Why He Stands Alone

The challenge in writing about Daniel Day-Lewis is finding the right words in hopes of avoiding the blah blah hyperbole trap.

If we can all start with the premise that he is simply our greatest living actor and leap past that as a given I think we might possibly make a few discoveries together. Why is he so good? And why are we all so mesmerized by his performances?

Let’s begin with something that transcends actor speak and could be equally applied to most vocations. Depth of committment.

Women love him bare-chested and heroic in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), men love him knife-wielding and maniacal in Gangs of New York (2002), we all love him tormented, vulnerable, and downright brilliant in My Left Foot (1989), I personally can’t get enough of him as ‘John Proctor’ in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1996), and don’t get me started on his heartbreaking performance in In the Name of the Father (1993); but what is it exactly that Daniel Day-Lewis is bringing to the dance that other actors are checking at the door? He’s definitely working what actors refer to as The Method.

Day-Lewis has both frustrated and rewarded his fan base for years by being über selective, only attaching himself to projects that inspire him on a level worthy of the time committment he feels is necessary to fully dive into the human cavity of the character he is being hired to portray. It’s been much publicized that he spent a year in an off-the-beaten-path village outside Venice, Italy, working as a cobbler’s apprentice, refining the fastidious craft of shoemaking, insisting on achieving ownership of the tangible and tactile ability, making available to him the skills then to carve like a butcher, swing an axe like a miner or play a Puritan farmer in Salem’s 1692 witch trial period drama The Crucible. He has been applying The Method on a grand scale for the better part of his career. Most actors think it can be reduced down to smaller levels of committment, and to be honest, it can. Gonna portray a homeless sax player? Sleep under a bridge for a couple of nights and listen to John Coltrane on an iphone. Recovering alcoholic? Go to a few AA meetings, maybe even stand up and introduce yourself, become a temporary ‘Friend of Bill,’ and then lock down in your honey wagon (an actor’s trailer when working) and watch Mickey Rourke in Barfly. These tricks can work. They can bring just enough empathy and back story emotion to fool the camera momentarily and give a performance the actor can be proud of. Relatively proud anyway. But it aint quite working as a cobbler’s apprentice for a solid year. I know, I know, actors quickly get defensive: “Well, if I had that kind of money, and had an Oscar on my kitchen counter, and had a really cool profile, and if, if, if…I would do that too!” But…would you really? It’s the lack of needing to be hungry and yet still going after something with unprecedented hunger that makes this actor so unparalleled.

My guess is that it wasn’t a barrel of laughs for the cast and crew of Martin Scorsese’s outstandingly rich Gangs of New York to show up for work each day and tiptoe around ‘Bill the Butcher.’ Pretty temperamental fellow, ol’ ‘Bill.’ But that’s the price of admission for having Day-Lewis above your title. You get what you pay for. So when he snorts out a line like “Ears and noses will be the trophies of the day!” after gouging eyes and lopping off ears, it’s so absurdly organic to the character’s mindset that it takes you a moment to register as you process “Did he really just say ‘Ears and noses will be the trophies of the day?'”

“You had to know when to steer clear of him because he could be pretty terrifying when he’s in character. We had to call him by his character’s name even if we bumped into him in the toilets,” said a technician who has worked with the actor on multiple films.

Gangs of New York delivers one of the best opening 15-minute sequences ever (right up there with my all-time favorite Magnolia). The line that fuels this gripping opener, when Liam Neeson’s ‘Priest Vallon’ explains Saint Michael’s mission to his young son: “He cast Satan out of Paradise.”

Scorsese wrote himself a tall order. We all know Satan is not to be trifled with. DeNiro had a blast and was great as the mighty and wicked ‘Louis Cyphre’ in Alan Parker’s haunting Angel Heart (1987). Pacino was interesting and chewed up some appropriate scenery in Taylor Hackford’s semi-watchable The Devil’s Advocate (1997). But what about portraying Satan as an in-the-flesh man who is merely evil? Perhaps touched and guided by Satan, but a man nonetheless. Well, Scorsese knew for this story to work, a story he labored over for nearly two decades, he better get the best. So he did.

“Stop slabbering. If I thought it was you you’d be in a wooden coat,” says ‘Bill the Butcher’ to Jim Broadbent’s ‘Boss Tweed’ after an assassination attempt.

Adrian Brody won the Oscar in 2002 for The Pianist. A solid and credible performance, but as ‘Bill the Butcher’ might say and the Academy surely has come to echo: “Whoopsy Daisy!”

Director Paul Thomas Anderson set out to examine and put forth the history of oil riches and the subsequent tycoons in turn of the century America in his critically acclaimed There Will Be Blood. Following Scorsese’s lead, he turned to Day-Lewis to carve out a larger than life figure big and bold enough to cover the behemoth subject.

‘Daniel Plainview’ explains to the townsfolk at the conclusion of his sales pitch in the beginning of the film:

“I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, whatever the others promise to do, when it comes to the showdown, they won’t be there.”

That’s kind of how I imagine the meetings must go between Daniel Day-Lewis and directors on the verge of signing him up for their pictures.

There are no words spoken in the first 14:35 of There Will Be Blood. Name me another actor who could pull that sustained solitude off. All that cobbling experience sure must come in handy to Day-Lewis as he toils away in his lonely mine shaft. Just him and his hands and his back and his feet and his thoughts – and the camera. So internal and yet so cinematic.

Much like Brando, Day-Lewis owns the physicality of his characters thoroughly. Look at the way he jostles the newly orphaned baby on his clumsy knee in There Will Be Blood’s setup/foreshadowing moment, inspecting the whimpering tike with the exasperated sensitivity of a man who just stepped in cow dung and now must find a way to remove it from his work boot. The film then cuts to ‘Daniel Plainview’ sitting on a train next to the little fella, and while he is far from a gushing papa, his rigid presence allows us the slightest glimpse into the makings of what might be considered paternal affection, as he leans his stoic face just a bit closer to his ‘son.’ The temptation must have been enormous to make the extroverted gesture of tussling the baby’s hair or kissing it on the dome. But Day-Lewis merely drapes his arm around him with no more affection than he would afford an anvil or a hat box.

Contrast that physical energy to the urgent and manic desperation shown when the first oil flows and his son, ‘H.W.’, is knocked flying. Watching ‘Daniel Plainview’ gallop all crooked legged across the land to retrieve him and carry him to safety. Then to spoon side by side with him after it is apparent ‘H.W.’ has lost his hearing. A different kind of love than movie audiences are used to seeing in this type of heartbreaking scenario, but it is a love to be certain – sprung like all that black oil from the depths of Daniel Day-Lewis’ vast reserve.

“I have a competition in me,” ‘Daniel Plainview’ says to the drifter posing as his brother. “I want no one else to succeed.”

Our man won the Oscar for There Will Be Blood.

Although he had already shown off his charm and sex appeal in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), My Left Foot was the official announcement that Daniel Day-Lewis was not only a terrific actor but a genuine force of nature. The physical and emotional work required to tell the true story of Christy Brown, the quadriplegic writer-painter born with cerebral palsy, must have been so demanding and intense, I’m going to wise up and pull back from trying to fix too much analysis or commentary before I sound like an idiot. But if you have not seen My Left Foot – see it – it won him an Oscar for Best Performance by a Leading Actor. It is also impossible now to look at the film and see him as the adult bearded Christy Brown and not notice what a resemblance he bears to our 16th President.

So if we have sufficiently established the extreme level of committment that Day-Lewis brings to his physical work as an actor, where do we begin in unraveling his capacity for such piercing menace? All three of the roles analyzed above capitalize and indeed require the actor to cut such a merciless path with his chilling wickedness.

I’ve sampled The Method in my work as an actor and I will say this – it bears fruit, but at considerable emotional cost to the actor. The struggle required to peel away the onion’s skin and see what kind of demons lurk beneath the surface is no walk in the park.

If you were unfortunate enough to hear Mel Gibson’s private phone rants to his girlfriend then you can understand where I’m going with this. The emotional life of any person is almost bipolar by nature, filled with such a wide variety of impulses and triggers. For the actor to access them requires considerable discipline and ability. As much as I have admired/enjoyed some of Gibson’s films, I have never felt at ease with his on-screen persona. Just go back and look at his interpretation of ‘Fletcher Christian’ in The Bounty (1984). Because we have both Clark Gable’s and Marlon Brando’s performances in the same role to contrast, Gibson, by comparison, is almost unwatchable in the pivotal mutiny scene, his emotional anger overwhelming the material. The man clearly struggles with his demons, and has for some time in my opinion. The Lethal Weapon franchise was anchored on his nervous lunacy. Not my cup of tea.

Daniel Day-Lewis puts his demons on display in no short order. But always with tight reigns pulled and an uncanny storytelling ability to know the value of restrained menace.

Look at him simmer in There Will Be Blood as the Standard Oil executive offers to buy his wells. Or the total lack of compassion he shows staring down at the drifter imposter before he plants a bullet into his temple. How about when he pushes the blade further into ‘Priest Vallon’ in Gangs of New York with the Priest’s young son at his side? Actors must be willing to reveal their darkest thoughts to achieve this unsympathetic level of communication. This is a lot to ask “leading men” who require a substantial likeability factor to remain viable at the box office. Not to mention all actors ultimately want so desperately to be liked. That’s why a guy like Gibson, with all of his mental landmines, ended up in films like Bird On a Wire and What Women Want. Can you imagine Daniel Day-Lewis in those roles? Nope. The actor that can remove his ego and allow himself to be hated, and still be one of the most sought-after leading men in Hollywood is a force to be reckoned with for sure. And why this actor stands alone.

If I could isolate one singular reason Daniel Day-Lewis has no rival in the craft of acting it is his ability to act with no ego. He would probably scoff at that conclusion, but it’s the best I can do. I think maybe I take a kind of comfort in not really knowing how he does what he does. But I sure am grateful that he does it, even though he makes us all wait so damn long for the next treasure.

Apparently, he has already arrived in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. No doubt to begin his extensive preparation for work on Steven Spielberg’s Civil War drama based on Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, due out in 2012. I hope the locals adjust quickly to addressing him as ‘Mr. President’ or things could get dicey.

2 thoughts on “Why He Stands Alone

  1. “I take a kind of comfort in not really knowing how he does what he does”

    For this reason, sometimes I am afraid to watch him. The intensity is so “there” that I start to feel weighed down, myself, in my ordinary life, or if I don’t, then I become uncomfortably aware of how bubble headed we people can be (the awareness happens in contrast to his weight).

    • I agree for sure that he does have a way of making viewers uncomfortable. Kind of the way Joe Pesci did once upon a time in Goodfellas. Your thoughtful insight is much appreciated and so so welcome here. Thank you for continuing to read. Look for a feature next week titled ‘Leading Men Who Lead Like Men.’

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