Thank you, Daniel Day-Lewis: Why the Phantom Thread star is the greatest actor of our generation
Daniel Day-Lewis retired from acting after his swansong performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread. So, we thank him for all the great memories.
Dear Mr. Day-Lewis,
Let me begin by congratulating you on an exceptional career. It has been an absolute delight watching you on screen over the years and your performances have enriched an otherwise dull, uneventful life. You recently spoke of how acting saved you from yourself when you were a kid. I understand the feeling for cinema has also been my sanctuary since childhood. And you've been an essential part of some of my formative movie memories.
I have always been amazed by your extraordinary versatility — how perfectly you fit into the skins of so many diverse characters. Be it a working-class gay street punk (My Beautiful Laundrette), a severely paralysed Irish artist (My Left Foot), a Gilded Age aristocrat (The Age of Innocence), a moustachioed sociopath (Gangs of New York) or a self-absorbed haute-couture designer (Phantom Thread), you have delivered some of the most sublime and nuanced performances in cinematic history. (I even remember your cameo as the racist, white South African prick who abuses Ben Kingsley's Gandhi in the 1982 biopic.)
To call you just another method actor is grossly understating your gifted talent. You seemed more like a supernatural shapeshifter to me.
Your swansong performance in Phantom Thread was all that I expected and plenty more. While I was in virtual mourning since you made the shocking announcement to call it quits last June, watching you inhabit yet another multi-layered character helped me accept what is, ultimately, a personal decision. The icy, petulant dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock felt like a role tailor-made for you. He is a perfectionist in a similar mould to yourself or even the film's director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Woodcock is as meticulous about the stitches on his dresses and his breakfast as you are with the eccentric characters you've embodied in your illustrious career. Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong and some sausages, was it? Only you, sir, can make an exacting breakfast order sound lyrical.
Woodcock's painstaking perfectionism instils fear in his co-workers but awe in his customers. Similarly, while you've continually left audiences spellbound with the sheer scope and immersion in your characters, I can imagine how your refusal to break character might have been an exasperating nightmare for your co-stars. But I must commend you on your dedication to the craft of acting and the extreme lengths you take in researching your roles.
The mystique around your craftsmanship, thus, remains a subject of admirable fascination and the stuff of legends. Whether it is learning to speak Czech for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which was how I was introduced to Milan Kundera, whose works I've since grown to cherish, so thanks again); remaining confined to a wheelchair to empathise with the disabled Christy Brown for My Left Foot; learning how to skin animals, build canoes and fire muskets for The Last of the Mohicans; texting co-star Sally Field as Honest Abe for Lincoln; or recreating a Balenciaga dress in preparation for Phantom Thread; what may seem like obsessive preparation and an overwhelming ordeal for many of us, was simply an enjoyable, stimulating experience for you. Like you said, "People talk, apparently on my behalf, about this torturous preparation period but it misses the point, because for me it's sheer pleasure."
But if I had to single out one performance from your career that really stayed with me, it has to be Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (which I contend is still the greatest film of this century). I don't think anyone could have captured the delirium of that megalomaniac with a more fiery and frenzied performance than you. You fill up the vast, dusty landscape of Southern California's turn-of-the-century oil boom with your sheer presence and personality. The sprawling, tragic fable of a silver miner-turned-oil magnate on a ruthless quest for wealth was a character study akin to Citizen Kane. You inimitably manage to expose the corrupting power and dark intentions hidden beneath the veil of the so-called American dream. And you suck us in with the gravitational pull of Plainview's silver tongue and charisma and it remains the greatest performance I have ever watched on screen. I've watched the movie more than a dozen times and it’s a milk-shake I can never stop drinking.
Plainview perhaps shares his DNA with another one of your characters: Bill 'the Butcher' Cutting, the colourful, manipulative gang leader and political kingmaker from 1860s Noo Yawk in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. The indomitable Butcher was again one of the most complex and terrifying on-screen villains and you played the role with unsparing precision and conniving intensity.
In a modern film industry obsessed with remakes, reboots, sequels and cinematic universes, it is admirable that you remain one of the most selective actors refusing to jump on the big studio bandwagon. While others embarrassed themselves playing dirty grandpas breeding little Fockers or bedpan saddling old men on a quest to fulfil their bucket lists, you stayed true to yourself. With your penchant for five-year gaps between roles, you seemed to prefer intriguing character studies. They call you "notoriously reclusive" but I prefer to think of you as "famously private". Having never felt comfortable in the spotlight, you refused to court fame to maintain your focus and stay grounded. I often worry that if you and Kim Kardashian were to ever meet — the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining — it would end in a violent collision of two black holes and generate ripples in the fabric of space-time.
I must admit I was a bit rattled by your shock retirement but I do understand now. I was being selfish and never really considered the emotional and physical toll of living in the skin of a fictional character. I remember your interview with The Telegraph when you said, "There’s a terrible sadness. The last day of shooting is surreal. Your mind, your body, your spirit are not prepared to accept that this experience is coming to an end. You’ve devoted so much of your time to unleashing, in an unconscious way, some sort of spiritual turmoil, and even if it’s uncomfortable, no part of you wishes to leave that character behind. The sense of bereavement is such that it can take years before you can put it to rest."
Like Woodcock, you have extremely high standards in your professional life but you didn't want the heavy lifting to affect your personal.
Mr. Day-Lewis, when I think of Abraham Lincoln, I think of you. You are Daniel Plainview, the Butcher, Danny Flynn, Gerry Conlon, Hawkeye, Christy Brown, Johnny Burfoot and more. All of your performances are forever carved into my brain and that of a million others. We will all miss you terribly from a game of which you are the unparalleled champion. You truly are the greatest actor of our generation.
Good luck on your future endeavours — a virtuoso shoemaker in Florence, a virtuoso dressmaker in London or whatever they may be, I know you'll master them.
A big fan
Movie released in theatres on July 15