Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the most famous method actor in the world. Although this practice was brought to prominence on screen by classic stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean in the 1950s, who were actors learning this intense way of acting from its original advocates in the United States, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, Day-Lewis remains synonymous with the craft. This is the man, after all, who brought his rifle everywhere with him when playing Hawkeye – including Christmas dinner – in The Last of the Mohicans, and more recently, didn’t meet Phantom Thread co-star Vicky Krieps until the cameras were rolling on their first scene together – which was their characters meeting for the first time.
It’s quite easy to take the piss out of actors who take themselves so seriously: to act by using ‘the method’ is – very crudely – to put yourself in the shoes of the character you play and immerse yourself totally in their world, their thoughts and their actions, disconnecting your own, in order to deliver a sincere and expressive performance. Techniques include affective memory, animal work and substitution, all of which were first developed by Russian practioner Konstantin Stanislavski for his ‘system’ at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is considered the root of method acting. It can lead actors to some pretty dark places as, on a tragic note, allegedly happened with Heath Ledger during his portrayal of the Joker for The Dark Knight.
Day-Lewis clearly makes the method work for him, though. With a relatively paltry 30 onscreen credits during his career, he has been nominated for an Oscar an extraordinary six times (all in the Best Actor category), and converted three of them into wins, making him an Academy Award record-breaker in the process. No other male actor has won three Best Actor Oscars, or indeed three Oscars for acting (although the ladies trump as Katharine Hepburn is officially the most decorated actor by the Academy, with four gongs). In recent years, with his triumphs for There Will Be Blood and Lincoln, it’s almost as though Day-Lewis appears to do a film, is duly showered with praise and awards, and then goes back into hiding until the next project. With Day-Lewis up for an Oscar again at 2018’s ceremony for his role as Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, it’s time to look back at his previous Academy-recognised performances…
My Left Foot (1990 – Oscar win, BAFTA win, Golden Globe nomination)
Daniel Day-Lewis was first noticed by the Academy for his remarkable portrayal of Irish poet and artist Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy so severe that it left him only able to manipulate his left foot and speak with great difficulty. Based on Brown’s autobiography of the same name, Day-Lewis sunk himself into the physical challenges of the role, working especially hard to master the opening scene, which sees him put a record on with just the use of his left foot, because he had been told it was “impossible”.
With the allowance of mirrors in the film as Day-Lewis is more right-footed, he achieved it. He remained in character the whole time on set, meaning crew had to carry him everywhere and spoon feed him any meals. This performance also revealed his great capacity for restraint as well as emotion, and although his physical acting was obviously impressive, it’s the spirit he reflects of Christy Brown, with so few ‘signalling’ tools, that is particularly touching.
In the Name of the Father (1994 – Oscar nomination, BAFTA nomination, Golden Globe nomination)
A few years later and Day-Lewis was creating a buzz during awards season again for his performance as suspected terrorist Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father, working with writer-director Jim Sheridan again after My Left Foot. One of the great miscarriages of British justice saw Conlon arrested, charged and forced into signing a confession as part of the ‘Guildford Four’, taking responsibility for the IRA bombings of a pub in 1974. When his father Giuseppe (a brilliant-as-ever Pete Postlethwaite) tried to prove his son’s innocence, he was arrested, alongside other family members as the ‘Maguire Seven’, and also received a life sentence.
More of an obviously ‘barnstorming’ role here saw Day-Lewis run the gamut of emotions from care-free flippancy to frustrated anger and bitter resignation. Not only did he speak in a Northern Irish accent on and off set, but Day-Lewis subjected himself to both nights in prison where he was deprived of sleep and lengthy interrogations with real-life Special Branch officers. He also involved the crew in his preparation again, requesting that they verbally abuse and throw water at him. Overtly-political, and an only recently revealed, In the Name of the Father couldn’t quite deliver an Oscar his way this time.
Gangs of New York (2003 – Oscar nomination, BAFTA win, Golden Globe nomination)
Teaming up with the legendary Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York saw Daniel Day-Lewis create one of the great, unhinged onscreen villains, William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting. In his most commercial film yet, Day-Lewis went all in on the traditional Noo Yawk accent as well as displaying his exceptional physicality once more (those closed eyes!) and a rather fine supporting moustache. He also became an apprentice butcher prior to filming, so he could wield all of Bill’s tools convincingly – as well as catching peumonia from wearing only period-appropriate materials (and then allegedly refusing modern medicine to treat the illness).
With his nomination (and BAFTA win), Day-Lewis achieved three noteworthy things: he was recognised for playing a larger-than-life villain, the type of role, like comedy, that is traditionally overlooked when it comes to awards; he presented Bill as an antagonist equal to Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist Amsterdam in picking up a Best Actor nomination rather than Best Supporting Actor; and he acted the Academy’s darling off the screen (sorry Leo).
There Will Be Blood (2008 – Oscar win, BAFTA win, Golden Globe win)
A contender again (and eventual clean-sweep champion), Day-Lewis’ first film with Paul Thomas Anderson saw him take on the role of Daniel Plainview, remaining in the territory of violent villain, but otherwise providing not a whiff of Bill the Butcher re-play or recycling. Plainview’s driving obsession to succeed sees Day-Lewis revel in the Machiavellian aspects of a character who is on one hand, jovial and smooth, and on the other, bashing your head in with a bowling pin in his private alley. The earthy growl with which he embued Plainview’s vowels saw Day-Lewis deliver one of the iconic character voices in cinema.
From his method stance, Daniel Day-Lewis had zero interaction with his co-star (and antagonist, as preacher Eli) Paul Dano before or during filming. Indeed, Dano replaced the original actor slated to appear as Eli two weeks into shooting, and it has been suggested by some (although vigorously refuted by Anderson and Day-Lewis) that Kel O’Neill was intimidated by Day-Lewis’ approach. Day-Lewis has publicly praised his wife for having to put up with living with whichever character he is inhabiting at the time – and Plainview must have been quite a piece of work. This intensity worked a charm, however, if the propensity for “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!” references and quotes is to be believed. Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be a gift to GIFs.
Lincoln (2013 – Oscar win, BAFTA win, Golden Globe win)
Again showing his uncanny knack for portraying real people, Day-Lewis teamed up with another bastion of film direction in Steven Spielberg for 2012’s Lincoln. Despite the hype and excitement surrounding such a weighty pairing, the film could easily have been stodgy or overly-sentimental (Spielberg critics) or just inaccessible – but with solid source material, sensitive helming from Spielberg and Day-Lewis’ mesmerising, lynchpin performance, the critics were silenced.
There can surely be no greater challenge (certainly in America) then attempting to transform into one of the most famous – and instantly recognisable – world leaders in history. Again, Day-Lewis put his particular talents to work and came up with an incredible vocal manner for the historic president, as well as exemplary attention to detail in his physical performance. He utterly convinces audiences of his being Abraham Lincoln, despite the fact no one alive has any vocal or visual recordings against which to compare his performance. And the fact that he even texted Sally Fields, in character, as her husband Abe, probably helped him go that extra mile.
Phantom Thread (2018 – Oscar TBA, BAFTA nomination, Golden Globe nomination)
This year’s Oscars marks Daniel Day-Lewis’ sixth nomination as Best Actor, and it’s for his role as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread, which saw him return to work with Paul Thomas Anderson. He is certainly commendable in this role, and showcases his versatility as an actor, playing a character where most of the anger and emotion bubble away under the surface. Day-Lewis is a true chameleon – utterly convincing in whatever role he chooses to play.
Just as you would never have imagined him as a designer of gowns before Phantom Thread, the same can be said for him as Lincoln, or the fussy fiancé from A Room with A View, or a hardy frontiersman in The Last of the Mohicans. Although you are excited to watch a Daniel Day-Lewis performance, there is never any awareness of his ‘acting’ on screen due to his connection and commitment to each character, as well as his ability to make aspects of them resonate powerfully with an audience. Woodcock is perhaps, for want of a better term, his ‘quietest’ Oscar-nominated role, although the internal life and obsessions of the character are clear to see. As another Anderson role too, there’s a hint of hidden danger, especially when the film reaches its slightly unexpected – but entirely satisfying – denouement.
Phantom Thread marks the last time that Daniel Day-Lewis will appear on film, as he has announced his retirement from acting (possibly to go into dress-making? Who knows!). As a true master of cinematic performance, wouldn’t it be rather lovely if his retirement gift were an Oscar?