Monday 11 December 2017

Daniel Day Lewis calls it a day

As the three-time Oscar winner announces his retirement from acting after turning 60, Ed Power assesses his legacy and why he has never let us down as an actor - 'no matter what'

Method to the madness: Daniel Day Lewis with one of his three Oscars
Method to the madness: Daniel Day Lewis with one of his three Oscars
Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood
Day Lewis in Lincoln
Brenda Fricker and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot
Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York
Behind the camera: Daniel with his wife director wife Rebecca Miller
Cary Grant
Angelina Jolie

He is widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation - but now the final curtain beckons for Daniel Day-Lewis. The three-times Oscar winner and honorary Irishman has announced he is to retire after his next movie.

Daniel is calling it a day - and Hollywood is in shock.

This isn't because Day-Lewis, whose bombshell news follows his 60th birthday in April, was a knock-out at the box office. He is, however, widely agreed to be one of the most important thespians of the age.

This is the star who became fluent in Czech so that he could speak English with a convincing Middle European accent, who learned how to skin animals and build canoes ahead of The Last of the Mohicans and insisted on carrying a rifle at all times - even to Christmas dinner with his family.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood
Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood

Speculation swirls as to why he is walking away. Is it an elaborate publicity campaign for what is now officially his final feature, a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed period piece set in the 50s fashion world titled Phantom Thread? Or has the notoriously picky thesp gazed upon the modern movie industry, and despaired? Consider that he has already retired once, stepping away from the business for nearly 10 years and reportedly studying to be cobbler under the Italian shoe-maker Stefano Berner.

The notoriously publicity-averse Day-Lewis is unlikely to shed any light, so such theorising is probably futile. Instead, let us celebrate his achievements as we look at five reasons why we will miss this giant of the screen.

1. He was proud to be Irish (despite growing up in London)

In the late Eighties, "Irish pride" was a contradiction. The economy was a joke without a punchline, the Troubles seemed destined to rumble on forever, and the country toiled under a crippling inferiority complex. It was in these sorry circumstances Day-Lewis, the son of Belfast-born British poet-laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, willingly embraced an Irish identity. At a time when toe-curling "Oirish" accents were standard, Day-Lewis respectfully captured the Dublin cadences of cerebral palsy suffering-artist Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot. As a bonus, he later relocated here..

He has since moved back and forth from a home in rural Wicklow (where he helped fundraise to build a hospice) to an apartment in New York. However, he still has a habit of popping up in the most unexpected of places.

When this journalist was reviewing a Rihanna concert in Dublin several years ago, I was surprised to see Day-Lewis, his wife Rebecca Miller and one of their sons ushered into a seat at the front-row, where Day-Lewis spent the next 90 minutes quietly grooving along.

Brenda Fricker and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot
Brenda Fricker and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot

"The utter delight with which we would fly out of the car as soon as we arrived and dive into the nearest bit of the Atlantic," he would tell The Guardian of childhood holidays in Mayo. "Life in England was, by comparison, a little colourless. Ireland was a place for the renewal of hope and I still see it like that. It was the place we were all together as a family. And it was like a secret garden."

2. He was a master of method acting

Robert de Niro boxed competitively for Raging Bull, Heath Ledger stayed in character as The Joker during The Dark Knight. Both were thoroughly eclipsed by Day-Lewis. Co-star Jared Harris revealed that, while shooting Spielberg's Lincoln, Day-Lewis remained in character between takes. It was forbidden to speak about anything not directly related to the period setting. No chatter about traffic, sports gossip or selfie requests.

"The prevailing opinion in Britain is that I'm mad," Day-Lewis once told an interviewer in the United States. "The way I work, the way they think I work…is seen as mad." He was explaining why he had chosen to sleep in a prison cell as preparing for playing Gerry Conlon in Jim Sheridan's The Name of The Father. "The central reality of Gerry's life is that he was a ragamuffin kid…How could I understand how an innocent man would sign a confession unless I had gone through what he had? I owe it to him to try and understand that."

3. He never let us down

De Niro has done Bad Grandpa, Al Pacino joined the Bennifer catastrophe Gigli, and Meryl Streep was out-acted by Pierce Brosnan's eyebrows in Mamma Mia. How many clunkers has Daniel Day-Lewis graced? Granted, some of his project has drifted into obscurity. Who today remembers his 2009 "romantic musical drama" Nine? Or 2005's The Ballad of Jack and Rose (written and directed by his wife Rebecca Miller)? Yet these weren't howling disasters so much as mild misfires.

4. He elevated workaday material

One of Day-Lewis' early hits was The Last of the Mohicans. On paper this should have been prime-hokum. It was directed by Michael Mann, whose films are invariably hollowed out. And it isn't as if James Fenimore Cooper's original novel is particularly beloved. Yet all it took was Day-Lewis's Hawkeye throwing big sad eyes as Madeleine Stowe to convince us that we were watching a superior action film. To this day the waterfall scene in which Hawkeye assures Stowe's Cora Munro that he will find her "no matter what" evokes shivers - with a Clannad soundtrack adding to the goosebumps.

5. He gave us some of cinema's greatest ever facial hair

As Butcher Bill in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis found a way to make a man with a comedy 'tache and stove-pipe hat genuinely villainous. As Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood he meanwhile imbued a chill even in lines such as "I'll drink your milkshake". He was duly rewarded with his second of three best actor Oscars (the first for My Left Foot, the third for Lincoln). He was shortlisted on a further two occasions - the highest strike rate of Academy Award nominations. If it truly is the end of Day-Lewis as an actor, let us raise a frothy dairy-based drink to his success.

Shy and retiring

Daniel Day-Lewis isn't the only movie star to announce they're getting out of the game.

* Greta Garbo: The Golden Age star walked away from fame aged 36, declaring she had never felt comfortable in the spotlight. "Time leaves traces on our small faces and bodies," she explained. "It's not the same anymore."

Cary Grant

* Cary Grant: The star of North by Northwest and An Affair To Remember took the unusual step of publicly announcing he was quitting acting at age 62. "I could have gone on acting and playing a grandfather or a bum, but I discovered more important things in life."

* Phoebe Cates: The star of Gremlins and Drop Dead Fred stepped away from acting in 1994 to focus on raising her family (she is married to actor Kevin Kline). She left retirement just once to appear alongside her husband in 2001's The Wedding Party.

Angelina Jolie

* Angelina Jolie: In 2014, Jolie announced she would focus on directing. "I've never been comfortable as an actor; I've never loved being in front of the camera."

Irish Independent

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