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Is Daniel Day-Lewis the best working actor?

Nihal Tharoor-Menon explores Daniel Day-Lewis’ devotion to his craft

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There are only a handful of actors working today that absolutely commit to a role. Devoting themselves to the research and studying for a film so they can fully embrace their character’s existence. This is essentially the concept of ‘method acting’, and Daniel Day Lewis has redefined the nature and boundaries of this revolutionary art form. His drive for authenticity, integrity and reality in his roles, to a great extent, rival any film actor of the 20th century.

Now these are bold statements, but when you see the uncompromising lengths and risks Day-Lewis has taken to pursue his roles, they are certainly substantiated. In My Left Foot (1989), a true story about a severely paralysed Irishman who learns to communicate through his left foot, Day-Lewis assumed his characters cerebral-palsy symptoms off-screen. For several weeks of shooting he confined himself to a wheelchair and consequently broke two ribs due to his prolonged hunched-over position.

In The Last of the Mohicans (1992), set during the 1757 French and Indian war in colonial America, Day-Lewis learned to live off the land and forest where his character lived, camping, hunting, fishing and even skinning animals.

Whilst filming In the Name of the Father (1992), about a Northern-Irish man wrongfully convicted of an IRA bombing, Day-Lewis spent several stretches in a prison cell and insisted that, on set, crew members throw cold water and verbally abuse him.

He even contracted pneumonia during the filming of Gangs of New York (2001), and refused to wear warmer clothing or seek medical treatment, as it would not be in keeping with the nature of life in the 19th century.

This uncompromising devotion certainly comes through to the screen and perhaps explains why Day-Lewis is one of the few men who have won two Best-Actor Oscars. In fact with his Oscar for There Will Be Blood Day-Lewis joined Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, as the only Best Actor winners awarded an Oscar in two non-consecutive decades. This incredible consistency throughout his career explains why he is one of the most sought after, and selective, actors in the film industry. In fact in the last 15 years Day-Lewis has only taken on five acting roles.

Perhaps this is why the film world is buzzing with the approach of historical-epic Lincoln, directed by Spielberg and starring Day-Lewis in the leading role. Forgetting that the actor bears an unsettling resemblance to the beloved American president, with one look at the historically rich and climactic period Spielberg intends to cover (the end of the American Civil-War, the abolishment of slavery and the president’s inevitable assassination), this could be one of the most significant roles Day-Lewis’ career has seen. And let us not forget that with one more Best-Actor Oscar, Day-Lewis will have surpassed any other actor in Academy Awards history.

So in the run up to what is likely to be the biggest flick of the winter, true film lovers must delve back into the movies which have made Daniel Day-Lewis one of the most critically acclaimed actors in the business.

  • Smita

    Excellent article that reminded me of how wonderful and exceptional Daniel Day Lewis is – looking forward to seeing “Lincoln”.