Let’s take a moment to look over the career of Daniel Day-Lewis. Since I just did a celebration of all things Meryl, I thought I should I pick an actor to create a matched set. The only other contenders, the only actors in her league, real actors who can create unique, fully dimensional characters in a role that is in harmony with the vision of the writer and the director are Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. But I give Day-Lewis the nod because he knits on set. That is just too cool. I’m waiting to catch him at my local knitting café, The Purple Purl, when he’s in town filming something. It could happen! Mary-Louise Parker drops in. She’s a great knitter. I’ll be there, Daniel.
My Beautiful Launderette (1985) and Room with a View (1985)
Day-Lewis had a few small roles before these parts, but with two big performances in 1985 that were so striking and so strikingly different he jumps onto the radar as a force of cinema. A thoroughly contemporary tale, set in London’s multi-racial mileue, My Beautiful Launderette is one of the best films of the ’80s. Its gay themes make it especially interesting. Day-Lewis fully embodies the diametrically opposed sides of a man who is both a racist punk and a lover of a South Asian small businessman. There are lots of people who are complicated, but not this conflicted. Day-Lewis pulls it off with élan and charisma. Here’s somebody you’d see on the street but never before on screen. Could his role in Room with a View be more opposite? Cecil is a nerdy snob from turn-of-the-century England, an England generations before massive immigration, launderettes and punk rock, but certainly an empire beginning to be unsure of itself in the world. The character is as introverted as the other was extroverted, and Day-Lewis is virtually unrecognizable as the actor behind both performances. And yet the performances have something in common, both characters are deeply flawed but extremely likeable. The likeability isn’t a trick or a pandering to the audience; it comes from the accuracy of the humanity in the characters, and the credit goes to Day-Lewis. He gets everything so right and freshly so, you can’t help but be drawn in.
My Left Foot (1989)
His first Oscar was a shoo-in. His work in My Left Foot is everything the academy likes, but so much more. His powerful portrayal of Christie Brown, the writer, born in Ireland, poor and with cerebral palsy, could have been sentimental and/or unwatchable. Day-Lewis zones in on Brown’s love of life and gives us the zestiest chunk of celluloid this side of Anna Magnani. It’s not a film about disability; it’s a film about ability. The ability to mine joy no matter who you are or where you’re from or what you’re saddled with—but it’s not a boring feel-good flick. Day-Lewis is working with a great director, Jim Sheridan, and across from Brenda Flicker, who is so hard-scrabble real and tough, she makes it hard to believe you are not watching a documentary. Day-Lewis also refuses to sanitize Brown. Hollywood actors can often play people with disabilities as if they are automatically saints. By the conventional standards of his time, Brown was sinner, not saint. And by the standards of any time, he’s an awesome human being, not a drippy inspirational poster child. Day-Lewis gets it right, the big and the small, the effort to communicate and the deep importance of what is communicated.
So many actors’ careers go stale post-Oscar. There’re offered prestige projects that can often be deadly dull. There’s a whiff of authority about them, instead of drive; they aren’t going anywhere because they’ve arrived. Unless they are lucky enough to end up working with Martin Scorsese.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Villains are the best parts, usually. They can be intense and pure. They want something. They usually drive the plot with those desires. And actors attack them with zest. Free from the oppressive claims of having to be the hero, the nice guy, the one the audience roots for—they sink their teeth into these parts, and end up winning the audience over from the toothless heroes. Actors should play every part like they are the villain. Bill “The Butcher” is not the central character in this film. But he’s the one you’ll remember. Blood-thirsty, charismatic, and scary, Day-Lewis dons his top-hat and wields his ax like he’s in a musical. He sells it. You come out wanting to run down the street with your ax and go for what you want! Scorsese’s refusal to lose his rawness and imagination just because he’s working in a “period’ piece help give this movie dash. But watch how it thunks when Cameron Diaz or Leonardo DiCaprio take over the screen. You long for more of Bill “The Butcher” even though you’ve got to watch with a hand over your eye and an anxious stomach. I wish Day-Lewis would do something with David Cronenberg, who can take these transgressional forces and put them in the center of a picture instead of at the edges.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Another Oscar, but less of a shoo-in this time. A lot of people didn’t like this movie and didn’t like Day-Lewis. It’s not a realistic film—the thouroughly nerve-wrenching score by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood should be your first clue—despite its roots in the sociological novel of Upton Sinclair. There’s a moment near the climax when Day-Lewis gets up from a fight on a slippery bowling-alley lane. It’s virtuoso. His limbs are winding around like an oil-drill. It’s a comic choice for a dramatic moment and I can’t think of another actor who would have done it like this. It’s awkward, it’s vulnerable, its full of power going nowhere fast and it’s perfect for the character and the themes of the film. Typical of Day-Lewis’s brave talent, psychological precision and engaging humanity
Like our heroine Meryl from a few weeks back, Day-Lewis has a junky musical in his oeuvre. The less said about this utter gutting of Fellini’s masterpiece the better. I forgive him like I forgive her.
What’s up next for the finest screen actor of our time? He’s doing Abraham Lincoln and that smells of Oscar. But I’d like to see him paired with a director as kooky and brave and committed as he is. Like I mentioned above, David Cronenberg would be a fine choice if we can get him to abandon Viggo for a minute. A director with a theatrical bent, like John Cameron Mitchell, would be a dream pairing. Given their abilities to totally transform themselves, Meryl and Day-Lewis might be wonderful in a kind of Altmanesque ensemble piece where they play every part. I like to dream. I’ll be sitting behind my yarn at The Purple Purl thinking up projects for you, Daniel, if you want to drop in.