The Disappearing Act of Daniel Day-Lewis

Source: IMDB

Famous yet private, talented yet hesitant, Daniel Day-Lewis is a rare actor, a mythic Hollywood figure who seems to be living in a time not of his own. He is a deeply dedicated, selective method actor who, despite his relatively limited film catalogue, has gained great fame. And yet he has decided to walk away. For now.

Retirement is a strange thing in the acting community. For one, it’s only afforded to career talents — those who, over the course of a lifetime, have impressed and dedicated themselves to work. That is to say, you can’t really retire if people just stop calling you to be in roles. Furthermore, acting is a malleable skill that doesn’t necessarily change with age. The quantity and type of roles change, surely, but unlike the disciplines of dance or sports, acting itself is not so physically demanding (with the exception of stunt-heavy action films, of course) that you would necessarily lose a step in the job market.

Poster image, Lincoln (2012)

It’s been just over a year now since the sixty-one-year-old London native announced his retirement, and it doesn’t seem as though time has changed his opinion (although he regularly takes years off between projects). There doesn’t seem to be a specific reason for this sudden and sad departure. Perhaps he has exhausted all the energy he has, living so many lives as these characters — many (if not all) of them plagued physically, mentally, or emotionally. He lives as them, then says goodbye to them, never to return. Perhaps his talent and approach and choices are a part of a bygone era; he played a half-native character in one film, despite being English born, and a casting decision like that today would certainly stir the interwebs. As we wonder why, and ponder whether he shall return, we too can reflect on the great performances he has imparted.

The Phantom Thread

There are any number of films that cause great turmoil, sadness, or trouble for the actors during and post production. These movies tend to be heavy dramas that force the actor to consume a role and story so fully that it’s hard to shake. For Day-Lewis, The Phantom Thread seemingly filled him with such melancholy that he decided he would no longer act.

As with his other roles, Day-Lewis indefatigably immersed himself in the character, working tirelessly to inhabit the figure of fictional couturier Reynolds Woodcock. Day-Lewis learned to sew and even went so far as to re-create a Balenciaga dress. Against the backdrop of London following World War II, Woodcock, like Day-Lewis, is controlled by and obsessed with his work, which in this case is designing dresses for wealthy women. Woodcock soon becomes infatuated with a young woman who becomes his muse, as his controlling nature reaches new, problematic heights. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who worked with Day-Lewis helming the epic There Will Be Blood, this period piece got Oscar nods for Best Picture, Acting, Directing, and won for Costume Design; it also netted many awards in various film circles.

It seems to be worth noting that for some time, Day-Lewis was only telling America’s stories (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Lincoln), but The Phantom Thread is especially English in setting, tone, and tale.

Retirement

Something happened while making this film; Day-Lewis was excited for the opportunity and story, but over the course of production, something within him changed. “Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting. I do know that Paul and I laughed a lot before we made the movie,” said Day-Lewis in an interview with W Magazine in November of 2017. “And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. That took us by surprise: We didn’t realize what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.”

At that time, Day-Lewis had not seen the film and had no plans to. He made a public statement to help solidify the decision; he has often needed and wanted breaks after inhabiting a character, but this time he required of himself a more emphatic gesture. In the aforementioned interview, and others, he cannot determine the cause of the sadness or anything specific about it. He equated it to a curse, one that could not be shaken. So it seems he did not choose retirement; instead, perhaps retirement chose him.

Method Acting

Day-Lewis is particularly noted for his employment of method acting. The thing about method acting, or so it would seem, is that it’s often an endeavour that negatively impacts one’s life.

Day-Lewis fully inhabits his characters and it has worked to great effect in the end product, but not without extreme dedication and some health hazards along the way – or so the stories go. He learned Czech for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he played a Czech brain surgeon; when he played wheelchair-bound Irish artist Christy Brown, he insisted on staying in a wheelchair throughout production.

For The Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis learned to track animals, build canoes, and use tomahawks and a flintlock pistol. In the Name of the Father saw Day-Lewis choose to spend two nights in jail, refusing food and water, getting verbally abused, and lengthily being interrogated by policemen. He lived on an island without running water for The Crucible. Then there is the story of Day-Lewis getting pneumonia while filming Gangs of New York, because he wouldn’t change out of his period costume.

Now, whether or not he spoke to the ghost of his dead father while playing Hamlet is another story.

Nine

And now for something a little bit lighter — and proof that humility is important even for a paragon of talent and beloved public figure in any given field — let’s talk about Nine. Because it’s not good. Not at all.

There was much potential, though! Rob Marshall, an Oscar and Golden Globe nominated director of Academy Award-winning Best Picture Chicago, joined forces with a slew of talents, including Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, and Sophia Loren, to tell another period-piece musical in similar fashion. And of course, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the man bringing all these women together in this musical adaptation, playing a celebrated yet beleaguered artistic genius seeking a sense of self. How could it fail?!

Oh, how it failed. Among its many flaws, which do not at all include acting, is the fact that it’s hardly relatable, and fails at making a compelling argument for people to care. Day-Lewis is surrounded by beautiful women and his character has accomplished so much, but Marshall’s film fails to convince the audience that we should be sympathetic or look for anything deeper — because nothing is presented as deeper. What’s more, it fails to have the same vibrancy and intensity of Chicago or the 1963 Federico Fellini film Eight and a Half upon which this adaptation is based. More simply, the songs just don’t have enough of a kick.

Nine maintains a sub-fifty score on a bunch of aggregate rating sites, and just isn’t fun enough to embrace. They can’t all be winners, and that is perhaps an important lesson that Mr. Day-Lewis imparted to us all. Though there may be a message in the opening number, ‘Guido’s Song,’ in which his character is torn back and forth, not knowing what he wants while wanting everything at the same time. “It’s the end,” sings Day-Lewis, “if something important doesn’t start.” Perhaps.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.