Last month acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis shocked the world of cinema by announcing his retirement. Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming drama “Phantom Thread” will mark the 60-year old actor’s final film. Like other actors and directors who later recanted from retirement, we should hope Mr. Daniel resumes his vocation in the near future. However, in more than three decades of his acting career, Daniel Day-Lewis has left us with a tapestry of masterful performances. He had the luxury of choosing roles that only interested him. At the same time, he painfully and mesmerizingly transcended his whole inner persona to play the onscreen characters.
Daniel Day-Lewis has keen interest for woodwork. It kind of reflects in his craftsmanship to create character profiles from the scratch. His meticulous approach to acting is something that can’t be easily taught. The previous generation method actors (like Brando, Pacino, Hoffman, De Niro), despite undergoing rigorous changes, retained some of their star/actor persona in the characters. But Daniel Day-Lewis surpassed such barriers and gracefully disappeared into the roles he played. As a cinephile, I am happy to live in this era and witness one of the greatest screen actors in action. Here’s my ranking of the best Daniel Day-Lewis performances till date:
10. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Stephen Frears’ coming-of-age saga is set in London’s Pakistani community. It chronicles the gay romance between laundromat managing Omar and reformed punk Johnny. Novelist and playwright Hanif Kureishi wrote the film, his first screenwriting credit. Back in 1985, neither Stephean Frears nor Daniel Day-Lewis were popular names. Frears wondered if Day-Lewis, the soft-spoken guy, is the right choice to play the tough guy. Apart from few TV roles, the actor was only known as poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis’ son. But when the shooting commenced, Day-Lewis arrived with right clothes and spoke in a perfect working-class accent. Johnny was exactly opposite to the role Daniel Day-Lewis played earlier in A Room with a View (1985) as the straight-laced Cecil Vyse. Both these roles strengthened the actor’s reputation and later allowed him to channel method acting in unprecedented ways.
9. The Last of Mohicans (1992)
Michael Mann’s blockbuster hit The Last of Mohicans was based on James Fenimore Cooper’s classic historical novel. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye, an English Frontiersman raised by Native Americans. The narrative is set in 1757 during the French and Indian war (1754-1763). The actor who goes deeply inside a character, Day-Lewis went to live in the mountains of North Carolina. He hunted games and learned to skin those animals. He also learned to build canoes, trained to handle tomahawks. Moreover, the characters’ 12 pound old flint-lock gun never left his side.
Day-Lewis considered the role of Hawkeye to be physically challenging. Hence, he set to build up his stamina and torso (by working five times a week for almost 6 months). In any case, the uber perfectionist director Mann well complimented Lewis’ serious and dedicated performance. Mann, for his part, immensely concentrated on recreating the exact atmosphere of the era. He and his crew even accurately reconstructed the huge Fort William.
8. The Age of Innocence (1993)
Martin Scorsese’s films were best known for their crescendos of shocking violence. Nevertheless, time and again, the filmmaker has proved his versatility by making nuanced, unbloody dramas. Scorsese, with The Age of Innocence, not only drifted away from his pet themes, but also made one of the best literary adaptations. The story is a romantic triangle (set in the 1870s) between Newland Archer, married Countess Olenska and May Welland, Olenska’s cousin whom Archer is to marry. To prepare for this tale of unconsummated love, Day-Lewis read a lot of books on 19th century etiquette. He insisted on getting the cologne from the period and moved around the set carrying a walking stick. The trio of splendid performances from Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder immersed us in the characters’ longings and passion, who otherwise remain restrained and aloof.
7. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Philip Kaufman’s efficient adaptation of 1984 best-selling novel tells the story of a womanizing Czech brain surgeon named Tomas. His casual run-ins with women cease when he meets the beautiful, naïve waitress Tereza (Juliette Binoche). They fall in love and tie the knot. The political tensions of the era (late 60s Russian intervention) plus Tomas’ unchanging lifestyle make everything unbearable. In preparation for the role of Tomas, Day-Lewis went far with his method acting style compared to earlier endeavors. He learned some Czech, although the film was set in English. He played the character with a certain disengagement to reflect Tomas’ aversion towards responsibilities and commitment. The film was based on Milan Kundera’s novel, whose works are primarily known for eroticism. In fact, this was one of the rare American films to depict complex adult sexuality without any sensationalism.
6. The Crucible (1996)
Nicolas Hytner’s The Crucible is based on Arthur Miller’s play about Salem witch trials (in 1692). Miller wrote the play in 1953 to run the parallels between witch trials and overzealous Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Regrettably, the film adaptation is not as great as the text. Yet, the film engrosses us throughout, thanks to incendiary performances from the top class cast. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the role of a farmer named John Proctor living with sickly wife Elizabeth. John’s life is uprooted when he succumbs to the carnal desires of 17-year old Abigail (Winona Ryder). In a fit of rage, Abigail starts up a frenzy of false accusations citing Elizabeth as devil worshipper.
Daniel Day-Lewis lived in the set’s replica of a village. He stayed there without electricity or running water. Arguably, Lewis’ John is the film’s most complex role and he performs it with quiet power. [Tidbit: Daniel Day-Lewis is married to Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur Miller (she directed him in The Ballad of Jack and Rose)].