Daniel Day-Lewis’ Retirement and the Void It Leaves Behind
Normally, these types of pieces are morbid and begin with, “The world of acting lost a one of its most on Tuesday…”
But this is a different case entirely. In a rare turn of events, 3-time Best Actor Oscar winner (My Left Foot, There Will be Blood, and Lincoln) Daniel Day-Lewis — who is regarded as arguably the greatest living actor — retired from acting on Tuesday afternoon.
He retired once before in 2013 to learn to farm, but he came out to work with Paul Thomas Anderson once more (There Will Be Blood) in the upcoming film, Phantom Thread. Let’s hope the retirement doesn’t stick, but if it does, it is time to applaud him as one of the greatest actors to ever live.
The move would be stunning for nearly anyone else. To give up the late earning years once your reputation and legacy are so clearly cemented is something that simply isn’t done all that often. Many legends — Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino included — enjoy the twilight period by playing outlandish characters in movies they never would have dreamed of being in during their prime or become caricatures of themselves.
But that would have gone against everything DDL did throughout his career. As a meticulous selector of roles, DDL would often go years without being seen, isolating himself in whatever role he finally chose to immerse himself in the character. Sure, DDL has 29 acting credits to his name on his IMDb page, but nine of them were TV series, TV movies, and a single uncredited role during the early stages of his career as he tried desperately to make a name for himself in the field.
DDL is a bit of an eccentric in his real life, to say the least, taking years off of acting to learn to farm and learn carpentry. But his eccentricities help him immerse himself in a role and become it, as opposed to playing it.
The tales of his preparations are legendary. For My Left Foot, for instance, DDL stayed in wheelchair even when they weren’t filming, forcing crew members to help him and in out of the chair and to feed him his meals. For In the Name of the Father, he slept in the bottom of a prison cell for two days without food and water and lost 50 pounds for the part.
And those are just the confirmed rumors.
Yes, his preparation and work ethic are legendary, but what was even more impressive was the final product. With five Oscar nominations and three wins, the choices are many, but just what was his best role?
DDL’s Best Role: The Villain
While I mentioned that DDL has three Best Actor Oscars, that still feels like I’m not giving enough credit to what he accomplished and created.
He didn’t just act in films; he transformed himself and created larger than life characters, or brought them to life in regards to Lincoln.
When discussing his very best role, there are a number of great options, but it really comes down to two characters, the first of which is Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, a deeply complex oil baron, who cares far more for oil, money, and winning than he does for any living soul. He’s filled with hate and contempt, yet something about him beckons your respect with the same ruthlessness that he displays in all things.
Daniel Plainview on paper is not a great character. He’s greedy and ruthless, yes, but why should you care about him? DDL brings a sense of urgency and importance to each line he delivers, bringing forth a sense of foreboding that weighs heavy on the viewer.
And when pushed to the brinks of his sanity, he can ratchet up his intensity in a way so few can.
But as good as he was in There Will Be Blood, he’ll always be Bill “the Butcher” Cutting to me — the villainous politician, xenophobe, murderer, and actual butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York to me.
Despite my affinity for all things Scorsese, Gangs of New York isn’t an all-time great film, but DDL just may be the greatest villain in film history. At the very least, he’s in the conversation. From his opening monologue in the film, the lines in the sand are drawn and there are no lingering questions about what he stands and fights for in the film. He’s intense, raw, and utterly insane.
Bill the Butcher is a savage murderer, capable of both killing quickly and efficiently or ensuring that his enemy’s suffering will be long and drawn out.
But his violence isn’t what makes him so great; his complexity and charisma are what separates him from the run-of-the-mill villains that get churned out weekly. The scene below shows the complex side of him. With an American flag draped over his shoulders, he pours out his soul, the thoughts below the boisterous facade, and discusses the lack of a true rival, a warrior to fight, someone to hate, someone to respect, an honorable man.
The chilling words of Bill the Butcher contrast wonderfully with his over-the-top killing style, creating a memorable persona, but when you add in the fact that he’s an idealistic monster, as opposed to a one-track killing machine, believing fully in his heart that immigrants will be the death of the country he so loves, it makes him one of the all-time greats.
Who can fill the void?
There are bigger stars in the acting world. Robert Downey Jr., George Clooney, and The Rock are probably all bigger names on a poster, and they all make more money each year, but none of them are actually better. In fact, I would argue no one alive is better.
With Day-Lewis’ career coming to a halting stop, who does that leave us as the top method actor remaining?
Some of the best ever have either died or stopped what made them great altogether. Marlon Brando has long since left this earth. Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman no longer transform themselves like they once did.
One of the most notable method actors that has been in the headlines in recent years is Jared Leto, whose Joker preparation makes him look far more like a try-hard doing his best to make headlines than actually become the Joker.
Actors and actresses need, at times, to suffer for the art. I know it’s cliche and almost frowned upon nowadays to feel pain in preparation, to uglify one’s self, to become morose as the character is morose, to become manic as the character is manic…but when someone pours their soul into a character, the greatness shines through.
We’re lucky to live in an era where there are a number of suitors to take over the role of best method actor living, including the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Adrien Brody.
But in my opinion, the crown has been passed down already to Joaquin Phoenix, a true heir to DDL’s throne. Disappearing from the spotlight for months at a time, Phoenix loses himself in these absurd parts and aligns himself with directors who can best bring greatness out in him. Like DDL, Phoenix has also surrounded himself with great directors, including — also like DDL — PT Anderson , Spike Jonze, and M. Night Shyamalan (in his prime).
There are no limits to what he will become for a role. He’s fallen in love with a computer (Her), became Johnny Cash (Walk the Line), joined a cult as a sex-obsessed, alcoholic war veteran (The Master), and seized control of a nation as a cruel dictator (Gladiator).
He’s even about to go as far as to play Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene, a taboo move to such a large portion of the viewing audience, but while many played parts similar to these, very few have become them so convincingly.
I won’t be so misogynistic as to forget the women. We’re in an era where greatness can be easily found in the acting performances of the fairer sex, but in terms of method acting, two stand out far above everyone else: Charlize Theron and Rooney Mara.
Theron is no new prodigy. She had some nice roles early on in her career, but she reached the incredible status in 2003’s Monster, where her trademark beauty was covered by a little makeup and a lot of potato chips. She transformed herself into something else entirely, Aileen Wuornos, a hooker turned serial killer. And like all great method actors/actresses, she can be difficult to handle. Even Tom Hardy couldn’t stand her during the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road (my favorite film of the year), calling her a f***ing nightmare.
Mara, on the other hand, is the 32-year-old heir to the Mara fortune. She has never had to act for money, and she certainly has not had to go through the physical changes required for some of her roles. But she loves the art. In 2011, she became Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the cold, distant computer hacker, tattooed and pierced all over, who believes in retribution for sins committed against her. It’s such a complete contrast from the heartfelt lover in 2015’s Carol. Her range is limited only to what she can become herself, and we’ve seen that it spreads to all ends of the spectrum.
It’s wonderful to see that the cupboard is far from bare with a plethora of method actors still working, but there will still be a hole without Daniel Day-Lewis, the best of them all.
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