by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Daniel Day-Lewis announced while filming his most recent picture Phantom Thread, that this would be his final movie role and he would settle into retirement. With Phantom Thread currently spreading across theaters in North America as it gains a lot of traction during this years Oscar race, now is the perfect time to reflect and look back on an enigmatic career from one of the greatest method actors of his generation. Often referred to as the ‘British De Niro’ he has proven to be much more selective than his American counterpart often taking years between roles. After his first Oscar win for Best Actor for 1989’s My Left Foot, there was a three year gap until his next movie which was The Last of the Mohicans (1992). That was unheard of at the time, especially during a period where Daniel Day-Lewis was still considered a relative newcomer to the Academy and film community that embraced him. It was a sign of things to come and eventually everyone started to realize that Daniel Day-Lewis got so wrapped up in his roles that he needed a long time to prepare and often longer to decompress once filming had concluded. Here are the top 10 Daniel Day-Lewis performances from a motion picture.
10. The Boxer (1997)
Not a great movie by any means, but it certainly contains a great physical and emotional performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. This was his third collaboration with filmmaker Jim Sheridan and it was their weakest film together (you will read about the other two further down the list). They all deal with working class people living in Ireland and their values and struggles to maintain a normal life amid a politically volatile nation. Day-Lewis plays Danny Flynn, a Belfast native who was imprisoned for his involvement with the Irish Republican Army. After serving 14 years in jail he returns home and attempts to put his life back together. He re-opens his neighborhood gym, reconnects with a long lost love (Emily Watson), and tries his hardest to go straight and stay out of any IRA affiliations. The movie only partially works but nobody can discredit Daniel Day-Lewis and the physical transformation he made to get his body into shape to convincingly play a boxer. Allegedly he took months of training and by the time he was ready to film, the professional boxers and trainers that helped him said that Daniel Day-Lewis easily could have won a few professional bouts. Released in late December 1997 The Boxer drowned amid the Titanic juggernaut. It did not capture the hearts of audiences as The James Cameron epic or catch on as much as Good Will Hunting and As Good As It Gets did with audiences or Oscar voters. Once the dust had settled on The Boxer, it had to settle as being a runner up for the big awards of 1997.
9. The Age of Innocence (1993)
1993 would prove to be an anomaly in the career of Daniel Day-Lewis during his time as an A-list actor. It was the only time he starred in two movies as the lead role that were released in the same calendar year. The first one of these was Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence based on Edith Wharton’s novel. Released in the early fall of 1993 only a few months before In the Name of the Father, which you will read about further down on the list, The Age of Innocence is a lavish romance about a love triangle set in 1870’s New York City. Day-Lewis plays a wealthy lawyer named Newland Archer engaged to a young socialite played by Winona Ryder. But when his fiancee’s beautiful cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer) comes to visit the situation becomes more complicated and an unexpected romance blooms. Rarely discussed in the pantheon of great Scorsese films or the finer works of Daniel Day-Lewis, The Age of Innocence is a slow and sumptuous journey back in time to a New York not usually seen on film. The costumes are some of the finest of any period piece and they won a well deserved Academy Award. The set design, the framing in the cinematography and performances are all outstanding and as beautiful as anyone could ask for. The story itself may not be as compelling but the matchup of Day-Lewis and Scorsese proved to make even the most dawdling scenes in this film feel interesting. This film succeeds at sucking you into its world with the lush details and intricate performances. Winona Ryder was easily the weakest link of the lead performances yet somehow she was the only actor that managed to get an Oscar nomination for her role. Ms. Ryder was a hot commodity in the early 90’s but no matter how well you dressed her up she failed to convince that she was not a generation X-er. Daniel Day-Lewis on the other hand was stellar, that if it were not for his other film from 1993 where he surpassed his performance in this, he could have easily earned an Academy Award nomination for The Age of Innocence.
8. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Daniel Day-Lewis’s first movie after his first Best Actor Oscar for My Left Foot (1989) could not have been any different than when audiences last saw him as man stricken by illness and bound to a wheelchair. After a three year hiatus Day-Lewis returned in another physical performance, albeit the complete opposite from the physical transformation he last endured. In Michael Mann’s 1992 film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel The Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye, the half Native American, half white member of a dying tribe surviving in the wilderness of upstate New York during the backdrop of the French and Indian War. Hawkeye along with his father and brother try to live in peace but get swept up into the war as they find themselves morally bound to protect a British Colonel’s daughters from the French and a more vicious Native American tribe led by the brutal Magua, played by Wes Studi in one of his signature and most villainous roles. Daniel Day-Lewis plays an action hero for the ages and the film is part action movie and part sumptuous romance as his character Hawkeye falls in love with the Colonel’s older daughter played by Madeleine Stowe. Day-Lewis trained long and hard for his role learning how to fight and hunt with authentic weapons, hunting and skinning animals and only eating what he could kill, surviving off the land as his character would. He lived his role and changed his image from a frail Irish actor, to bulking up and being an all American action hero. His chameleon-like ability was on full display and he convinced audiences that he could be a romantic lead in an action-drama, and romance since now women around the world started to view him as a sex symbol. The Last of the Mohicans is a unique action film beloved by men for its visceral and historically accurate depictions of combat and adored by women for its passionate romance. Daniel Day-Lewis was the key to making both of those elements work as sublimely as they do.
7. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
One of his first big roles was in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as Tomas, a successful surgeon with a very active sex life who meets and falls for a woman who wants monogamy. Then the Soviet invasion comes to Czechoslovakia and disrupts their lives forever. Based on the acclaimed novel by Milan Kundera and directed by Philip Kaufman, The Unbearable Lightness of Being remains the most underrated and probably his most under-appreciated film on this list. Clocking in at nearly three hours it is a lot to sit through but he sells the performance of a very unlikeable man torn between two beautiful women played by Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin. The entire cast at the time was relatively unknown but they would all go on to have very successful careers in American movies. It illustrates life under the Iron Curtain as it invades our characters personal and professional lives during the 1968 Prague Spring of Social Liberalization, forever altering their artistic and intellectual values. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a gorgeous film with erotic moments and social commentary about how politics can destroy lives and tear lovers apart. No matter how hard Day-Lewis’s lady killer doctor tried to stay apolitical his life was eventually drowning in communist rhetoric and restrictions. This is one of the rare films from Daniel Day-Lewis that was financially unsuccessful. It did not make it’s budget back and was largely ignored by audiences and award shows. Eventually it has found its audience and is still able to be discovered by movie buffs for years to come.
6. Phantom Thread (2017)
Currently playing in cinemas now Phantom Thread is a smart, sophisticated Hitchcockian tale of love and obsession based on the London post World War II fashion industry. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a successful fashion designer that has his routine lifestyle disrupted by his affection for a younger, strong willed woman, played terrifically by newcomer Vicky Krieps. Phantom Thread is his first film in five years since winning his third Oscar for Lincoln (2012) and his second film for director Paul Thomas Anderson. It is an emotional picture about control and manipulation in relationships where we do so much harm to the ones we love the most. So many moments to behold, his performance anchors the film as he weaves his way through being dominant and vulnerable. In this film more than almost any other you can see his hard research for the character displayed on screen with subtle small moments. This movie has extravagant sets and a keen attention to every exquisite detail. The costumes are splendid as they should be considering the subject matter. While we are visually hypnotized into this film, the outstanding score by Johnny Greenwood entrances the audience into the film even more. Phantom Thread may be the 2017’s most beautiful picture both visually and acoustically. The time period shows through on screen as a symphony of images and sounds that reflects a beautiful marriage of the finest caliber of talent. If Phantom Thread is indeed his final film, he went out with a great one.
5. Lincoln (2012)
What will be the penultimate film of Daniel Day-Lewis is also the one that earned him his third Best Actor Academy Award and was the first time an actor won an Oscar for a Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg loved working with Daniel Day-Lewis and vice versa. This is another one of the many period pieces he starred in where he had to get into character and researched his role to portray the 16th President of the United States as accurately as possible. He obviously succeeded winning the Oscar and practically every other major acting award they could bestow upon him. Lincoln is a phenomenal picture about the President and his staff attempting to abolish slavery and pass the 13th amendment. A historical drama of the finest caliber with one of the greatest actors of all time front and center as the man trying to preserve and save the union during the final days of the Civil War. Lincoln is a powerful film and earned 12 Academy Award nominations, winning only two, Production Design and of course Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis. Saying that he is the best part of the film is accurate but also an understatement to the testament of Spielberg’s incredible accomplishment creating a glorious movie on a wide canvas and making such a personal story involving Abraham Lincoln and his relationships with his sons, wife (played elegantly by Sally Field), cabinet members, and even his political rivals. That seems to be the lone negative effect of Daniel Day-Lewis. He is such a powerhouse of an actor that it detracts from many of the other great elements that make up the films he stars in.
4. Gangs of New York (2002)
His second collaboration with master filmmaker Martin Scorsese was also the first time audiences saw Daniel Day-Lewis on screen in five years since The Boxer which underwhelmed critics, audiences and underperformed at the box office. Gangs of New York was sort of a big test to see if Daniel Day-Lewis still had the intensity and drive that he exhumed during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. Well once Gangs of New York was finally released after being held in post production turmoil for over a year, everyone knew that Daniel Day-Lewis still had it in him to deliver raw, emotional and powerful performances. His turn as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York overshadowed big box office names Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz that also had above the title credit with him. Day-Lewis created one of the most magnetic screen villains of recent years with his commanding performance. So many great moments with him big and small from his unforgettable introduction, to when he taps on his glass eye with a knife, to waking up a sleeping DiCaprio with an American flag draped over his shoulders. Day-Lewis won many Acting awards for this role and it was considered an upset on Oscar night when he lost Best Actor to Adrien Brody for The Pianist, although few can ever argue that Brody was undeserving of his trophy. As he has shown in The Last of the Mohicans and would later illustrate in There Will Be Blood and Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis encapsulated the best and worst of American values in these huge roles. That is amazing considering he is an English actor with Irish roots. Phantom Thread is the only film on this list where Daniel Day-Lewis actually plays an Englishman, the rest of his characters here are American, Irish and one role as a Czech physician. Phenomenal considering how convincing he is in all of these roles. Daniel Day-Lewis embodies the strengths and weaknesses, the nobility and villainy of these men representing their culture it is amazing he is not a native of these lands or that the directors did not choose to cast someone else. There are plenty of talented American and Irish actors that could have played these roles instead of Daniel Day-Lewis, but then these films would have likely turned out completely different. Gangs of New York earned ten Oscar nominations but went home empty handed on the big night. There was backlash against this film with people taking issue with aspects of the narrative and the actors other than Daniel Day-Lewis. A lot of compromises were made between director Scorsese and now disgraced big shot producer Harvey Weinstein. In the end the movie still turned out to be a powerful film capturing an era of New York City seldom seen in movies. Much like their other collaboration The Age of Innocence, but Gangs of New York was the first big hit for Scorsese in over a decade at the box office and was a sign of things to come cranking out more hits with DiCaprio who would become his go to guy for the new millennium. It arguably started a renaissance for Daniel Day-Lewis as well, getting him back into the game and some of the best roles of his career would come after this film. Back in 2002 he only had one Academy Award, Gangs of New York established his brand significantly, gave him his first Oscar nomination in almost a decade and led towards him winning Academy Awards in There Will Be Blood and Lincoln. This is a rare special film that does not get the respect it truly deserves in the careers of everyone involved, but everyone who sees it agrees that Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance and it ranks high among the best roles of his distinguished career.
3. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Previously mentioned in my greatest endings article, In the Name of the Father is the second collaboration of Daniel Day-Lewis and director Jim Sheridan, reuniting them after Day-Lewis took home his first Best Actor Academy Award for My Left Foot. Once again this film focuses on the true story of a working class Irish family but is much more political. It is based on the real life experience of Gerry Conlon who was coerced into confessing to an IRA bombing that he did not do. He was simply with his friends in the wrong place at the wrong time. Furthermore the corrupt British police in Belfast, Northern Ireland imprisoned his father Giuseppe Conlon for conspiracy to commit the same crime. It chronicles their struggle to fight for their freedom with an English lawyer who was the only one that seemed to be on their side. The film is based on Gerry Conlon’s autobiographical book ‘Proved Innocent’ and is a huge indictment against the British political system that has caused much harm and tragedy to the Irish. Daniel Day-Lewis once again gives an outstanding and emotional performance. He grows up in a span of over two hours from a ne’er do well carefree young man to a political prisoner fighting for injustice and fighting to clear his name and his father’s name. The moment when he takes apart an audiotape and wraps himself in the thin magnetic strip is indelible. In the Name of the Father was the second Daniel Day-Lewis movie released in 1993 and what a great year for movies it was. He was nominated for Best Actor up against Liam Neeson for Schindler’s List and they would both lose to Tom Hanks for Philadelphia. It is really tough to pick against any of those performances. I would have given a slight edge to Liam Neeson who shockingly has not earned an Academy Award nomination since Schindler’s List. The ending of In the Name of the Father does make you want to stand up and cheer. It is an incredible true story about overcoming injustice in the law and it works because you are seeing the journey through Gerry Conlon’s eyes as played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Special recognition should go to the late Pete Postlethwaite as his father wrongfully imprisoned. Daniel Day-Lewis stated that he was one of his best friends and the finest actors he ever worked with. Postlethwaite was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for In The Name of the Father and lost to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive, once again, 1993 was a very strong year for movies indeed. By the end of the journey you will feel utter relief as the verdict is given in court. This is a triumphant film and without a doubt one of the finest roles of a legendary actors career.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
A masterwork of cinematography, set design and featuring another outstanding performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as fictitious oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, who won his second Best Actor Oscar for this movie. A brilliant allegory of American greed and a sly indictment of the Bush administration on going to war because of the nations reliance on oil. Once again Day-Lewis is as magnetic and commanding as ever, even when the script veers toward chaos and all out insanity, he makes it believable and delivers arguably his best performance. Much like Lincoln, this film may be unfairly dismissed as the work of a terrific actor and not a great film which ii truly is. There Will Be Blood is possibly the finest film from director Paul Thomas Anderson and that is saying a lot. The first 14 minutes play like a silent film with so much happening and zero dialogue, then the story develops and the character he plays goes from so many different phases as the more oil he discovers creates a greed and competitive drive that nothing can hinder him. Plainview isolates himself from everyone to conquer and reap the oil beneath their feet. It is another emotional performance, showy at times with the milkshake scene, subtle at others with his embrace of his son after not seeing him for a long time, there is not a single frame that should be altered. There Will Be Blood is as good as movies can get dealing with themes of greed, family values, religion, disabilities and mental illness, all as the seeds for those issues were being planted in the early 1900’s. They have evolved into the America we are today and we are not better or worse for it, it is just an American story played brilliantly by an Englishman.
1. My Left Foot (1989)
I kept mentioning My Left Foot throughout this article now I finally get to talk about it in detail. Often regarded as the first great Daniel Day-Lewis performance, this is the one that made him revered as one of the greatest actors of his era. My Left Foot tells the true story of Christy Brown, a man born with cerebral palsy who teaches himself to write, type, draw and paint with his one controllable limb, his left foot. He was from a large, working class family and grew up in poverty in Ireland with little to no options or sign of hope. Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot one could argue is not only his best performance but quite possibly the best example of acting in motion picture history. It is a tour de force that few actors can ever accomplish and even Daniel Day-Lewis with his accolades of acclaim and awards has never topped. This marked the first time he worked with filmmaker Jim Sheridan and it is their finest collaboration. Miramax bought the American distribution rights to the film outbidding all the other big studios and after screenings for critics and festivals in 1989, they slowly rolled it out to North American theaters in spring of 1990 where it eventually caught on by word of mouth and with Oscar voters. My Left Foot was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, and would win two for Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, an upset over Tom Cruise for Born on the Fourth of July. Also Brenda Fricker was a surprise win for Best Supporting Actress over Hollywood A-list names such as Anjelica Huston and Julia Roberts. They both deserved their acting wins as she played his long suffering mother and the only person throughout the first part of his life that did not dismiss her son as just a vegetable and a dummy but a man with real thoughts, feelings, intelligence and capabilities. Daniel Day-Lewis researched his role in great detail, working with the real Christy Brown and studying cerebral palsy patients to get every ounce of detail accurate in his performance. Making this film even more of an accomplishment was how Day-Lewis completely transformed himself physically for his next role as a tough action hero in The Last of the Mohicans. Granted he had three years to prepare for it, but still his dedication to his work was on full display and the Academy made the right call in giving a then relatively unknown actor their highest honor. My Left Foot is a love story and emotional biopic with humor and tragedy laced throughout every scene. This is a performance that has been studied and will continue to be cherished for decades to come.