Today a true living legend completes another cycle around the sun. As Daniel Day-Lewis celebrates his 63rd birthday—no doubt in relished seclusion with not a glitzy party decoration in sight—we take a look at some of his lesser known on-screen performances. Winner of three Best Actor Oscars out of a robust six nominations, Day-Lewis is a rare breed of unique skill and mind-boggling versatility. It would only seem fit to deem him a true artisan.
To honor his birthday, here are four of his best performances from an unparalleled career in deep, enveloping moving pictures.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Stephen Frears is a master of uncanny niche. His films seem to capture that inherently lived-in quality that only a true insider would understand, and yet, makes them feel just approachable enough it merits our viewing. Each of them distinct in displaying a clique, community, or era. But even with an impressive dossier of films tied to his name–his greatest achievement may be discovering a young Daniel Day-Lewis and placing him in a scene stealing role with can’t-miss frosted tips.
In My Beautiful Laundrette, Lewis puts “Johnny” on full display in a playful but darkly endearing friend and lover to the leading man, Omar. Bound by vision and progression, they work to break free from traditional binds of heritage and expectation while building their own empire–an up-scale laundromat. A rare treat to venture back knowing now that Mr. Day-Lewis was, at this time, just four years away from shooting a film that would earn him his first Oscar and set him on the path of being THE actor of his era. An early sign of the brilliance yet to come.
The Age of Innocence (1993)
Scorsese has said, half in-jest, this was the most violent film he’s made. Though there’s not a drop of blood spilled in this grand, 19th Century costume drama–there may be truth behind the jibe. Set in the thick of high-society New York City, we find ourselves in a delicately ornate web of ill-fated love, passionate desire, and will. Michelle Pfeiffer, at the peak of her powers, and Wynona Ryder, enjoying her sweeping run of new Hollywood starlet, play dueling objects of affection for Daniel Day-Lewis, himself enjoying a staggering 1992-1997 sprint. Lewis portrays a deeply conflicted Newland Archer torn between keeping his pledge of love to May Welland (Ryder) whom he is engaged, or to throw all reputation and societal convention aside by falling into the arms of Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer) who recently (and scandalously) separated from her husband.
What we would normally expect to be a typical evolution of lustful affair turned to grand displays of argument and shattered relationships is instead a testament to inner turmoil. Scorsese avoids cliche choices opting to focus on the, yes, violent struggle of personal fortitude. We understand Archer and Olenska’s love for each other, but they never fully give of themselves to the other. They grapple with societal expectation and are deeply conflicted for what to choose, but the visceral experience this unrelenting but tender film curates is one rarely seen. A marvel of prestige spectacle.
As expected, there may be no better actor to deliver the broad display of subdued torment and utterly stifling indecision. Daniel Day-Lewis is known as the titan of transformation, capturing the best of “showy” acting choices. It’s what makes him the best. And yes, with The Age of Innocence, he captures the wounded Everyman with such subtle precision it overwhelms in emotion as much as it delivers in finely-tuned charm. To be at war with oneself is a complex, debilitating thing; at its peak, it cannot be anything else but utterly violent. Perhaps that’s what makes the ending of this film so devastating. Truly a top-tier (and criminally overlooked) performance from Day-Lewis in his first turn working with one of modern American cinema’s finest auteurs.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
Long before the impassioned displays Lincoln, or the raw doggedness of Gangs of New York, even prior to the bold confessions of The Crucible there was In the Name of the Father. Sure he’d already won his first Oscar by ‘93 (what a year by the way, sheesh!) but we hadn’t really seen him on full D-D-L display on main like this. I can imagine watching this in real-time, early in his cinematic career, it must have felt as though a raw, engaging personality burst through the screen–captivating everyone in its wake with the all-encompassing yet totally believable emotion. Indeed, Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Gerry Conlon unleashed the mythic acting legend as we know him today.
A gripping prison drama, In the Name of the Father explores the true story of a father and son wrongfully locked-up for an I.R.A. bombing in Ireland and the tenacious lawyer dead-set on proving their innocence. Of course we’ve seen this before; this trope is popular for a reason. But this, Jim Sheridan’s take on the thrilling prison tale, stands head and shoulders above the rest. Driven by Lewis and his counterpart, the always impeccable Pete Postleethwaite, what unfolds is every bit a riveting narrative as it is a vehicle for two massive leading performances. The turbulence of a father and a son in a fractured relationship is on full display but never trite. This one sticks to your ribs in a way you can’t wash off easily and that very well may be the point. But if for nothing else, it’s worth delving in to see the tipping-point that really launched it all. With Day-Lewis taking the lead in this role in this film, it’s a triumph. Superb as the film is, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else driving it to such critical acclaim and seven Academy Award nominations. That’s a testament to Mr. Day-Lewis’ rare, engaging energy.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
What can be said that hasn’t already been captured? I mean, it’s not hyperbolic to say this is the single-finest male acting performance of the 21st century delivered through the vessel of perhaps the most masterful film of the last 20 years. Day-Lewis’s turn as Daniel Plainview is an enveloping, complex display of nuanced characterization; an unearthing of the darkest recesses of the human spirit. You feel enraptured and alienated by his domineering presence all at the same time. Magnetic to a degree that is rarely matched. Watching There Will Be Blood is a deeply unsettling experience, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love revisiting it frequently. It’s a symphony of two master artisans, Paul Thomas Anderson and DDL, honing their craft in collaboration to capture a complete masterpiece. And for a list that includes some of Daniel Day-Lewis’ most noteworthy roles, it would be a sin to leave this one off. Because sometimes the obvious choices are obvious for a reason.
What are some of your favorite films featuring the man of the hour himself? Share some DDL love down in the comments!