma and below-the-surface emotion as he has done his whole career, Day-Lewis delivers a performance of simultaneous strength and vulnerability. It is a large part of an exquisite film that is a fitting end to a magnificent career. Goodbye Daniel, you will be sorely missed.

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