Time and again Sir Daniel Day-Lewis’ name has been sounded in response to the debate as to who is the greatest living actor. Certainly, it is the case that his name is synonymous with the highest standard of a particular type of acting; that is, the lofty, capitalised notion of the Actor (pronounced Ack-tor, naturally), born out of a theatrical tradition that has its roots upon the stages of old. On the one hand, his are the performances of Oscars – and, for the award of Leading Actor, Day-Lewis has won on three separate occasions, for My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007), and, most recently, Lincoln (2012). Known as much for the infamous tales regarding the approach he takes towards his craft, such performances are famed for Day-Lewis’ ability to completely immerse himself in the roles he chooses, and are iterative of the fact that he may indeed be the heir to De Niro’s status, after Brando, as the defining method actor of his generation.
On the other hand, despite his success on the awards circuit, Day-Lewis’ performances demonstrate a truly admirable and, perhaps, surprising range. Certainly, they are perhaps more diverse than is usually imagined. Beside the aforementioned films, performances in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and The Age of Innocence (1993) capture his estimable ability to shift between vastly different roles. Perhaps even more of a chameleon than the likes of Brando and De Niro who preceded him, Day-Lewis’ versatility in both method and non-method roles elevates him above the crowd. Arguably, he is yet to find a role into which he is unable to disappear completely – thus his capacity to play both one of the great heartthrobs of the ’90s in Mohicans’ Hawkeye/Nathaniel Poe, and one of modern film’s most terrifying villains in There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview.
It seems fitting that Day-Lewis should retire on what will undoubtedly go down as one of his very best performances in a career comprised almost entirely of bests. Paired for the second time with Paul Thomas Anderson, arguably the best director of his generation, and certainly the best director yet to win an Academy Award, Phantom Thread is an altogether different beast to There Will Be Blood. While this year’s Oscar is sure to be Gary Oldman’s, if Phantom Thread is indeed to be Day-Lewis’ final bow then it is fitting that he has been nominated for the last in a long line of masterfully and meticulously crafted performances. Beside the pomp and theatricality of Day-Lewis’ intoxicating incarnation of ruthless oil prospector Daniel Plainview, the understated stoicism that he brings to Reynolds Woodcock, a character whose complexities are not nearly so visible, provides a sensuality and depth of feeling that lingers long after the film’s breathtaking climax.
Top Five Daniel Day-Lewis performances:
5. My Beautiful Launderette (1985)
When considered beside My Beautiful Launderette, Day-Lewis’ other 1985 release, James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, in which he plays hapless snob Cecil Vyse, is a delicious demonstration of the fact that a still-young Day-Lewis was able to craft two of his finest early performances in the same year, despite them being totally at odds with one another. As Cecil, Day-Lewis gives his all as the infectiously annoying twerp to whom Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy is engaged. And yet, despite our burning desire for Lucy to leave Cecil for George, when she finally does, Day-Lewis imbues his performance with such a pricking burst of humanity that he is able to foster sympathy for one of the most undeserving characters. As Johnny, the thuggish love interest of Omar in Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette, Day-Lewis brings compassion, warmth, and sensitivity while not once compromising Johnny’s brash, macho physicality.
4. Lincoln (2012)
If Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood are demonstrative of one particular type of shouty, scary Day-Lewis performance, then Lincoln neatly precedes Day-Lewis’ intoxicating turn in Phantom Thread. Considerably more restrained than some of his louder roles, but not without moments of calculated, captivating power, his turn as the president is by far the most brilliant part of Spielberg’s handsome epic. Weighted down by the anguish of knowing that something must be done without knowing quite how to do it, Day-Lewis brings humanity and complexity to one of history’s most important figures. By its end you are left in no doubt that this is a man capable of changing the course of history.
3. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Who’d have thought Daniel Day-Lewis had action chops? After taking home Oscar gold for My Left Foot, Day-Lewis followed it with Michael Mann’s historical action romance The Last of the Mohicans, an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s great American novel of the same name. Day-Lewis brings a smouldering intensity to Hawkeye/Nathaniel Poe that is enough to make the hardest of hearts flutter. Day-Lewis might have managed sexy before, but in Mann’s enduring classic he was also given the opportunity to test his mettle as a Hollywood action star. He nailed it. #swoon.
2. My Left Foot (1989)
There was a period in the late ’80s through to the mid ’90s when it was long assumed that one way for a male actor to as good as guarantee himself Oscar glory was to play a character who bore some form of disability. Sure, it is a cynical opinion to possess, and it undermines the skills required to develop a character whose experiences are quite unlike an actor’s own, but when viewed beside wins for Dustin Hoffman in Rain Main (1988), Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992), Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994), Geoffrey Rush in Shine (1996), and Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets (1997), Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance as Christy Brown in My Left Foot is indicative of a particular pattern of recognition. Arguably, Day-Lewis’ performance is the best among that highly honoured list, capturing not only Christy Brown’s physical suffering as man afflicted with cerebral palsy, but demonstrating a recurring knack to render a character’s humour, intelligence, and heart beside their physical characteristics.
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
In the Name of the Father (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002) both deserve special mentions as loud Daniel Day-Lewis performances. In the latter, especially – the actor’s second role for Martin Scorsese after The Age of Innocence (1993) – Day-Lewis towers over an impressive ensemble as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. It is a performance that preempts Daniel Plainview’s explosive ferocity, which is the role that he will likely be remembered for. Day-Lewis channels more than a sprinkling of John Huston as he commands every moment of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Machiavellian epic. It is a thunderous performance that charts the course of a man’s ambition as it is in turn rewarded then soured, before mutating into a greed that corrodes what is left of his soul.