In 2002, five years since anyone had seen him on the big screen, an Englishman became New York. As William Cutting aka “Bill the Butcher” in Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis made a comeback to Hollywood from self-imposed exile in Italy, where — exhausted from the gruelling demands of his art — he worked as an apprentice to a shoemaker. On Tuesday, at 60, and after winning three Oscars and still very much at the peak of his ability, Lewis announced his retirement through a spokesperson, offering no explanation. A true fan will understand why he doesn’t owe us one.
Many of Lewis’s contemporaries are, like him, phenomenal talents and multiple Academy Award winners. But unlike him, they are “stars”, not merely actors, and their carefully curated public personae are often more ubiquitous than their films. Tom Hanks’s guest appearance on a show like Late Night may be a necessary part of the publicity circus to sell films — but it can also detract from the form itself. Lewis, by being reclusive allowed the audience to immerse themselves completely in the characters he portrays. He has transformed himself into the Last of the Mohicans (1992), managed a near-impossible act of artistic empathy as Christy Brown, a painter with cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot (1989).
In the 15 years since he returned to acting, Lewis has delivered performances of remarkable power and subtlety. He maintained the aura around the idealism of Abraham Lincoln while highlighting the political pragmatism that led to the end of slavery in the US. In There Will Be Blood (2007) he showed, in a stark and frightening performance, the magnetism of a character driven by greed. His fans will lament Lewis’s decision, wondering about the performances that will never be. The artist will remain hidden behind the work he leaves in the public realm — a mystery to be grateful for.