Daniel Day-Lewis: Hollywood's most wanted

He is one of our greatest actors, a mercurial talent who can bring any character to life. So why has Daniel Day-Lewis spent the past five years turning down roles? As his latest film, Gangs of New York, premieres in London, David Thomson studies a secretive star

Tuesday 07 January 2003 01:00
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For the third time in his life, Daniel Day-Lewis has delivered a stunning portrait of an American, in Gangs of New York. That broad villain, the discreet gentleman in The Age of Innocence and the frontier scout inThe Last of the Mohicans were all period figures. Indeed, it is an important part of Day-Lewis the actor that we hardly know what he looks and sounds like as an Englishman now. But is he an Englishman – or has he gone away?

Was he ever exactly English? Or did it mean more to his creative nature that from his father, the poet and novelist Cecil Day-Lewis, he inherited Ireland, the literary world and a dash of political radicalism – just as from his mother, the actress Jill Balcon (daughter of the great Ealing producer Sir Michael Balcon), he inherited eastern Europe and Jewishness? Yes, he went to Sevenoaks and Bedales, and he was apprenticed at the Bristol Old Vic. And then, at varying class levels, he was Englishmen in Gandhi, The Bounty, A Room with a View and My Beautiful Laundrette. He came to an early peak in the late Eighties with a furious, romantic Hamlet on stage (but had to withdraw with nervous exhaustion) and as Tomas in Philip Kaufman's film of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

He was poised to be the new Olivier. He turned down Philadelphia, Interview with the Vampire, and so on, all the way to the role that is making a star of Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings. By withdrawal or a polite "no", Day-Lewis has been the godfather to so many other careers, without ever losing the sense of range or intensity that could do... anything. But "anything" is sometimes next to nothing.

If you're as good as Day-Lewis, it amounts to a large theatrical gesture, a kind of displayed disapproval, that he hasn't acted for five years. And if, as rumoured, he was instead learning the anonymous craft of shoemaker in Tuscany, I take it that Day-Lewis's shoes were closer to humble wooden clogs than to the calfskin Gucci loafers that also come out of northern Italy. Somehow, with Day-Lewis we take it for granted that the gesture and the large personal hope that prompts it tend towards something simple and common. But when such an actor grants that it is time to come back to his trade, then the particular choice is crucial. And Gangs of New York does not remotely live up to the preliminary gesture. It leaves one thinking that maybe Daniel Day-Lewis is an odd fellow. And starts you thinking how easily actors – the best and the worst of them – could go a little crazy.

Don't misunderstand me. I suspect that Day-Lewis will win the best actor Oscar for his performance as Bill Cutting, the Butcher of Five Corners, in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Miramax, the distributor, is now trying to sell its ailing picture as a romance between the Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz characters. That's a hopeless task. The ads for Gangs should be for a strange circus in which Day-Lewis is hero, villain, ringmaster, knife-thrower and one-eyed demon. His energy is everything. For surely, once back in harness, Day-Lewis felt how flimsy this immense, expensive venture was, and guessed that its plausibility depended on his flamboyant confidence as Bill Cutting. And so he is the film's tent-pole, holding up a flailing script and doing all he can to suggest that the painfully callow DiCaprio is a proper rival in a life-and-death struggle.

We have seen this kind of commitment before from Day-Lewis. A little over six feet tall, but slender and shy, he went into six months of training to alter his stamina, his body and his attitudes so that he could be Hawkeye in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans. In an age of inflated movie males, many of whom live in the gym (or in front of a mirror) – just think of Seagal and Stallone – Day-Lewis seemed like a man who had lived in the forest, who could run a marathon carrying a 12lb flintlock rifle, who could catch, skin and cook a rabbit, and set a pine tree shuddering at thirty paces with a well-aimed tomahawk.

People talk of Robert De Niro's physical transformation, becoming Jake La Motta for Raging Bull, as a peak of actorly dedication. But Day-Lewis's Hawkeye was more startling. He had become not just a forest creature, but a man of another century. Indeed, this was a large part of what attracted him to Hawkeye. "I liked the idea of a man who had not been touched by 20th-century neurosis," he explained. "A life that isn't drawn inward." It wasn't that Hawkeye became a sunny simpleton – far from it – but there was an immediacy about him, a way of making up his mind that was assured and instantaneous. It was the way an animal in the forest must be to survive.

And it wasn't just that this Hawkeye could stand as still as a patient tree in cold, flowing rivers. Nor that he could run through the undergrowth so that no fern swayed, and no ordinary ear heard the fall of his moccasins. He was a man of complete honour, a knockout opponent and – as it slowly dawned on her – the most compelling man that the colonel's daughter (Madeleine Stowe) was ever going to meet. So Day-Lewis was a triathlete, a scout who could smell trouble a mile away and as good a shot as the name "Hawkeye" promised. But he would also become part of a passionate love story, with Stowe, and rival to Wes Studi (as the hateful Huron, Magua) in immense trials of strength and will. And all of this, credibly, in the mindscape of 1757.

The Last of the Mohicans made Day-Lewis. Yes, he had already won his Oscar as Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot. But that had the spectacular prowess the Academy relishes: the foaming Irish accent; the thorough impersonation of cerebral palsy; and the defiant, thrusting, verbal, sexy life-force that will not accept a wheelchair. The character was so "courageous" and the acting was so "convincing" that sentimental voters couldn't resist the combination of Brown's handicap and Day-Lewis's glory. The part had Oscar stamped all over it before anyone had seen the film. But My Left Foot is harder to see in retrospect: it shrieks with its own worth and appeal. Whereas Mohicans becomes more intriguing as we realise how far this natural frontiersman is also a very interesting human being, yet so sure in himself that he has no need to act, let alone act out.

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For wise people in the business, Hawkeye was the indicator that this odd English fellow could do anything. For a moment it seemed that was his intention: in the year after Mohicans, he was Newland Archer in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, a rather depressed fashion plate, a man who finally succumbed to the manners and rules of his hypocritical society, not a terribly nice man; and then, true to his vigorously anti-English sentiments, he was the wrongfully convicted prisoner in Sheridan's In the Name of the Father – a righteous piece of rabble-rousing, urgent for a few minutes, but hardly worthy of the actor.

Then three full years passed as this scarcely rivalled actor waited, turning down a host of famous roles, before playing John Proctor in Nicholas Hytner's film of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. This Proctor actually seemed deserving of more dramatic interest than Miller's rather creaky play allowed. He was, plainly, a New England farmer who lived by toil: Day-Lewis's hands in the film were not just dirty, but ragged, scarred, gnarled, made ancient by toil. He was also brilliant as a man in love with his fine wife (Joan Allen) yet infatuated with his wicked young mistress (Winona Ryder). It was another outstanding performance in a film that seemed just a little hangdog in comparison.

Then, for the third time, he went to work for Jim Sheridan in The Boxer playing a veteran fighter and IRA jailbird, trying to rekindle an old love affair with Emily Watson. It's admirable that Day-Lewis is so pledged to Irish stories, but then the actor comes up against the old problem – that in the end, he's judged not just on his technique, his looks, his close-ups and so on, but on the merit of his projects. He is responsible for what he chooses.

Day-Lewis showed every sign of being stricken by that burden. The earlier three-year gap was mere training for the interval between The Boxer and Gangs of New York, in which he did other things and gave a living example to something he had declared in the early 1990s: "Maybe there'll be a time when I'll bitterly regret not having made better use of my time. But that's unlikely because I know I can only be true to the impulses I have. And those impulses come very rarely. Acting is a vocation. It has to be respected as such. But what tends to happen is that people go on contributing way beyond the time when they have anything within themselves to offer. By that time, usually, it's all you know. It's a job and you have to pay the bills. I find that sad. I'd rather pay the bills with any other means on God's earth than by performing. I think as soon as the work ceases to be vocational, you have a responsibility to get out."

All of which is reasonable and coherent – yet maybe wrong. There are plenty of musicians, painters, writers and even actors who admit to being afflicted by vocation, and just as convinced of the need to work every day. But Day-Lewis can point to Gangs of New York and ask whether five years' absence, learning shoemaking and making a new family life with Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Arthur Miller, diminished his talent or his quality.

The obvious answer is not at all. Day-Lewis is riveting, even if his very talent serves to make it further lopsided. And, having seen him on a joint interview on American television with Scorsese, I can see why any actor might try to stay out of the prolonged business difficulties and disagreements with Miramax that must have made every creative decision so much harder.

But then there is something else to report, a sneaking afterthought: that whereas Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence were people embedded in their time – one a tree in the forest, the other a pampered house plant – there is in Day-Lewis's Bill Cutting the first hint of what I will call Long John Silverism.

What do I mean by that? Well, the notion that Robert Louis Stevenson's famous one-legged pirate was so much a "character" that he hardly needed to be real. He is a concoction, an actor's dream – not just the man as written, but Robert Newton's whisky-curdling over-acting from the 1951 movie, and every impersonation thereafter, from Tony Hancock's down. It's the automatic invocation of humbug in "Ah, Jim, lad!" And there's a bit of that dread emptiness in Bill Cutting, I fear – the feeling that the character has to generate such villainy to keep the precarious story going, that he has to over-act, or find a Grand Guignol tone, to make DiCaprio wake up. It's there in the accent Day-Lewis has found for Cutting – Irish at first, it seems, but then the archetypal modern New Yorkerese. You listen to it with fascination and amusement. For it's so well done. And then you realise that it's "acting". And "acting", I fear, is what actors can be reduced to if the script isn't good enough and if they're out of condition.

'Gangs of New York' opens on Friday

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