The Conspicuous Genius of Daniel Day-Lewis

On Tuesday, Variety reported that Daniel Day-Lewis would be retiring from acting. The statement from his spokesperson was peculiarly worded—Day-Lewis would “no longer be working as an actor.” Which begs the question: what exactly will he be working as? Perhaps the announcement really is a full retirement, or maybe Day-Lewis has new goals.

Instantly, Twitter lit up with joking comments suggesting this was Day-Lewis’s greatest performance yet, or that he was taking time off to focus on cobbling (as he had during a hiatus from acting until Martin Scorsese lured him back with his Gangs of New York role). Day-Lewis has developed a reputation as perhaps the most dedicated method actor ever. He’s famous for staying in character during entire film shoots, going so far as using a wheelchair while playing a man with cerebral palsy or exclusively wearing 19th century period clothing in cold weather. (He got sick as a result.) Considering the great lengths that Day-Lewis goes to shape his roles, one might expect that he would disappear into them. But that’s not the case.

Rather, Day-Lewis is a master of exposing the acting techniques that other masters try to hide. It sounds like a failure on his part, but it’s his greatest strength. In his most monumental film, There Will Be Blood, there’s never a moment when we forget that we’re watching Day-Lewis play a part. Every single grimace and grunt from Plainview seems intentional and calculated. A lesser actor would be accused of scenery chewing and overacting, but there is a key difference: the scenery chewer’s mannerisms don’t suit the character at hand, whereas Day-Lewis’s are perfectly calibrated to the individual at hand. His technique is on full display, but every choice is appropriate and inspired.

There’s a tired cliché about various elements of film (cinematography, sound design, editing, etc.) that suggests those things are best when they go unnoticed. Sometimes that’s true, but it excludes all the revelatory moments when filmmakers and artists show off their abilities and truly astound us. Would we delight in a Stanley Kubrick film if he was more restrained in depicting a cosmic journey beyond the infinite in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or would Jack Nicholson’s performance as a man losing his mind in The Shining grab our attention if he toned down the leering mania? In either case, certainly not.

The Kubrick films are important comparisons to Day-Lewis’s work in There Will Be Blood. Kubrick strongly influenced the film, and Day-Lewis’s performance shares many of the heightened aspects of roles in Kubrick’s films, such as Nicholson’s horror turn or Malcolm McDowell’s psychopathic criminal in A Clockwork Orange. Like those great actors, Day-Lewis shows us his skills, but in an exhilarating, electrifying manner.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures).

The closest any recent performance has come to matching Day-Lewis’s work in Their Will Be Blood is from another Paul Thomas Anderson film, The Master. Joaquin Phoenix’s role as a shell-shocked soldier returning from the Second World War seethes with madness and unfulfilled desires. Phoenix is astoundingly physical, adopting a limp and a hunched back; his character is prematurely aged by the horrors of war. But the impact of Phoenix’s technique differs from Day-Lewis’s; it is equally effective, but doesn’t rise to the surface in the same way. When I first saw The Master, I worried that something was psychologically wrong with Phoenix, especially after he spent so much time making a mockumentary about an actor losing control (seeing his performance in Her confirmed that he’s a great actor, not necessarily a tortured soul).

Although Day-Lewis is most virtuosic when playing Daniel Plainview, he has never shied away from making his technique obvious. His Abraham Lincoln, with his creakingly high-pitched voice (apparently a bit of historical accuracy), is always the creation of Day-Lewis, rather than an organically developed character. Sometimes we don’t want great artists to disappear into their roles. Sometimes we want to see the brush strokes on the canvas. The role earned Day-Lewis his third Best Actor Oscar, a record in that category.

Hopefully this retirement is just a temporary lark, and not the sign of lost passion or some debilitating illness. Maybe Day-Lewis will continue to have some connection to films even if he’s not on screen. He finished his work in Anderson’s next film, Phantom Thread, which will be released Christmas day this year, and he’s still scheduled to do publicity for the film, so we’ll learn more about his motives. Artists are not obligated to continue working for our benefit, though, and Day-Lewis has made enough contributions to film to cement a legacy.

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