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Daniel Day-Lewis: A man who has lived many lives

Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. The actor had confirmed the news in June last year. Here's a look at what the man has brought to the big screen over the years.

Written by Anvita Singh | New Delhi |
Updated: March 4, 2018 10:02:51 am
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, My Left Foot and Gangs of New York Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis is known for his method acting, and for bringing a variety of characters to life on the big screen.

British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the greats of method acting, is retiring from the world of cinema. It is one of those moments movie buffs around the globe cannot stop talking about — ‘How can he retire? He is just 60. He is so brilliant’ etc. But Lewis has chosen to take an indefinite break from acting.

“Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting,” Day-Lewis had said in an interview with W Magazine while promoting his latest, Phantom Thread.

“I do know that Paul (Thomas Anderson) and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. That took us by surprise, we didn’t realize what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is,” the actor had said during the interview. Lewis had announced about his retirement in an interview with Variety in June, last year.

Daniel Day-Lewis A still from My Beautiful Laundrette

Lewis’ first feature role was in John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday in 1971, where he was not credited. Then in 1982, Lewis was seen in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as Colin. The actor received critical acclaim with Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette, where he played Johnny, a gay street punk. Lewis was stunning as Johnny, who simultaneously tried to maintain his street credit and a complex romantic relationship with a young Pakistani man.

In the same year, the actor was seen in the screen adaptation of E M Forster’s A Room With a View. Lewis played Cecil Vyse, thus rising to greater prominence. In 1988, the actor was seen in Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of the Milan Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Lewis played Tomas, a surgeon who develops sexual relationships with two female artists during the 1968 Prague Spring. But his first Oscar nomination and win came with the 1989 drama, My Left Foot.

Daniel Day-Lewis A still from My Left Foot

My Left Foot tells the tale of Christy Brown, an Irishman affected with cerebral palsy, who only had control over his left foot. Based on a real-life story, Lewis was beautiful and believable as the specially challenged artist. Christy Brown, who died when he was 49, was a man who took pleasure in things almost every man and woman does; drinking, eating, flirting. And during the course of his struggle to live as just another man, he fell in love with painting and writing. Lewis was Brown while he was playing Brown, in the way that only method actors can. He lived and breathed the man, and his performance showed all the work he had put in the character. Lewis was not the most elegant and chiselled man on screen, but his performance was sharp and graceful. Mouth twisted to one side, head rolling sideways, Lewis delivered his lines like he had written them himself.

Lewis had spent eight weeks at a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin, learning to speak, write, paint and live as My Left Foot’s Christy Brown. According to The Telegraph, he never left ‘his’ wheelchair and was fed by the crew. He made a mess of the entire set and needed help into getting cars and out of them, if the reports are to be believed. Some call it dedication and passion, while others just think it’s madness.

In 1992, the actor was The Last of the Mohicans’ Hawkeye (Nathaniel Poe) and in the same year, he portrayed Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese’ period romance The Age of Innocence. A warrior and an American genteel. And he was convincing in both, as usual. Perfection becomes boring after a while, but some men cannot help themselves but be interesting, perfect and passionate about their craft all at once. Lewis has time and again proved that he belongs to the aforementioned category of people.

Daniel Day-Lewis A still from The Boxer

In 1997, Lewis was seen in director Jim Sheridan’s Boxer. The actor played a boxer and a former convict who tries to get his life in order after his release. After a gap of five years (2002), Daniel Day-Lewis was seen in Martin Scorsese’s crime drama Gangs of New York, which also featured Leonardo di Caprio and Cameron Diaz. Lewis cut, hacked, butchered and killed in the movie as William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting, a psychotic killer with a glass eye. Terrifying and thirsty for gore, Lewis’ character did terrible things as the butcher from New York, and we loved every second of it. His act was awe-inspiring and exciting. With Gangs of New York, Lewis (and Scorsese) proved that perfection can never be boring.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), the actor was seen as the oilman Daniel Plainview. Plainview, as The Guardian’s Peter Walker rightly called out as over-rated, might have reminded some of another character that Lewis had played with elan–Gangs of New York’s Butcher. Lewis tried his best to elevate the film, to elevate himself, but, maybe for the first time in his long career, the actor disappointed. A feat in itself. Yes, I admire Lewis the actor. But with There Will Be Blood, Lewis proved that even he cannot pull off every written role. And thank God for that, because it made us believe that the man was as fallible as the rest of us.

Daniel Day-Lewis A still from Phantom Thread

In 2012, Lewis was seen as the revolutionary American president Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg-directed Lincoln. In an interview in which both Spielberg and Lewis were present, Lewis joked that he was cast by the director for possessing a most Lincoln-like nose. In Lincoln, Lewis forced his entire body into behaving like the former American president. He spoke lightly, bent while walking, and pleased with his wit and intelligence. The young and old Lincoln, the young and old Lewis on screen was dramatic, you knew it was a performance, but just about.

And after a gap of another five years, Lewis returned to the screen after his break, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s period piece Phantom Thread (2017) as a dressmaker. I haven’t watched the movie yet, the film will hit Indian screens on February 2. But it has already received six Oscar nominations, including that of Best Actor and Best Original Score. It is yet to be seen if Phantom Thread will be a fitting tribute to Lewis’ big screen career. As for wishing to see him on screen again, maybe he will take pity, and surprise us one day, and if he doesn’t, there is always his illustrious list of movies to fall back onto.

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