It was announced this week that Daniel Day-Lewis will be retiring from acting following the release of his next film. With a film career that has had him working steadily for more than 35 years, DDL has become one of the most respected and acclaimed actors over that period. DDL has amassed five best leading actor Oscar nominations and three wins (the most leading actor wins for a male ever) seven Golden Globe nominations with two wins and six BAFTA nominations with four wins. His dedication to his craft and roles have become things of legend. His depth of knowledge of each character and preparation is most likely second to none. What makes almost all his performances so wonderful is that he has never taken a role for any selfish reason such as money or to receive top billing or to even keep himself relevant. He has no fear as an actor. No fear of failure or in his abilities. He is willing to go several years in between films so that he can work on something he actually believes in. He has been coveted by every top-tier director on the planet and has never disappointed any of them.
I’ve decided to create a list of his top performances in honor of the closing of one of the greatest acting careers ever amassed. With nothing to be ashamed of in his resume (unlike some other heralded actors such as Pacino, Nicholson and Di Nero), it is not a list to be taken lightly but here is my best effort at it.
The Last Of The Mohicans (1992)
Based on James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel about the French and Indian War, DDL teamed up with Michael Mann to play Nathaniel Poe the adopted half white Mohican. The dying tribe is soon thrust into the middle of the war of which they want no part to rescue the daughters of a British colonel. It is with Mohicans that DDL’s stories of commitment and never breaking character would begin. He learned to live on the land and woodwork with primitively with the tools of the time to aid him. This was his first taste of big budget Hollywood, and to the cinematic world, he did not disappoint.
In The Name Of The Father (1993)
Lewis garnered his second Oscar nomination playing Gerry Conlon, an Irishman living in London who was falsely convicted of an IRA bombing along with his father along with others. Conlon spent fifteen years in prison trying to prove his innocence with the aid of a British attorney. DDL being of half Irish stock himself felt a closeness and need to tell this story and did so spectacularly. He turned down the lead role in Philadelphia to make this deeply personal film. Tom Hanks took the role in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia and won his first of two consecutive Academy Awards. Had DDL taken the role instead of Hanks we could very well be talking about four leading actor Oscars (or if Hanks had not taken the role).
My Left Foot (1989)
The career of Lewis hit its highest level for the first time in 1989 when he won his first nomination and Oscar playing Christy Brown, an artist born with cerebral palsy who learned to paint and write with his only functioning limb. The physical abilities and what would become a theme in his performances, his commitment to the role would make the cinematic world stand up and take notice and be in awe of him which would not go away.
Teaming up for the first time with Steven Spielberg, DDL won his third Oscar playing possibly the most revered figure in American history, Abraham Lincoln. We were treated to such a performance that brought to life this figure in a way no one ever had. The former Ed president had been portrayed by a myriad of fine actors in the past but never had the authenticity felt as genuine than when he played him. It felt like the closest thing to watching film of the actual Lincoln, of which there is none. Aside from the physical aspects of Lincoln we were given a peek into Lincoln’s mind and thoughts and struggles. Once again his commitment would shine through in such a way that left the audience transfixed to the screen.
Gangs Of New York (2002)
Teaming up with a fellow Hollywood icon in Martin Scorsese to tell the story of the birth of the world’s melting pot, New York City. Lewis once again played a historical figure when he played William Cutting better known as Bill The Butcher who was known as the leader of a highly corrupted city who controlled all crime and criminals in the famed five points area. Fighting the politicians of the city’s corrupt Tammany Hall, a young Irishman gains Bill’s trust to exact revenge for killing his father years earlier. DDL was so committed to the role of Cutting that when he became ill on set, he refused certain blankets because they weren’t available in the period of his character. He would speak with a New York accent on and off set and never stopped being the butcher.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece about an unscrupulous oil tycoon at the turn of the century is, in my opinion, DDL’s finest hour. His creation of the character Daniel Plainview and all aspects of his personality is marvelous. The depth of the character leaves the audience in awe and makes you completely forget that it’s even acting that is being watched. The film itself is a work of brilliance, but it is nothing without Lewis in front of the camera it is HIS brilliance that makes it brilliant. It is performances like this that have left so many cinephiles extremely sad at the fact that there will be no more from him at all.