With his mesmerising performance in Lincoln securing him an unprecedented 3rd Best Actor Oscar, Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis has confirmed his standing as one of the pre-eminent actors not just of his generation, but of all time. He infuses his Lincoln with warmth, wit, wisdom and cunning, while angry flashes reveal the President’s iron will.
It’s a very different role than those carefully chosen by Day-Lewis in the recent past. His tours de force as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, and as Bill The Butcher in Gangs Of New York may have been two of the finest performances of the last 10 years, but both were ones of raw power and magnetic presence. Not since his Oscar-winning role as the disabled Christy Brown in 1989’s My Left Foot has Day-Lewis brought such mischief and humour to a character, as well as his customary steel.
My Left Foot may well be the greatest acting performance in the history of cinema. His portrayal of the brilliant and charismatic writer and painter born with cerebral palsy is utterly astonishing. George Clooney almost quit acting after seeing the film, believing quite rightly that he could not possibly emulate it. He was correct, he couldn’t. But then, could anybody?
Day-Lewis told the New York Times that on reading the script for My Left Foot ,“I knew it couldn’t be done…and that intrigued me.”
When we consider the greatest screen actors, we think of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, Denzel Washington and Robert De Niro. All are capable of extraordinary performances, all have won deserved Oscars. But too often, all have chosen underwhelming projects that are beneath their formidable talents.
And an actor’s career is equal to the sum of its parts.
The 19 year-old Day-Lewis embarked on an acting career after taking inspiration from arguably De Niro’s greatest performance. He told The New York Times, “I saw Taxi Driver five or six times in the first week, and I was astonished by its sheer visceral beauty.” However, De Niro’s genius, and his legacy, have been diluted by around 15 years of indifferent performances in poor-to-middling fare.
It’s certainly hard to imagine Day-Lewis agreeing to star in The Adventures Of Rocky & Bulwinkle or Meet The Fockers, despite agreeing to star in the musical Nine and the 80s comedy Stars and Bars, his only real career missteps to date.
Day-Lewis is approaching the age when both De Niro and Pacino became too comfortable, but it’s hard to imagine him mirroring their decline while he still selects his roles and scripts so carefully. He told the Wall Street Journal, "At some point, if I'm lucky, a life will begin to emerge, a sensation first and foremost…in other words, you might look at exactly the same objects but in a slightly different way."
This partly explains why he turned down Spielberg’s offer to play Lincoln twice, only committing when he felt the completely rewritten script was absolutely right. Even then, he insisted the director delay shooting for a year so he could adequately prepare for the role. Spielberg was reluctant, but was prepared to wait for his man.
Day-Lewis certainly does not sound like a man yet ready to star in an Adam Sandler film (we’re looking at you Al Pacino…).
Day-Lewis is infamous for his preparation and his dedicated, idiosyncratic, and borderline barking behaviour on set where he rarely emerges from character. During My Left Foot, he demanded he be fed, and pushed around in a wheelchair to get an understanding of the frustrations a disabled person often feels.
He underwent punishing training at the hands of Barry McGuigan for The Boxer. For his role in In The Name Of The Father, he volunteered for solitary confinement to better understand the mindset of a political prisoner. During the filming of Lincoln, cast and crew had to refer to him as "Mr President" at all times (although this was apparently at Spielberg's behest).
These stories are both legion and legendary, and add to the Day-Lewis mystique. Yet many actors use these techniques and share his intensity. Unfortunately they're just not as good. It’s quite simply that Day-Lewis’ performances are often so extraordinary, we search for some unique reason to explain them.
Director Jim Sheridan, who directed Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, In The Name Of The Father and The Boxer, describes Day-Lewis as having "a kind of rage… like a white light through a small hole". This tallies with Day-Lewis’ admission to the WSJ that, "perhaps I'm particularly serious because I'm not unaware of the potential absurdity of what I'm doing."
The range and power of Day-Lewis' performances beg the question, is he the greatest screen actor we have ever seen? Has anyone ever demonstrated a range as broad? The physicality? The skill with voice and accent? The leading man looks? The presence?
Perhaps. The equally enigmatic and dedicated Danish-American Viggo Mortensen also flits effortlessly between blockbuster leading man and indie powerhouse, similarly unable to produce a bad performance. And of course, let's not forget Meryl Streep.
Day-Lewis admitted to The New York Times that, "I’m a little bit perverse, and I just hate doing the thing that’s the most obvious”.
Let's hope his next project features Viggo Mortensen and Meryl Streep, with Gary Oldman, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr and Javier Bardem in supporting roles.
In the meantime, any actor with any kind of ego should avoid watching Day-Lewis in Lincoln at all costs- because he's much, much better than you are.