I can’t quite imagine a movie world without Daniel Day-Lewis surprising with every performance.
But this acclaimed actor — the only one to win three Oscars as Best Actor — announced he will end his movie career after making a final screen appearance in a new film from director Paul Thomas Anderson. After that we’ll have to reach into the movie archives each time we need to see this master at work. And what a collection he leaves. Here are my favorites.
A Room with a View (1986)
He is young. Unknown. Eager. And unforgettable. Before we know Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor we are captivated by his portrayal of the upper class Cecil in this luxurious adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel. Who has not felt a twinge of nerves when in the presence of that special someone? Or let little fears interrupt real connection? In a handful of scenes Day-Lewis proves he is more than a face with a hyphenated last name. This man can act.
My Left Foot (1990)
As if to prove he can do more than charm, Day-Lewis submerges his personality to recreate the physical challenges of Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy. In Jim Sheridan’s inspiring drama, the actor transforms his agile self into a complex collection of limited movements. As a character, the actor brings courage to life; as an actor, Day-Lewis explores his instinct to use gesture and nuance to create character. And he wins Oscar number one.
Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Unlike many actors, Day-Lewis refuses to “go commercial” after winning an Academy Award. No obvious blockbusters for him. Instead he continues to choose roles that challenge in films that excite. But he lands a big box office hit with Michael Mann’s film adaptation of this novel by James Fenimore Cooper. This actor who can hide within his characters reveals an intensity of passion that makes him even more accessible on screen.
In the Name of the Father (1994)
To continue proving his range, Day-Lewis explores the anger that can drive people to violence in this recreation of pivotal IRA attacks of the 1970s. In an astonishing shift in acting approach, Day-Lewis brings a spontaneity to this portrayal that enhances the natural feel of the story. The bitterness in his performance strengthens Jim Sheridan’s view that conditions are as fundamental to violence as the people who commit the acts.
There Will Be Blood (2008)
From his first moments as man desperate for human connection, Day-Lewis creates a new kind of cinema language that reaches beyond relying on dialogue to creating character with nuance and glance. Playing oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in this Paul Thomas Anderson adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Day-Lewis digs well beneath the surface to reveal a man’s potential to exploit, resent and hate. And, no surprise, another masterful performance wins Day-Lewis another Oscar.
In a role he is born to play, Day-Lewis accomplishes an ultimate transformation to recreate a stunning chapter in the life of the 16th President. We have never seen this man before. His voice is changed, his eyes are different, he creates new mannerisms to reimagine a leader we know so well from history. As Day-Lewis makes us believe that we are there as a great man pursues the impossible, the actor reminds us that he can accomplish the impossible, too. And he wins another Oscar.
We treasure Daniel Day-Lewis. We will miss the urgency of his screen work. And we will secretly hope that, sometime in the future, a role may appear that so captures his imagination that he changes his mind. Until then, Sir Day-Lewis, savor your retirement.
(To read more about Daniel Day-Lewis, check out The Reel Dad below.)
A closer look at Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
Of all the characters Daniel Day-Lewis creates on screen, his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln may be the most surprising.
Is it because this British actor dares to portray an ultimate American hero? Or a man with a naturally rugged voice invents a new intonation for his performance? Or because an acclaimed star chooses to dissolve into the background in an ultimate ensemble piece?
At a time in our world with challenges that demand real leadership, Steven Spielberg’s film reveals what it takes for a leader to look beyond himself to bring out the best in his nation. With restraint and artistry, Spielberg tightens his focus on Lincoln’s mind and heart and limits the scope of his story to a defining moment in U.S. history. Because he purposely creates a small film, Spielberg brilliantly tells a big story about a larger-than-life hero who is, at the same time, grounded in his beliefs.
This film entertains as it informs, enlightens as it inspires. Playwright Tony Kushner, working in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best seller Team of Rivals, explores the demons that haunt this great man, the experiences that shape him and the people who fill his daily routine. Worn out from the stress of the job, and the burden of the Civil War, Lincoln believes the only resolution to the conflict over slavery is the passage of an amendment to the US Constitution to forever ban its existence in the U.S. But that’s an aspiration easier to express than to accomplish in a land divided along political and ethnic lines. Kushner tracks how Lincoln uses every bit of his natural charm to push and prod to advance his convictions. Nothing will stand between this leader and what he knows to be right.
How Kushner explores Lincoln comes to life in the actor’s brilliant work. The chameleon dares to reveal a man’s weaknesses while helping us discover surprising strengths. What’s magical about the performance is how Day-Lewis never resorts to the theatrical. He makes the portrayal as small as he can which makes the character feel that much larger. And he makes Lincoln so likable that we want to spend as much time as we can with this magical character.
For director Steven Spielberg, the film remains a triumph. He is often criticized for presenting excessive films. But this time he follows the direction that “less can be more” by hesitating to show what we might expect in a Spielberg film. He gives us few battle scenes even though the film is set during wartime and limited large vistas despite its location in visual places. Instead he focuses his camera on the souls of the people. And he makes us feel, as the film ends, that we have traveled back in time to be in the room when history is made. Because Lincoln dares to lead at a critical time, we celebrate the freedom to live. And that shapes what we expect of leaders today.
Thank you, Daniel Day-Lewis for a performance that continues to inspire.