He's the hot favourite to pick up another Oscar this weekend. Matthew Sweet picks the nine best roles before "Lincoln"
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
1985: Cecil Vyse in “A Room with a View”
Day-Lewis may owe his stardom to the fact that this E.M. Forster adaptation opened in America on the same day as his “Laundrette”, causing copy about his versatility to spew from electric typewriters across the United States. It’s understandable: Cecil is a frock-coated Edwardian prig who struts round the garden, book in hand, like an overeducated egret in pince-nez specs. From this one performance, Day-Lewis might have made a good career playing intellectual silly-asses with a chance of marrying Helena Bonham Carter. Movie history, though, had other ideas.
1985: Johnny in “My Beautiful Laundrette”
It may be the most important tonguing in post-war British cinema: two men on a bench in front of a row of gurgling washing machines. It certainly set the career of the 28-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis into a fast spin. He is defiantly cocky as the ex-skinhead with the peroxide quiff and donkey jacket who falls for an Asian Tory boy and follows him into the service-wash business. Gordon Warnecke was the lover with the business plan. Yes, there were losers as well as winners in Thatcher’s Britain.
1988: Tomas in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”
Day-Lewis is mesmerising but miscast as Milan Kundera’s exam-room existentialist, a doctor in 1960s Czechoslovakia who doesn’t let emotions occlude his rollercoaster sex life. He’s too young and his accent is as dodgy as his morals, but when his lover (Juliette Binoche) runs away from his coldness and into the path of a Russian tank, Tomas dashes out to save her—and remembers to rescue the dog, too.
1989: Hamlet in “Hamlet”
Day-Lewis began in the theatre—his big break came when he replaced Rupert Everett in “Another Country”. His Dane was a moody PhD student, brooding under those great bony brow-ridges, and clearly a man who believed that there were more things in heaven and earth. The actor seemed to agree: after seeing a vision of his own father—the poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who died when Daniel was 15—he left the stage. He has yet to return.
1989: Christy Brown in “My Left Foot”
Years before Lars von Trier coined the term “spazzing”, Day-Lewis negotiates the problem of an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character by giving his first fully realised method performance. He won an Oscar and broke two ribs assuming Brown’s hunched frame—but everyone emerged with dignity intact. Except, perhaps, the technicians who moaned that the star refused to use his legs off-camera—obliging them to lift him around the set.
1993: Gerry Conlon in “In the Name of the Father”
The film that radicalised Day-Lewis and caused half the world to believe him to be a true-born Irishman, not a south London public schoolboy. (A view he sometimes gives the impression of sharing.) He’s full of righteous anger as the young drop-out falsely accused of being an IRA bomber and banged up in an English jail: an anger that he channels from the history of the prison used for the shoot—Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, where the Easter rebels faced the firing squad.
2002: Bill Cutting in “Gangs of New York”
Day-Lewis learned butchery skills to play this swaggering proto-mobster—but by now such acquisitions were customary. We needed no further proof that he could transform the shape and attitude of his body, and here he seemed to shift in time as well as space. He’s like an image from an 1860s wanted poster, called to nefarious life. The glass eye—tapped with the tip of a knife—may be too much, but next to this villain, Leonardo Di Caprio’s hero is just a little boy with a stick-on beard.
2007: Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” (above)
Day-Lewis based the churning drawl of the oil prospector Daniel Plainview on the film director John Huston, and it feels like an authentic relic of the period, as if he were lip-synching to a wax-cylinder recording. The first (and best) few reels of the picture, however, are almost silent. Day-Lewis is in his element, labouring beneath the dirt with picks and pit-props, sweating, snarling, breaking bones, selling his soul for gold. And he found it. On the screen, and on Oscar night.
2009: Guido Contini in “Nine”
Day-Lewis has made only three films in a decade. “Nine” is the fourth, and as it’s a musical fantasy in which he is required to hoof, sing and be funny, it is the biggest risk of his career. (With the added twist that it reunites him with Judi Dench, there at his notorious flip-out at the National.) The title is a gag—the picture is a sort-of sequel to Fellini’s “8½”—and Day-Lewis’s part is a version of Fellini himself. But how can you method-act a musical? There are only two ways he can go—flat on his face, or up the stairs for his third Oscar.
(Matthew Sweet presents "Night Waves" on BBC Radio 3.)