When it comes to listing the greatest actors in history, it would be pretty arrogant to not throw Daniel Day-Lewis’ name into the mix. The man puts the method in method acting and is renowned for his ability to truly become his characters. His refusal to break character offscreen or follow the typical hollywood lifestyle brings a sense of mystique to this genius who clearly has a passion for acting. Famously selective about his roles from early on in his career, he may not have the most extensive filmography but what is there is only the best and is full of brilliant collaborations with the best actors and directors.
He is the only actor to have won the Best Leading Actor Oscar three times and remains a titan in acting, even if he has retired (he has “retired” before and returned so who knows if this retirement will stick). Day-Lewis is in a league of his own when it comes to actors working today (the closest would probably be Joaquin Phoenix or Gary Oldman).
It’s been hard to pick top 5 but I have managed to do so. Here is my list of top 5 performances in chronological:
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
This early entry in Day-Lewis’ filmography is perhaps one of his most controversial. Made in 1985, Day-Lewis portrays Johnny Burfoot, a white Londoner who embarks on a romantic relationship with Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) who is struggling with his identity as a British-born gay man of Pakistani descent in volatile, racist Britain. The eeriness of this film comes in how relevant it feels today 35 years on. Stephen Frears refusing to bow to stereotype in this film, creating characters that are rounded and break the mould. In a general landscape that isolated homosexuals, My Beautiful Laundrette shows a relationship filled with adventure and excitement. The chemistry between the two leads is magnetic and it’s great to see a film about a gay couple that has a happy ending, something that is notoriously refused in the majority of mainstream LGBT+ cinema.
My Left Foot (1989)
The one that propelled Day-Lewis to stardom. Portraying disabled artist Christy Brown, Day-Lewis went full method for the role and refused to break character offscreen to channel the struggle of Brown’s experience with cerebral palsy. It brought Day-Lewis a global audience and his first Academy Award nomination and win. Christy is mischievous and hilarious, aiming to live his life to the fullest. A supporting cast led by Fiona Shaw who plaus Dr. EIleen Cole, Christy’s carer and Brenda Fricker as Bridget Fagan brown, Christy’s mother (who also won a Supporting ACtress Oscar for her performance) brings an authneticity to this low-budget Irish production. The film relies on the performance of its actors and refuses to use any Hollywood flares or special effects. This is a great introduction into the career of Daniel Day-Lewis and shows how capable and fearless he was from early in his career as well as providing an insight into what will become a flourishing and groundbreaking filmography.
Gangs of New York (2002)
The film that paired Day-Lewis up with Martin Scorsese for an epic that explores the conflict between Irish and Italian Americans. Based on a true story, it’s a film that explores what it takes to be a “true” American. In this nativist vs. immigrant plot, Day-Lewis plays William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, a cruel leader of the nativist gang who refuse to allow the Irish settlers ownership on American land. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Amstardam whose father Vallon (Liam Neeson) dies at the hands of Bill in the opening scene and seeks his revenge years later under his new alias. The film itself falls short of its potential due to its odd pacing and the overall scope of the film feeling too big for its three hour running time but Day-Lewis’ performance elevates it and makes it worth the watch. Bill is maniacal and devious with no redeeming quality but he is also extremely charismatic. It’s flamboyant and subtle at the same time. Only Day-Lewis could pull the performance off in this way.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The role to end all roles. The character of Daniel Plainview is nothing short of iconic. Day-Lewis is on fire in this role as a greedy prospector who soughts to purchase land that sits on oil. The film deservedly won him his second Best Actor Academy Award and for good reason. It’s a brilliant performance that shows the true greed of mankind and how much they are willing to destroy in order to gain more power. This film marks his first collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson and serves as a definite high point for both of their careers. They are a duo who click together so well with Anderson’s penchant for brilliant character development and Day-Lewis’ commitment to character is unlike any other. It’s the movie that gave us “I drink your milkshake” in what can only be described as one of the best film endings. Add Paul Dano to the supporting cast and you have one of the best combinations of a director/writer and cast seen in 21st century film.
Phantom Thread (2017)
Day-Lewis’ “final” role sees him reunite with Paul Thomas Anderson as a renowned couturier, Reynolds Woodcock, inspired by a culimation of designers including Charles James. He’s a man with an inpenetrable exterior that is soon challenged by a chance encounter with waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps) who becomes his muse when his creativity wanes. They spark a professional and romantic relationship and his business starts booming again as Reynolds finds his inspiration to design. Always watched over by his eagle-eyed sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), we see the highs and lows of Reynolds’ career and the challenges he faces when the sparks begin to fade. The character contrasts greatly with the previous Anderson outing. Reynolds is a more subdued character who can say just as much with a simple grimace or flourish of the hand in the same way that Daniel Plainview used his persuasive chat to manipulate. Day-Lewis was deservedly nominated for the major awards in what is a beautiful swansong to a brilliant career.
As you can see, there are many brilliant performances that didn’t make the list, in particular In The Name of the Father (1993) and Lincoln (2012), the latter of which won him his third Best Actor gong. It’s always difficult choosing my favourite performances but how do you do it when pretty much every performance is perfect? There really is no wrong answer when it comes to Daniel Day-Lewis as it is likely that you will feel impacted by his performances.
Which film is your favourite from Daniel Day-Lewis? Let me know in the comments below!