As, quite possibly, the greatest actor of his or any generation, it’s tempting to think of Daniel Day-Lewis as someone who stands alone. To imagine him towering above his colleagues in terms of both his calibre and in the tangible results of his craft – forcing others to make room for him, rather than properly sharing the space. Plenty of our widely-acknowledged greats have gained their reputation for their knack to take charge of a scene, elbowing co-stars into the periphery as they deploy the great, impactful “moments” that we all remember. Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Nicholson are notable examples of this strategy of domination.
Given Day-Lewis’ reputation, it’s easy to put him in the same sort of stable, with all the excitable gossip about his immersive method, and his immortal readings of florid, extensive monologues. But for my money, his true talent goes beyond that, and many of the greatest moments in his filmography would not be so great if they weren’t moments of deep, intuitive collaboration with other cast members. Day-Lewis’ remarkable talent stems not from taking up the whole screen, but from sharing it in a considered, naturalistic way and, often, his best work is done when he cedes some of the floor to his compatriots.
Phantom Thread, his latest and supposedly final offering, is a two-plus hour study of this exact phenomenon. While Day-Lewis’ imminent retirement is dominating the press chatter in many ways, what many critics have picked up about this film is just how stellar his two main co-stars, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville, are when they go toe-to-toe with Day Lewis’ spectral, volatile dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock. It’s a film not about Day-Lewis giving one final, outstanding performance (though he does), but rather a character study with three players, no one less vital than the others, all at the height of their powers and urging each other on to further greatness.
Don’t misunderstand, Day-Lewis is truly remarkable as the tightly-wound, deeply complex, totally fucked-up Woodcock, and he really should be taking all those acting gongs from right under Gary Oldman’s latex-plastered nose. But a version of Phantom Thread that solely relied on his superior talents would be wholly incomplete – and many of Day-Lewis’ finest scenes here would simply not exist without the commitment and exceptional performances of the actors he does battle with.
Throughout, the fricative push-and-pull of Woodcock’s love affair with the meek, enigmatic ingenue Alma requires two heavyweight performers to pull off and, at every moment, Vicky Krieps more than rises to the challenge of taking Day-Lewis head-on. Comparatively new to the game, it would be expected that the sniping matches of the characters’ dialogue would resolve continuously in favour of Day-Lewis, but the film pretty much ends in a tie between the two, as clear winners do not emerge from spats about Alma’s lack of taste, or conflict over distracting breakfast routines. While Day-Lewis gives yet another stunningly chameleonic turn, Krieps is also offering a performance unlike any other put to screen, making the two a perfect match.
Magic happens just as often in the scenes shared between Woodcock and his sister Cyril, played by Manville. A stoic, watchful presence for much of the film, Manville resolutely hangs over the central love story of Woodcock and Alma, but the moments when she comes down into the fold land with incredible impact and she is allowed to play around in the middle of Day-Lewis and Krieps’ dynamic in a way that disrupts and amends both of their performances between breakfasts (most of the best scenes in Phantom Thread take place over bacon, or eggs, or toast).
With Day-Lewis here, you can see how his performance is, rather than wholly generated by the actor alone, informed by the performances of his colleagues, too. Even when Woodcock is fighting for control, routine, and his own way, you can see in Day-Lewis’ delivery, or the beat he takes before responding to someone, or the subtle looks he gives as others are speaking, that Woodcock the constructed character is as much Krieps’ and Manville’s creation as his.
Even in moments where he is alone, with all eyes on his powerhouse abilities – such as a scene where he rushes to a New Year’s Eve party to collect Alma and sees her across a packed dance hall, the effects of what Krieps has offered him in previous scenes are writ large in the glint of his eye, or the sad crease of his mouth. The penultimate, omelette-centric one-on-one he shares with Krieps, acted out mostly in silence, is the culmination of an arduous collaborative process, where each actor has informed the other so deeply for so long that no more needs saying for the sparks to fly. Never has the setting of a table, nor the consumption of eggs and mushrooms, been quite so magnetic.
With this attribute, most vital to Day-Lewis’ appeal, front-and-centre in Phantom Thread, its prevalence through his career becomes all the more apparent. While his work in previous Paul Thomas Anderson collaboration There Will Be Blood is remembered for his tirades about abandoning his boy, or drinking your milkshake, would any of these moments land with such power if Day-Lewis weren’t sharing his space with an equally stellar Paul Dano? His sickening, sickly Eli is the impetus for much of Day-Lewis’ great work in the film and, as before, his Daniel Plainview is as much a result of their work together as it is of Day-Lewis’ own personal labour.
It’s the reason his sweeping romance with Michelle Pfieffer in The Age of Innocence is sumptuous and convincing, and it’s also the reason Lincoln is comparatively weak. While Day-Lewis is stellar, fully absorbed into his role, the lack of an equally prominent figure to challenge him detracts from the final work. He’s great when he takes centre stage, but he’s never better than when he shares it.
That’s why his retirement is a true crying shame for cinema. In Day-Lewis, we had someone who not only gave us his very best time and time again, but also gave us the best in others, and elevated some really very good performers to unfathomable heights alongside him. The humility and spirit of collaboration in his work is truly unique in movie stardom, and it will be missed.