Last night, Daniel Day-Lewis won an unprecedented third Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of great emancipator Abe Lincoln in the Steven Spielberg film named after America's 16th president. No other man has won three Best Actor awards, which makes Day-Lewis officially the “greatest film actor of all time,” a title that’ll look good on the business cards I hope he plans to have made. He made a short, classy speech and then laughed off all the “greatest actor/human ever” talk as "daft," before paying credit to his wife for putting up with all the "very strange men" he has made it his job to embody over the course of his career.
It’s easy to laugh at Day-Lewis, the public-school-educated son of a poet laureate who’s obsessed with carpentry, always speaks in someone else’s accent, once dumped a pregnant girlfriend by fax, and takes method acting to bizarre and unnecessary lengths.
He’s the man who can’t seem to lead his own life. For his role in There Will Be Blood he insisted on living in a tent on an abandoned Texas oilfield; before playing falsely accused IRA bomber Gerry Conlon he lived in a prison cell, lost 30 pounds, and got people to interrogate him and hurl water into his face; for the epic Hollywood romance Last of the Mohicans he learned to track and skin animals; and for Gangs of New York he listened to Eminem all day long to keep his aggression up, refused to interact with on-screen nemesis Leo DiCaprio, and called Liam Neeson by his character’s name, even when they found themselves working out side by side in their hotel gym. Apparently, Neeson was “furious.”
Most of this stuff sounds hilarious, though. I mean, who wouldn’t want to really annoy Liam Neeson? When haven’t you looked at the squirrels in your local park and thought, I will track and skin the fuck out of you one day? Making films is often incredibly boring, particularly for actors, who have to spend hours between takes waiting for things to be readied. For most, this means spending lots of time drinking coffee and chatting with your co-stars, but for Daniel Day-Lewis it means making sure you give the best performance you can by ignoring all the idiots around you. It also means dodging small talk with Liam Neeson and sitting in a corner sharpening your butchers knives (as DDL did on the set of Gangs of New York).
Daniel Day-Lewis with Liam Neeson
People scoff at what they perceive to be his aloof privilege, they think it’s weird that he doesn’t do many films, that he likes to go off into the mountains and make furniture, that he goes to Italy to learn how to be a cobbler. But if you could afford to do these things and wanted to do them, why wouldn’t you? What’s weird is all the other rich actors who do shitty film after shitty film just because they’re too afraid not to or because they’ve got shitty taste. If you’ve made enough money to be able to choose what you do, then why not choose carefully? In a world saturated with bad films, Daniel Day-Lewis is an unlikely actor: he actually thinks about what good work he can do. He doesn't just get drunk on boozy business lunches and sign on the dotted line.
Most importantly, his insane, overblown preparations seem to work, because they’ve allowed him to turn in some of the most intense, dynamic, and brilliant cinematic performances of the last 30 years. The strongest, for me, and the one that highlights much of what he does best, was his portrayal of morally stricken John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
In this scene, Proctor must admit to having consorted with the devil in order to spare his life. He must sign his name to a lie. Proctor is an immense character and Day-Lewis is big enough for it. His breathing as he goes to sign the paper, the crumpling of his body, his stricken look as he puts pen to paper and then his animal-like retraction of the paper as he finds his conscience are all done perfectly. At the dramatic high point of the scene, Proctor is asked why he will not sign the paper to save his life: “Because it is my name!" he shouts. “Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
Writing this good needs actors to match it. It’s often said that there isn’t much actors can do with bad writing, but the reverse is also true: good writing will not work without good actors. In another actor’s hands this scene would fall flat or seem melodramatic or outdated, but in Daniel Day-Lewis’s hands it is completely devastating. He makes us feel as though Proctor’s decision is undeniable, as though the preservation of his good name is the single most important thing in the world which, in the context of the film, it is. I don’t know, I once saw this clip on acid and realized I’d been crying the whole way through, so I might be exaggerating how good it is.
The trailer for My Beautiful Laundrette
There are times when Day-Lewis’s acting feels like it's too much—particularly at moments in Gangs of New York and Lincoln—when you can see the mechanics of his total immersion, when you can see all the flawless “great acting” on display and it sort of feels like his jaw is always clenched and there’s a load of Marlon Brando in The Godfather type cotton wool in his cheeks. But more often than not this raging intensity is overwhelmingly powerful. Here, in There Will be Blood, he is a coiled ball of emotion until, at the right moment, he lets loose. Here, in The Last of the Mohicans, he brings the same kind of power to the screen, just with long hair. He even manages to do it in Mohawk.
From his turn as a gay punk in My Beautiful Laundrette to playing Abe Lincoln, the most iconic role in American history, he’s brought a seriousness of approach that, while definitely pretty funny, has almost-always produced great results. So while Lincoln is a bit too much of a grand “great film” for my taste and three Academy Awards seems a little excessive, it’s worth remembering that if you choose well and if you act well, you’ll not only be remembered as a great actor, you’ll also never have to have a chat with the real Liam Neeson in a hotel gym.
Daniel Day-Lewis isn't the greatest actor of all time—the very idea of there being a "greatest actor" is of course totally meaningless and anyway, there are many different types of acting (theater, film, comic, serious, etc.). But when you watch him in a film, you know you are watching a fiercely dedicated actor almost eerily in touch with a wide range of human emotions. So while the hype is what the hype always is—patently overblown—the reality isn't too far off. This Day-Lewis guy can really act. I think he's gonna do big things once he chills out of this angsty period and stops taking himself so seriously.
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