The cover of Time Magazine has proclaimed that Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor on the planet – and who I am to argue? Part of the reason Day-Lewis is so highly regarded is because he works so infrequently – he doesn’t have as large of a list of bombs or paycheck movies as other actors do. He has made his share of stinkers – hell his last performance in Rob Marshall’s Nine may just be the worst performance of his career. But when Day-Lewis is on, he cannot be topped. Lincoln opens in limited released this week – unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until next weekend to see it – so to tie me over until then, I thought I’d look back at his 10 best performances up until now.
10. The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)
Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans is an extremely entertaining action film, with Day-Lewis as Hawkeye, a white man caught in between his old world ties and those of the Natives he has grown to love and respect. As with all of Mann’s films, the details in the film are meticulous, and the action sequences as exciting as anything the genre has ever produced before. And Day-Lewis grounds what could have been a fairly ridiculous story in a believable reality – you need to believe what he does, or else the entire movie falls apart. And he does that. Day-Lewis does not often star in action movies, but here he proves he could if he wanted to.
9. The Boxer (Jim Sheridan, 1997)
The Boxer may not be as good as Day-Lewis’ other collaborations with Jim Sheridan – but it is still an excellent, morally complex movie with a fascinating central performance by Day-Lewis – and excellent work by Emily Watson and Brian Cox to boot. Day-Lewis plays a once promising boxer, put in jail at the age of 18 for terrorist actions with the IRA. Now he’s released after 14 years, and no longer wants to be violent – he just wants to reopen the boxing gym, meant for all faiths, to help bring things together. He is also drawn to the girl he was in love with as a teenager, who married another IRA member when he was in jail, who is now in jail himself. The Boxer offers no easy answers – it doesn’t romanticize or demonize anyone, but simply lays it out for all to see. This is a quiet, subtle performance by Day-Lewis, and it is the heart of this quietly wonderful film.
8. A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1986)
We have seen this movie before – a prim and proper young British woman is engaged to marry a prim and proper young British man – but is really in love with someone else. Most of the time, the role of the prim and proper young man, who is a bore, is a rather bland and colorless role – but this is the role played by Day-Lewis who does a remarkable job with the role. He makes him even more prim, proper and boring than most other men in the movie – he is entirely clueless as to what women really want or what they are really like. Somehow, Day-Lewis making this character even more of a bore than normal works remarkably well – and makes you notice his character where often you just ignore this role. It is a brilliant performance in what is often a throwaway role. As Roger Ebert said in his review – if you gave Day-Lewis a top hat and monocle, he could be on the cover of the New Yorker.
7. In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993)
In the Name of the Father is based on a true story, and although we know it has been heavily fictionalized to suit the movies purposes, it works remarkably well. Day-Lewis plays Gerry Conlon, a young Irish thug who is arrested and forced to confess to a bombing he didn’t commit, and spend years of his life in prison for it – right alongside his father (Pete Postlewaite), who is not only innocent of these charges but of any wrong doing – something Gerry could not claim. This is really a story of how Conlon matures during his years in prison – he was a thug when we went in, resentful of his father and of the system that put him away. But prison changes him – for the better. He becomes educated, intelligent and grows to love and respect the father he previously looked down on. This is an impassioned performance by Day-Lewis, and elevates the entire movie, which admittedly is a little too by the numbers to be a truly great film. But if you don’t well up a little at the end, you have no heart.
6. My Beautiful Launderette (Stephen Frears, 1986)
My Beautiful Launderette is a sensitive film about a young Pakistan-British man who is given a launderette to run by his rich uncle – who may help the young man out even more if he gets his way and the young man agrees to marry his daughter. But the young man is gay – and his lover is played by Day-Lewis as a man who was once a part of a skinhead group who beats up immigrants like him. Yet, this movie really isn’t about plot – but more about these two characters, both outsiders in England for different reasons, who come together, probably not permanently, but for a little while anyway. The film came out the same year as A Room with a View, and the two films combined to make it Day-Lewis’ breakout year – in part, I think, because the two characters are such polar opposites, but both are brilliant performances by Day-Lewis. From the time he broke through, it became clear that Day-Lewis was a versatile actor.
5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the most erotic films ever made – one that takes sexuality seriously, which is all too rare in films today. Day-Lewis stars as Tomas, a surgeon living in Prague before the Russian invasion of 1968. He has a detached attitude about sex – he wants to physical gratification of it, without the emotional responsibility that comes along with it. In Lena Olin, he has found his perfect match. But then, against his own better judgment, he falls for wide eyed innocent Juliette Binoche and breaks his own rules. Day-Lewis’ performance here is subtle – it is a performance in a movie that not really about sex, but uses sex to explore these characters lives, and how they will all change. Day-Lewis’ performance is sympathetic, even though he doesn’t realize the cruelty in which he treats people until perhaps it is too late. It is a wonderful performance in a movie that I fear has largely been forgotten.
4. My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989)
Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot stands out among the movies about handicapped people – mainly because it has no delusions that it’s “hero” Christy Brown was a saint. While watching the recent film The Sessions, I was struck by how the movie wanted to paint every character, especially Mark O’Brien who was stricken by polio as a child and now lives in an iron lung, as just one dimensionally good. But by doing so, it takes away a little of his humanity – as people are more complicated than the movie portrays. That is what My Left Foot gets just right – Christy Brown was an alcoholic and a manipulator of people (how else could he be an alcoholic since he needed someone to get the booze for him?), and yet his story is still one of great courage and triumph of the human spirit. Day-Lewis delivers a remarkable performance as Brown – he won an Oscar for the role, and although I would have given it to Tom Cruise for Born on the Fourth of July – it’s hard to argue he didn’t deserve it. This is a great performance in a movie I think about every time I see a movie like The Sessions.
3. The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)
Day-Lewis was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in 1993 – for In the Name of the Father – but it was his performance in The Age of Innocence that truly deserved the recognition. This is without a doubt the subtlest performance in Day-Lewis’ career – and one of the great quiet performances in film history. He plays a man very rigid New York society of the 1800s, who marries the girl he is supposed to (Winona Ryder), even though he is in love with a free spirited divorcee (Michelle Pfeiffer). This is a movie where everything is left unsaid – everyone knows he is carrying on with Pfeiffer, and no one ever says anything out loud to him about it – that wouldn’t be proper. While Day-Lewis’ two best performances are, in various ways, bombastic, The Age of Innocence has Day-Lewis at his most subtlety brilliant. The final scene in the film is a heartbreaking, and Day-Lewis barely does a thing in it.
2. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher gets my vote for best movie villain of the new millennium. Whatever flaws Martin Scorsese’s epic historical drama may have – and it has a few – none of them involved Day-Lewis’ larger than life performance as a “Native” New Yorker, angry at the Irish hordes invading his country, and willing to do whatever is necessary to keep them down. Day-Lewis, and his glass eye, booming voice, and colorful wardrobe is always at risk of going too far over the top in this performance, but somehow, never does. He even gives his performance a few brilliant, subtle moments like the scene where DiCaprio wakes to find Day-Lewis watching him, American flag draped over his shoulder. Day-Lewis knew that with Bill the Butcher, if he wasn’t going to go big, there was no point in showing up at all – and he goes big, and yet still makes Bill the Butcher into more than just a one dimensional villain. This was his first performance after taking five years off, and apparently spending time cobbling shoes. It was worth the wait.
1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
If Bill the Butcher is the best villain of the new millennium, than Daniel Plainview is the most fascinating screen character – and to me anyway, Day-Lewis’ performance is the finest we’ve seen in any film since the year 2000. Like Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview is a larger than life character – a portrait of American capitalism at its absolute worst. Director Paul Thomas Anderson gives Day-Lewis room to move around –the camera is rarely off Day-Lewis the entire movie, from its breathtaking opening 15 minutes of silence, to the bloody, unforgettable finale. There has perhaps never been a more misanthropic character in screen history than Plainview – a man who wants to go about his business, reap all the benefits, and is tired of what he calls “these people” all around him. The performance is remembered for its big moments – the baptism scene, the “I drink your milkshake” speech, but it’s more than that. There is subtlety here. This is a magnificent performance of a magnificent bastard – and the best work Day-Lewis has ever done.