Sir Daniel Day-Lewis’ Top 10 Films

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Sir Daniel Day-Lewis’ Top 10 Films

Words by Mr Stuart Husband

11 January 2018

As the greatest actor of all time retires, we look at the method behind the leading man.

To Mr Martin Scorsese, he’s “simply the greatest actor of his generation”. To Mr Paul Thomas Anderson, he’s “without peer… a force of nature”. To Mr Paul F Tompkins, cast opposite him in There Will be Blood, he’s “the most intense person that has ever lived on Earth”. So, they, and we, will be all the sadder if, as he insists, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis really is retiring from acting after starring in his latest film, Phantom Thread. Over the course of the past 35 years and 21 films, Sir Daniel has enjoyed numerous accolades, including an unprecedented three Best Actor Oscars (for My Left Foot, There Will be Blood and Lincoln), a knighthood and comparisons with everyone from Sir Laurence Olivier to Mr Marlon Brando. But it’s Sir Daniel’s sheer scope and immersion in his characters that dazzles, from Gilded Age aristocrats to gay street punks via obsessive-compulsive couturiers. And – a quality often overlooked by the focus on his own meticulous preparation for a part – he devoured his best roles with lip-smacking gusto. To celebrate his achievements, we’ve rounded up 10 of the most indelible performances from the man whom Mr Anthony Lane, movie critic of The New Yorker, calls “the Federer of film”. (Note to Sir Daniel: the latter wasn’t averse to a comeback…)

Sir Daniel’s extraordinary versatility was exemplified by the fact that his portrayal of a gay working-class punk in Mr Stephen Frears’ sprightly drama appeared in the same year as his repressed aristocrat in A Room With A View. Mr Frears was unsure of his credentials – wasn’t he the son of Mr Cecil Day-Lewis, former Poet Laureate? But then Sir Daniel wrote to Mr Frears, threatening to break his legs if he didn’t get the part, and assuring him that a misspent youth on the terraces of Millwall Football Club was ample preparation for the role. Indeed, Johnny’s look – Tintin quiff, logo’d sweat top, cut-off plaid shirt, high-rise jeans – is part rockabilly rebel, part terrace casual and all mischief. “I was a feisty young devil who loved anyone that stirred things up,” Sir Daniel recalled, and with its scenes of Thatcherite-era street rioting and inter-racial tumbling (with co-star Mr Gordon Warnecke) amid the tumble dryers, the film did just that.

The word “prig” barely does justice to the upper-crust, passionless Cecil (referred to throughout the film, by the other characters, as “Sissle”), vying for Lucy Honeychurch’s (played by Ms Helena Bonham Carter) affections with the free-spirited George (Mr Julian Sands). Sir Daniel himself described the character, in a contemporary interview, as “the sort of person that you imagine you might be in your worst nightmares… desperately self-conscious, pompous… a bound-up ascetic”. He expressed this through his ramrod, hug-averse posture and his full Edwardian armour, from the immaculate linen blazers and meticulously trimmed moustache to a starched collar that could double as a neck brace and his prissy pince-nez (which slides off his nose as he attempts to administer a beyond-awkward kiss to Ms Bonham Carter). This Mr EM Forster adaptation by Merchant Ivory was a huge hit and catapulted Sir Daniel into the front rank of screen actors.

This was the film that first revealed the full extent of Sir Daniel’s stringent technique – and brought him his first Oscar. To play Mr Christy Brown, a writer with cerebral palsy, Sir Daniel spent eight weeks at a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin, learning to speak as Mr Brown spoke and to write and paint with his left foot, as Mr Brown did. During the shoot, he stayed in character at all times, never leaving his wheelchair; he was lifted into and out of the car that brought him to the set, and hefted over cables and spoon-fed by members of the (not always entirely sympathetic) crew. He wore Mr Brown’s own dark suits and white shirts, and played him, in the words of The New York Times, as “a rough-and-tumble satyr, rather than a disease victim”. Sir Daniel’s then-agent, visiting the set, “was quite unsettled”, he reported. “He couldn’t understand a word I was saying. So he walked out, had a very quiet aperitif in a local hostelry, and just left me to get on with it.”

In playing the adopted son of a Mohican chief in the 18th-century Americas, Sir Daniel came closest to full-throttle action-hero mode, but outdid the likes of Mr Bruce Willis, Mr Liam Neeson et al in commitment by living off the land for six months, learning how to track and skin animals, building his own canoes and mastering the art of fighting with tomahawks, not to mention firing and reloading a 12lb flintlock while on the run (he insisted on carrying his gun everywhere, including to lunch with his family on Christmas Day). Hawkeye’s outfit – forest-green tunics, animal-pelt trousers, flyaway hair – was impeccably rustic and perfectly suited to Sir Daniel’s many hotfooted sprints through the forest (“I will find you,” he assures his co-star, Ms Madeleine Stowe, as he temporarily abandons her in a glade, and we don’t doubt his tracking skills for a second). After shooting, Sir Daniel suffered from hallucinations and claustrophobia. “I’ve no idea how not to be Hawkeye,” he said.

In Mr Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous adaptation of Ms Edith Wharton’s classic tale of beau-monde New York during the Gilded Age, Sir Daniel cuts a sublimely dapper figure as Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and scion of one of the city’s top families, who finds his life upended when he falls for his bride-to-be’s scandal-ridden cousin, hotfoot from a shady European divorce. Sir Daniel was, of course, alive to Archer’s internal conflicts – “his subtle hypocrisies, the self-detestation” – but also made the most of the externals, wearing his 1870s-style top hat and cape and wielding his cane around New York City for two months, and trying out a bunch of bespoke fragrances (sent from Paris by his then-girlfriend, Ms Isabelle Adjani), from which to choose the ultimate Newland Archer scent. While undoubtedly the sprucest example of Sir Daniel’s oeuvre, it’s arguably also the most erotic (for the chemistry between him and Ms Michelle Pfeiffer) and, in its bittersweet final scene, the most heartbreaking.

To play Mr Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four who received life sentences for deadly pub bombings carried out by the IRA in the mid-1970s, and who spent 15 years in prison before their convictions were overturned, Sir Daniel lost 50lb, spent two nights in a prison cell without food or water (and allegedly kept to a diet of slops during filming), and underwent mock interrogations. “If an innocent man signs a confession, which pisses away his life, it is part of your responsibility to touch on why a human being would do that,” he said. The film’s air of gritty authenticity was only enhanced by the costumes – leather blouson jackets, generously collared cheesecloth shirts, high-waisted flares – and Sir Daniel’s magnetism in extremis earned him his second Oscar nomination. He was still speaking in Mr Conlon’s Belfast accent months after shooting wrapped. “It was a hard one to let go of,” he said.

Well, it’s called The Boxer, right? So, in playing a former IRA volunteer who’s trying to “go straight” in the ring after his release from prison, you wouldn’t expect anything less from Sir Daniel than training as a real fighter, twice a day, seven days a week, for nearly three years, under the tutelage of former world featherweight champion Mr Barry McGuigan, would you? Or for Mr McGuigan to then opine that Sir Daniel could easily turn professional? Or that he festooned his hands in crude prison tattoos? Or that it all resulted in some of the most realistic fight scenes ever committed to film? One reviewer opined that Sir Daniel “seems to have elongated into a lithe, magnetic cord of muscle, at once smouldering and supremely self-contained”. The exertions certainly took their toll on Sir Daniel – he ddin’t make another film for five years.

Sir Daniel is known for the intense pains he takes to inhabit a role – we could call it deep Method – so we, and his ophthalmologist, can be grateful that he didn’t get mediaeval on his cornea in order to play the one-eyed butcher-cum-alpha-hooligan in Mr Martin Scorsese’s study of the fiercely contested turf wars in 19th-century New York. Instead, he had his eye covered in prosthetic glass and mastered the art of tapping it with the tip of a knife without blinking. The dandy Bill displays his malevolent dominance through his attire – velvet-trimmed frock coat (which Sir Daniel refused to swap for a thicker one during cold night shoots, as it wouldn’t be period-appropriate; he contracted pneumonia as a result), gaudy waistcoat, expansive cravat, top hat on steroids – and his twirly panto-villain moustache, along with a masterful Old Noo Yawk accent. His delivery of the line “Whoopsy daisy!” at the perilous height of a knife-throwing act is worth the admission price alone.

Even by his own mercurial standards, Sir Daniel ratchets up the intensity in Mr Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical epic, portraying a pioneering oil prospector who’s every bit as seething and volcanic as the quarry he seeks. He doesn’t speak a word in the first 20 minutes, but carries all before him with his boiling eyes, bristling moustache, jutting chin and a brisk, all-business workwear wardrobe. And his eventual utterances – hard-bitten, irreligious, misanthropic – are delivered in a chunky, vowel-stretched drawl based on that of the director Mr John Huston. The New York Times reported that original co-star Mr Kel O’Neill, unable to deal with Sir Daniel’s fervour, was replaced by Mr Paul Dano, an opportunity the latter may have regarded as double-edged after finding himself on the receiving end of one of cinema’s greatest insults – “I drink your milkshake!” – along with a fusillade of (real) bowling balls in the film’s climactic scene. “I can’t account for where any of this comes from,” said Sir Daniel, who won his second (richly deserved) Oscar for the role.

Sir Daniel’s swansong performance (if we are to believe his protestations) is another study in buttoned-up, bow-tied fastidiousness. As the mid-century British fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, he combines a scrupulous reserve (subordinating everything, including matters of the heart, to the perfection of his craft) with a discreetly splendid plumage, from his tailor-made tuxedo and magenta socks to his silvery quiff and red Bristol sports car. Sir Daniel based the character on similarly monomaniacal couturiers, from Mr Charles James to Mr Cristóbal Balenciaga, and has previous form when it comes to bespoke craft, having once apprenticed himself, during a previous filming hiatus, to the noted Florentine cobbler Mr Stefano Bemer. Naturally, in preparation for this role, Sir Daniel not only assisted in the making of costumes for the New York City Ballet, he also constructed a couture Balenciaga dress from scratch for his wife, Ms Rebecca Miller, which she continues to wear.

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