Daniel Day-Lewis: The Essential Performances
Great performances come in all shapes and sizes, but there is nothing as thrilling as an actor bigging it up, striving for the epic, and pulling it off. The risks are obvious: larger-than-life can easily translate as ham, and the one can be mistaken for the other. Some of the most acclaimed performances from the past - by Laurence Oliver, or Charles Laughton, for example - now look so theatrical it's difficult to take them entirely seriously.
Even so, we appreciate the effort. Al Pacino has given more shaded, nuanced performances than Tony Montana, but given a choice between rewatching Donnie Brasco and Scarface, I suspect most of us are going to plump for the big cigar and the dodgy Cuban accent.
That's the disclaimer. Now let me stake the claim: in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis proves himself beyond all measure of doubt the greatest film actor of his generation, the rightful heir to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. This is the single most riveting piece of screen acting we have seen this decade, a performance so bold in its effects, unsparing in its commitment and authentic in its detail, the impact is quite mesmerizing.
Of course great performances don't bubble up out of nothing. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has come up with a formidable character, a turn of the century prospector, Daniel Plainview (very loosely inspired by a figure in Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil"), and he's set the stage for a barn-stormer. If Plainview isn't quite in every scene of this near three-hour epic, his influence still dominates the few he doesn't appear in.
Day-Lewis doesn't work often - he's only made three films in the last ten years - and when he does, he's as choosy about his collaborators as his roles: Jim Sheridan (three times), and Martin Scorsese (twice) have earned his trust. Anderson joins Michael Mann, Nicholas Hytner and Rebecca Miller (DDL's wife) as the only other filmmakers who have tempted him back in front of a camera since he stepped away from a more conventional career in the early 90s. Among the movies he's said to have turned down: Philadelphia, Schindler's List, The English Patient, and the role of Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings.
For Day-Lewis (who turned 50 last April) the performance proves that for all his reticence, he's still got the hunger and the passion to dig deep and face the world anew. Where so many actors - even Day-Lewis's one-time hero, Robert De Niro - fall back on familiar tics and tricks, DDL seems more than anything invested in his capacity for reinvention. When he takes on a role, he doesn't just pull on another costume or another hairstyle, he lives another life.
Influenced equally by his schooling in British theatre and the naturalism he responded to instinctively in American movies (and in the films of Ken Loach), Day-Lewis is a fascinating hybrid; it's a split he instinctively seizes on, and though he might not admit it, there's as much of Olivier's exhibitionism in Plainview as there is Brando's inner turmoil.
Upper middle class by birth, and a very eloquent speaker in his own right, Day-Lewis considers himself an outsider, describes the life he has made for himself in County Wicklow as self-imposed exile, and gravitates to unschooled, unlettered, self-sufficient men like Hawkeye in The Last Of The Mohicans, John Proctor in The Crucible and Bill the Butcher in Gangs Of New York. Interestingly, he makes much of his southeast London childhood - Greenwich, Deptford, New Cross, Lewisham - the same stomping ground that produced two of his near contemporaries, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. I don't know what they were putting in the water back then - or whether it's just the proximity of Millwall Football Club - but they make a remarkable - if sometimes frustratingly wayward - triumvirate.
Quite what kind of a role might entice Daniel Day-Lewis back into the trenches after this - surely Oscar-winning? - triumph we can hardly imagine. But at least we know it will be a challenge; a project that stretches him; that asks questions about a man's place in the world and draws him further out of his comfort zone. In short, we know it will be worth watching, and worth waiting for.
THE ESSENTIAL DANIEL DAY-LEWIS
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
DDL had dabbled in films before (he made his debut in a tiny role as a vandal in Sunday, Bloody Sunday), but Hanif Kureishi's taboo-buster really got him noticed. Directed by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette is a kind of 1980s update on a classic Ealing comedy. He plays Johnny, a gay white (blond) working class Londoner, a NF thug who reconsiders and takes up with a young Pakistani entrepreneur, Omar (Gordon Warnecke).
A Room with A View (1985)
Fortunately for Day-Lewis, he was also in the other breakout British movie of 1985, James Ivory's sensitive EM Forster adaptation. DDL was Cecil, the foppish upper class fiancÚ to Helena Bonham-Carter's Lucy Honeychurch. Critics and audiences were bowled over: "Seeing these two performances side by side is an affirmation of the miracle of acting: that one man could play these two opposites is astonishing," wrote Roger Ebert.
DDL's first "American" film, courtesy of producer Saul Zaentz and writer director Philip Kaufman. He plays Tomas, a philandering Czech doctor who falls in love with the innocently besotted Juliette Binoche and attempts to mend his ways. Lena Olin is the other woman who sleeps with them both. Day-Lewis learned to speak Czech to play the role - whether he also slept with every woman he met cannot be confirmed.
My Left Foot (1989)The film for which Day-Lewis won his first (and so far only) Oscar. This was the most demanding role he had taken on, and the first where his insistence on staying in character during the filming became the stuff of legend. To play Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy and who learned to paint with his left foot, DDL refused to leave his wheelchair and had to be spoonfed throughout the production.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Returning to acting three years after suffering a breakdown while playing Hamlet on stage, DDL played Hawkeye, the scout in James Fenimore Cooper's influential novel. Directed by another stickler for perfection, Michael Mann, the film marked the actor's high point as a popular romantic lead. During the filming he built a canoe, learned to track and skin animals and to fire a flint musket.
The Age Of Innocence (1993)
His performance as Newland Archer, the anguished romantic hero of Edith Wharton's novel made this atypical Martin Scorsese movie among his most moving films. Married to Winona Ryder but in love with Michelle Pfeiffer, Newland is too stuck on doing the right thing to do the right thing.
In The Name Of The Father (1993)
Jim Sheridan's film about the Guildford Four, Irishmen wrongly convicted for 1974 pub bombing. DDL lost 30 pounds to play the purported ringleader, Gerry Conlon, and insisted on sleeping in the set's jail cell during the filming. Even so, it's his deepening relationship with his father (Pete Postlethwaite) that speaks loudest here.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Martin Scorsese and Miramax found Day-Lewis working as a cobbler in Florence, Tuscany, some five years after his last film (Sheridan's The Boxer). The opportunity to work again with Scorsese - and to play the ruthless top-hatted gang-leader, Bill the Butcher, was too tempting to pass up. This is a grand Victorian moustache-twirling, waist-coated villain, a veritable "spectacle of fearsome acts", and surely an influence on how Paul Thomas Anderson conceived of Daniel Plainview.
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