Paul Whitington: If Phantom Thread is Daniel Day Lewis's final film it's a very apt final performance
Daniel Day-Lewis insists that Phantom Thread will be his last film. If it is, then it's a very apt final performance, says our film critic
'Know your lines, and don't bump into the furniture". It was the great Spencer Tracy who said that, summarising a tradition of no-nonsense screen acting that was born of the fierce work schedules of the Hollywood studio system. "Know your lines, turn up on time and do what the director tells you," Robert Mitchum elaborated, but if ever there was an actor at odds with those bleak, pragmatic mantras it's Daniel Day-Lewis.
His devotion to his craft knows no bounds, and his meticulous preparation for roles makes the young Robert De Niro look like a slacker. In his latest film, Phantom Thread (he says it's his last, and more on that presently), Day-Lewis was cast as a cold and imperious 1950s London couturier. Other actors might have watched a few English movies from the period, maybe read a few books about fashion, but that won't do for Daniel.
In order to ready himself to play Reynolds Woodstock, he studied the lives of designers, learnt to sew, watched archive footage of 1950s fashion shows, consulted with the Victoria & Albert Museum's curator of fashion, apprenticed for a time under the head of costumes at the New York City Ballet and created his own couture dress from scratch using his wife, Rebecca Miller, as a model. "Rebecca was very patient," he admitted recently.
No wonder he finds acting so exhausting, and in June last year, as Phantom Thread entered post-production, Day-Lewis released a statement announcing his immediate retirement. His work on the film had plunged him into a deep depression which he described as "a sadness that came to stay".
"I need to believe in the value of what I'm doing," he explained in a rare interview, with W Magazine. "The work can seem vital, irresistible even. And if an audience believes it, that should be good enough for me. But lately, it isn't." He sounds convincing, but it's hard to get one's head around the idea that the greatest actor of his generation, and one of the greatest actors of all time, will never appear in front of a camera again.
Day-Lewis has never been a prolific actor. Since he became a star in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot back in 1989, he has made just 11 films, and the gaps between them have grown longer. But in fairness, almost all of them have been of a very high quality, and given the amount of effort he puts into a role, his selectiveness is not surprising.
He seems to feel compelled to actually become the people he's playing, and he's gone to incredible lengths to make his performances as true as possible. It is, perhaps, the only way he can work, and however exhausting it might be for him, the results have been spectacular.
The intensity of his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is electrifying, and he breathes compelling life into the role of a self-absorbed workaholic who is by turns odious and pathetic. Reynolds Woodstock is a celebrated fashion designer who creates sumptuous gowns for the rich and famous. He's an exacting perfectionist who lives for his work and inhabits a grand Fitzrovian studio that's seamlessly run by his fiercely loyal sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville).
His private life, to the extent that he has one, involves a series of young muses who help inspire his creations but are discarded once their usefulness evaporates. But his latest flame, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) isn't so easy to shake: she loves him, and resorts to extreme measures in order to get his attention.
Phantom Thread explores how the artist's relentless drive for perfection can induce a kind of madness, and if this does turn out to be Daniel Day-Lewis's final film, he could hardly have ended on a more appropriate note. Because over the years, his own artistic strivings have pushed him pretty close to the edge.
From the very start, he was steeped in all things artistic. His father was the celebrated Anglo-Irish poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, his mother the screen actress Jill Balcon, whose father ran Ealing Studios in its heyday.
Daniel was born in 1957, and was mainly raised in Greenwich, south London. He grew up to be something of a tearaway, and was sent to boarding school in Kent when his parents discovered he was flirting with petty crime. There he was introduced to three pursuits that would become lifelong loves - fishing, woodwork and acting.
He made his screen debut at the age of 14, as a child vandal in John Schlesinger's drama Sunday Bloody Sunday, and later described the experience as "heaven". However, it was not acting he turned to first on leaving school, but carpentry: he applied to apprentice as a cabinet-maker, but was turned down. Instead he auditioned for the celebrated Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and was accepted. He thrived.
In the early 1980s he began turning up in TV dramas like Shoestring, playing forgettable roles. The first time I saw him was in Stephen Frears' daring 1985 drama My Beautiful Laundrette, in which he played a street-fighting punk who begins a gay relationship with a young Asian man. There was a raw energy to his performance, an eye-catching intensity that promised great things to come.
The same year he displayed remarkable range as the fey toff Cecil Vyse in Merchant/Ivory's Room With a View. His international profile was raised by his appearance in Philip Kaufman's Unbearable Lightness of Being. Then came My Left Foot, and his Oscar-winning transformation into Christy Brown.
Working-class Dublin writer and artist Brown had cerebral palsy: Day-Lewis not only mastered his accent but spent the entire shoot confined to a wheelchair, and learnt how to manipulate paint brushes and even work a record player with his foot. He refused to come out of character between takes, and had to be spoon-fed his lunch by colleagues. And if all that sounds a bit much, just take another look at his extraordinary performance.
The Academy Award it won him attracted American attention: in the early 1990s, he worked with Michael Mann on The Last of the Mohicans, and with Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence. And in 1993, he teamed up with Jim Sheridan again to play Gerry Conlon, one of the men wrongly convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings, in In the Name of the Father.
His dedication and attention to detail became the stuff of legend. On that film, Day-Lewis lost 30lbs, spent several nights in a cell while crew members hurled abuse at him, and maintained his impressive Belfast accent throughout the production and for some time afterwards. For The Boxer (1997), he trained for months on end with Barry McGuigan in order make sure his bouts were convincing.
When Martin Scorsese cast him as early 19th century Manhattan hoodlum Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting in his 2002 film Gangs of New York, Daniel worked in a butcher's shop to learn the trade and hired two circus performers to show him how to throw knives with pinpoint accuracy. He had his eyeball covered by prosthetic glass to simulate Bill's fake one, and taught himself to tap it with a knife without blinking.
And on Phantom Thread he personally sourced all his character's clothes at bespoke London stores, ordered purple socks from an ecclesiastical shop in Rome and personally supervised the décor of Reynolds Woodstock's home - even down to the kind of dogs he would own. "I wanted lurchers," he explained. "I gave so much thought to every single detail. I was probably infuriating."
This isn't the first time he's threatened to retire. In 1989 he withdrew from theatre work permanently after suffering a nervous breakdown while appearing as Hamlet at London's National Theatre. He claimed he'd seen his father's ghost onstage. In the late 90s, during a five-year hiatus from film work, he moved to Florence to study shoemaking. But always, a role among the hundreds he was offered would catch his imagination, and he'd be drawn back in.
Not this time, he insists, and the fact that this notoriously private man went to the trouble of issuing a public statement would suggest he means business, and wants it all to stop. But when you're really good at something, it's hard to stop doing it, and I'm not entirely convinced Day-Lewis won't pop up again in some suitably epic production a few years down the line.
ACTORS WHO QUIETLY QUIT
While most actors either can’t afford to stop working, or can’t bear to be expelled from the limelight, there are some who bravely decide to call it a day. Though not too many people have noticed, Cameron Diaz (above) hasn’t appeared in a film since 2014, and has no plans to make any more.
“I just went, ‘I really can’t say who I am to myself’,” she explained recently. Diaz is currently studying meditation, and has written a health book.
Sean Connery and Gene Hackman both quietly quit movies in their early seventies: according to Connery’s close friend Michael Caine, he “didn’t want to play small parts about old men”. Hackman was sick of the stress, and his since written three novels.
One of the biggest stars of the 1960s, Doris Day (above) withdrew from movie-making at the end of that decade after discovering that her late husband had squandered her fortune and left her deeply in debt. Her finances recovered, and she opened a home for stray pets.
And 1980s comedy actor Rick Moranis (above) retired after his wife died of cancer to become a stay-at-home dad, and “really didn’t miss it”.
But the dramatic acting retirement of all was Greta Garbo’s. The great Swedish silent star never gave interviews and always seemed uncomfortable in the limelight. She was just 36 when she turned her back on Hollywood — and she never came back.