Daniel Day Lewis and his Academy Awards
It can be said that it was no surprise to see Daniel Day Lewis graciously pick up his record third best actor prize for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln at the 85th academy awards. His previous triumphs were for his performances as Christy Brown, the Irish writer and painter who suffered from extreme cerebral palsy, in Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” (1989), and for his portrayal of a ruthless oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “There Will Be Blood” (2007).
Day Lewis (29 April 1957- ) is a British actor of Irish decent, known for his ‘method acting’ skills and very selective choice of films. He is known for his careful preparation, immersing himself into the characters for the entire duration of the shooting schedule of the films. He is a trained theater actor who became active in films by the mid 80′s. When Philip Kaufman made his movie version of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being“, it was Day Lewis who played the lead actor, a sexually hyperactive Czech surgeon. It was on those sets that he refused to not ‘break’ the character on or off the set for the entire shooting schedule. During the 8 month schedule, he learned Czech and trained to be a window cleaner in Prague, to fit into the role. Day Lewis fine tuned his craft of Method acting with his performance as Christie Brown- an Irish artist and writer who suffered from cerebral palsy and could only control his left foot- in My Left foot. During filming Day-Lewis had to be moved around the set in his wheelchair, all so that he might gain insight into all aspects of Brown’s life, including the embarrassments. It was rumored that he had broken two ribs during filming from assuming a hunched-over position in his wheelchair for so many weeks, something he denied years later.
His next movie was an adaptation of James Fenimole Cooper’s classic, The Last of The Mohicans. To become Hawk Eye, a native American, he would live by himself, hunting and fishing in the woods. He trained himself to shoot and refill a Kentucky rifle while running, all to play the part. His next film was Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, a film with emotional violence and very complex characters. In In The name of the Father he played a wrongly accused Irish man, Jerry Conlon, who fights for freedom and justice for him and his family. How he transformed himself from a carefree youth in the streets of Belfast, to a pillar of resistance and icon for justice in the movie, is commendable to say the least. He shut himself in a prison cell for 4 months and it is said that he asked the crew members to abuse him and pour cold water on him daily. He took up Irish citizenship too, after completing the movie. Gangs of New york is a movie Day Lewis carries on his shoulders, playing Bill ‘the butcher’, outshining the brilliant Scorsese and the charismatic De Caprio. He took his method acting craft to higher levels for this movie, refusing to wear coats in the heavy winter, for coats were not made in the old New york, and refusing antibiotics when he came down with pneumonia for the same reason. One Among his lesser known films could be Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife Rebecca Miller. It tells an emotionally dense story of an environmentalist and his teenage daughter who live alone on a secluded island commune, and their complicated relationship. In 2007, Day-Lewis appeared in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, titled There Will Be Blood for which he received the Academy Award for Best Actor. To become the ruthless and utterly self-interested oil tycoon Day Lewis lived in isolation in one room for almost 7 months, to absorb the loveless, angry and cold Daniel Plainview into himself.
If he has won himself a reputation for unreasonable authenticity, it is so because the characters and the performances demand it . Watching Hawkeye or Daniel Plainview we are convinced he is the same person, living as the characters on screen. With such intense performances, he has had to fight with his demons too. His father, poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, died when the actor was 15. 10 years later, while performing Hamlet at the National Theatre he collapsed on stage during the ghost scene. In a piece that he wrote for The Guardian he says “ Since that bizarre, alienated, emotionless first encounter with the great scythe, which left me reeling from my own indifference, my sense of loss has grown, soured, devoured, belched and finally purified into what is now the eternal certainty of grief, ignorance and the mystery of love,..” No wonder, that he spends most of his time in one of his three homes — in London, New York and Wicklow, where his 50-acre property is home to his beloved workshop where he spends his time making shoes and practicing carpentry. We can see the same craving for isolation and loneliness, the individuality pouring on screen as well if we look at the ensemble of his characters. Almost all of them stand perturbed by their inner demons, a violent and deep battle raging inside them. His Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence grows disillusioned with his society and craves intently to be his own being, deluded of his own free will. Even though he chooses a wide spectrum for his characters, one can say this is a defining streak amongst almost all them. These roles are of the iconic outsiders, the ones who cannot fit in or the ones who are outcast.
And in his latest on screen performance he is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th American president, at the end of Civil war who is trying to pass an amendment to abolish slavery. Spielberg says he won the role with his voice, sending him a recording of the way he thought Lincoln ought to speak and it has wooed audiences all over the world, with its crackling and enigmatic sound. He had spent months perfecting the middle American twang and practicing it for months and throughout the shoot. He does a very earthly and three dimensional portrayal of Lincoln, a man at the epicenter of the American society unlike his other portrayals. However, the Lincoln we see onscreen is someone who struggles hard against a sense of isolation, personal and political. Much closer to the iconic outsiders Day Lewis has presented himself as, be it Hawk Eye, Bill the butcher or Daniel Plainview. Let us hope he comes back from cobbling shoes and chiseling wood to take up such roles again and push his own boundaries.