For those of you who may not know the name or works of Daniel Day-Lewis, you’re missing out. Day-Lewis is one of the most respected actors of our time and is routinely considered to be one of the best actors in all of cinematic history. So, when he decided to quit acting for good in 2017, it was a shock and loss, but one that wasn’t truly a surprise.
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: ONE OF THE GREATEST
Here is the first thing one needs to know about Daniel Day-Lewis and his cinematic standing. Day-Lewis is the only actor in history to win the Academy Award for Best Actor three times. This puts him in front of legends such as Marlon Brando, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, and Denzel Washington. Not only that, but Day-Lewis has received four British Academy Film and Television Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards among the many others he’s received.
Daniel Day-Lewis began his career appearing on a few British series then made his first feature appearance in the movie Gandhi. It was a small part that he turned into a much larger one when he starred in The Bounty alongside Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. Throughout the remainder of the ‘80s, Day-Lewis was building a name for himself, and quite nicely as in 1989 Day-Lewis won his first Best Actor Award for playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot.
It would take Daniel Day-Lewis almost 20 years before he would get his second Academy Award for Best Actor for There Will Be Blood. In between that time, though, he was nominated two more times for the movies In the Name of the Father and Gangs Of New York. For Day-Lewis’ third Best Actor Award, he only had to wait five years when he pulled down the win for his portrayal of America’s 16th President in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
The amazing thing about Daniel Day-Lewis and his performance as Lincoln was not only the performance itself but the fact that he initially turned down the role. Liam Neeson was Spielberg’s first choice but eventually dropped out and when Spielberg approached Day-Lewis, he told the acclaimed director thanks but no thanks. His rejection of the part was read by Spielberg himself when Day-Lewis had picked up one of his many awards, this one at the New York Film Critics Circle. By read, we mean an actual letter that Day-Lewis had sent to Spielberg turning down the role. It’s amazing and reads thusly, “Dear Steven,” he wrote via the BBC. “It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving.
“I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time.
“In this case, as fascinated as I was by Abe, it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told, rather than that of a participant.
“That’s how I feel now in spite of myself, and though I can’t be sure that this won’t change, I couldn’t dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility.” Thankfully he changed his mind.
Thoughts of retirement were nothing new to Daniel Day-Lewis. Throughout his career he has been quite picky about the roles he would take (Lincoln is just one example) and given the numbers of features he has actually starred in; you can see just how choosy he is about projects. His career included many instances of time away from making movies. There are big gaps of years between features, even one time where he went into semi-retirement.
After his film The Boxer, Daniel Day-Lewis left movies for nearly five years. He found himself going back to an old passion of his, woodworking. During his time away he also found a new passion, that being shoemaking. He moves to Florence, Italy where he became an apprentice shoemaker under Stefano Bemer. While the five-year absence marks the longest period of time Day-Lewis was away from making movies, looking at his filmmaking career, there are many times he’d step away for two or three years.
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS’S METHOD ACTING
One reason Daniel Day-Lewis may have finally decided to call it quits could be how taxing it is for him when he takes on a role. Day-Lewis is a method actor and fully gives in to the character he is creating. For his role as Christy Brown, the real-life writer/painter who was born with cerebral palsy and only had the ability to control his left foot, the actor made frequent visits to a clinic in Dublin, Ireland to study people with disabilities, making friends with many of them. The actor refused to break character which caused a lot of upheaval on the set as crew members were forced to help him along in his wheelchair and even spoon-feed him, just so Day-Lewis could fully embrace the disability he was portraying.
For his role as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis underwent massive weight training, he learned to live off the land, adding wood-working skills, which also included learning how to make a canoe. On set he would always carry around with him his long rifle.
Much was the same in his role as William “Bill The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York. He never broke character, always speaking in the Butcher’s New York accent, and even refused medical treatment after being diagnosed with pneumonia (he eventually did seek treatment). Daniel Day-Lewis even hired circus performers to teach him how to throw knives for the movie.
Once he accepted the role of Abraham Lincoln, he famously asked Spielberg for one year to be able to study Lincoln and everything that went with the famous man. He read over 100 books on Lincoln and spoke in Lincoln’s voice the entire shoot. He even asked any of the British crew not to converse with him so it wouldn’t take him back to his native accent.
One can easily see the pains Day-Lewis went through for his performances.
RETIRED FOR GOOD
Daniel Day-Lewis reteamed with his There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson in 2017 for what would become Day-Lewis’ final movie, Phantom Thread. The thought had been running through Day-Lewis’ mind, but it didn’t come to fruition until he was on set. The statement released by Leslee Dart, his spokewoman, made it perfectly clear that Day-Lewis was finally stepping away for good. It read, via Variety, “Daniel Day-Lewis will no longer be working as an actor. He is immensely grateful to all of his collaborators and audiences over the many years. This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”
It took a bit but Daniel Day-Lewis finally opened up as to why now (2017) was the proper time for him to take his true leave from acting. He told W Magazine, “Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting,” Day-Lewis said. “I do know that Paul and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. That took us by surprise: We didn’t realise what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.”
And while he has considered, threatened, and even tempted retirement in the past, he is nevertheless insisting this is it. “What has taken over in the past is an illusion of inevitability,” Day-Lewis said. “But it’s settled on me, and it’s just there. Not wanting to see the film [Phantom Thread] is connected to the decision I’ve made to stop working as an actor. But it’s not why the sadness came to stay. That happened during the telling of the story, and I don’t really know why.”
Daniel Day-Lewis continued on adding, “I dread to use the overused word ‘artist,’ but there’s something of the responsibility of the artist that hung over me. I need to believe in the value of what I’m doing. The work can seem vital. Irresistible, even. And if an audience believes it, that should be good enough for me. But, lately, it isn’t.” And speaking on the statement he released, Day-Lewis just felt he needed to draw a line in the sand, one he couldn’t back out of. “I knew it was uncharacteristic to put out a statement, but I did want to draw a line. I didn’t want to get sucked back into another project. All my life, I’ve mouthed off about how I should stop acting, and I don’t know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do.”
It’s a shame, really. Such an amazing actor, so dedicated to his art. Such a big loss to the industry. If you haven’t seen any of his movies, what are you waiting for? This is a man who is at the top of the food chain when it comes to acting, one who has given his mind, body, and soul for his craft. Enjoy retirement, Daniel Day-Lewis. You’ve definitely earned it.