Just Give Daniel Day-Lewis His (Third) Oscar Already!

Daniel Day-Lewis is about to win his third Oscar. Well, maybe. I’d predicted his scoring another Academy Award as soon as I read the news he had replaced Liam Neeson in the title role of Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated historical chamber drama Lincoln. Controversial vocal inflections notwithstanding, much of the Hollywood chattering class at least agrees he’s heavy in the running.

(His chief competition? Probably Joaquin Phoenix of The Master—a movie I really liked, as soon as I was done being really mad at it—but Phoenix’s off-the-cuff remarks about how the Oscar race is B.S. might just hamper his chances, no matter how much he has dutifully backtracked)

I’m dying to see what DDL does with the role of America’s 16th president. By the time you read this, I will no doubt have seen the movie. (UPDATE: And so I have. My headline request–which can now double as a prediction–stands, even if the movie as a whole I might not rave about quite so strongly) In the meantime, I’m going to share a topical list of my own five favorite performances by Day-Lewis, one of the most tremendously dedicated and enigmatic actors working today.

Apologies in advance for all of you who believe this list would be woefully incomplete without My Beautiful Laundrette. Like so many Classics I’ve Never Seen, I’ve still never seen that one. I was introduced to DDL onscreen with:

My Left Foot

DDL stars in this moving biopic of Christy Brown, the Irish author/poet who refused to allow his affliction with cerebral palsy to destroy his artistic impulses. My favorite scene in the film is when Brown gets furiously drunk in mixed company when it becomes apparent that the romantic love he has for therapist Fiona Shaw will not be reciprocated. Heartbreaking.

The Age of Innocence

Adapting Edith Wharton’s novel of Victorian-era romance was a gutsy move for Martin Scorsese. For those who found the film to be alien to previous Marty fare such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, a closer study will reveal that the picture is indeed brimming with violence—emotional violence. (That’s not my original observation. I can’t remember if it was Scorsese or co-screenwriter Jay Cocks who pointed this out, but it’s very true) DDL’s work here as a cultured and controlled man whose heart burns out of control for a woman not his wife is a masterpiece of subtle torment. Among many wonderful DDL moments in the movie, I think back to the scene where he’s in the theater balcony with Michelle Pfeiffer, and the frame irises out everything around them and the soundtrack goes artificially silent but for their whispering. Truly intense.

Gangs of New York

There’s intense, and then there’s intense. Many viewers might find Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher to be the opposite of subtle. Scorsese directs him again, and allows him room to run wild in this lusciously brutal movie…but the scene where I really held my breath was the one in which the glass-eyed Bill, draped in an American flag as if it were a Snuggie, delivers a monologue about rising up “with a full heart” and burying an enemy “in his own blood.”

There Will Be Blood

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s book Oil!, DDL plays John Huston—well, no, but the voice he conjures up to embody the role of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview sounds an awful lot like the legendary director. Much like The Master, Anderson’s 2007 film appears to really fly off the rails in the closing minutes; also like The Master, it rewards closer attention and repeated viewing. DDL takes the entire movie prisoner with the “I drink your milkshake!” monologue. I still can’t decide if it helps or hurts the movie on the whole—but it remains an actorly feat with few rivals.


Oh, how people seemed to hate this movie. Not me. As much as the film is about an artist’s inner torment (which can be quite a tedious subject matter, whether in print, on film, on stage, or in regular conversation), it’s also about sex and style and sass, and DDL whisks through this lavish musical with conviction and class. (The above trailer, by the way, might be one of the best-cut-together trailers of all time in this particular genre. Whoever was responsible really knew where the beats are tight, where they’re loose, how the motion of the image works with the song’s phrasing, how the explosion of a smile can propel you out of a cut, how the champagne popping is really a dirty image, etc. etc. etc. You can also see how this works with that shot of Nicole Kidman that pops along with the lyric “SLEEK”–where music and image reinforce each other with their crisp, clean, exaggerated contrasts)

Let’s just gush: Day-Lewis is pretty much great in anything. (That silly “could read the phone book” cliché applies to him if it applies to anyone) I’ve skipped over the marvelous Philip Kaufman adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; there’s also The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a little-seen (and irritatingly OOP) small-scale drama directed by DDL’s spouse, Rebecca Miller.

Long recognized for his desire to disappear into roles completely, Daniel Day-Lewis will surely continue to seek out challenges as daring as the ones he’s accepted so far. And let’s hope he allies himself soon with a director who matches his (or her) own intensity with DDL’s and stretches his instincts as far as they can go. I’m thinking maybe a Herzog or perhaps a von Trier collaboration might be in order?