If Daniel Day-Lewis really means it when he says he’s done with film acting, then at least he’s going out in high style. In “Phantom Thread,” he plays Reynolds Woodcock, an exacting couturier in ’50s London.
The movie can be seen at the Coolidge in visual high style. It’s screening there in 70mm, letting a viewer luxuriate over every seam and stitch. The most luxuriant thing in the movie has nothing to do with couture, though. It’s Day-Lewis’s performance. This is no surprise. Calling someone the “best” or “greatest” actor of this or any other generation is a pointless exercise. Just say that Day-Lewis belongs on that list which includes names like Olivier and Gielgud and Brando and De Niro, and leave it at that.
What isn’t pointless is noting Day-Lewis’s unsurpassed ability to bring to life a certain kind of character. It doesn’t matter what century that character lives in: Day-Lewis excels at period. Or what his nationality or social class is: He excels even more at accents. Or physical condition: Having played Christy Brown in a wheelchair (“My Left Foot,” 1989), Day-Lewis laced up the gloves for “The Boxer” (1997). Appearance and manner have posed no obstacle — truly, he disappears in his roles. What Ralph Richardson was to eccentricity or Jack Nicholson has been to mania — they belong on that above list, too — Day-Lewis has been to absolute determination.
Effete and detached, Reynolds Woodcock could hardly be more different from the murderous Bill the Butcher, in “Gangs of New York” (2002) or the wrongly imprisoned, justice-seeking Gerry Conlon, in “In the Name of the Father” (1993). Yet they have in common two things: breathtaking single-mindedness and a no less breathtaking Day-Lewis.
“Gangs” may be Day-Lewis’s single finest performance. It’s so forceful it almost makes that mess of a movie hang together. That it didn’t make the cut for the Coolidge’s “I’m Finished: A Celebration of Daniel Day-Lewis” speaks to the quality of his movie work. The quantity, too: The five titles in the series represent nearly a quarter of Day-Lewis’s’ 22 feature films — and that includes his debut, at 14, scratching up cars, in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971). In it, he has 10 seconds of screen time. There was much more to come, if nowhere near enough.
On each of four consecutive Tuesdays, and one Monday, the Coolidge will screen a different Day-Lewis movie. The first is “My Beautiful Laundrette” (Jan. 16). Ideally, it would be play on a double bill with “A Room with a View.” The movies opened in New York on the same day in 1986. Taken together, the two performances show about as spectacular a demonstration of range as the movies have to offer.
In “Laundrette,” Day-Lewis plays Johnny, a South London punk with a peroxide quiff, who falls in love with Omar, a Pakistani immigrant. It’s startling casting for someone whose parents were Britain’s Poet Laureate (C. Day Lewis) and a movie star (Jill Balcon). It’s even more startling contrasted with his no-less-expert performance in “Room,” as Cecil Vyse, a pince-nez-wearing upper-class Edwardian prig. Tour de force (“Laundrette”) meets tour de farce (“Room”).
“My Left Foot” (Jan. 23) won Day-Lewis his first of three best actor Oscars. The academy has a weakness for performances that involve physical or mental disabilities. And the real-life Christy Brown, a victim of cerebral palsy, was severely handicapped. But Day-Lewis’s performance is anything but a stunt. He presents Brown as so much more than his disability. The character has a distinct and formidable personality. To see the contortions Day-Lewis goes through to indicate laughter and form a grin is amazing as facial gymnastics. It’s even more so as an expression of emotion and individuality.
“The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), which screens Jan. 30, was Day-Lewis’s first big-budget production. It’s as if he’s trying to give director Michael Mann his money’s worth. Day-Lewis is Hawkeye, James Fenimore Cooper’s mythic frontier hero, who fights with the English during the French and Indian War. He gets to play lacrosse (briefly), speak Delaware/Lenape (frequently), and run — and run — and run. This is easily Day-Lewis’s most physically demanding performance. It’s also his most follicularly impressive. Hawkeye’s hair would make Johnny’s want to open a Beautiful Barber Shop. It’s as long and thick and wavy as that of his love interest, played by Madeline Stowe. The characters falling almost instantly in love makes perfect tonsorial sense.
Day-Lewis earned his second Oscar for “There Will Be Blood” (2007). It screens Feb 6. His oil magnate Daniel Plainview shows up Hawkeye for the literary conceit he is. Plainview truly is mythic: ruthless, cunning, implacable, at once magnificent and appalling. Yet Day-Lewis somehow manages to give him a profound, if unstable, humanity. You believe this man when he breaks open the earth to make himself rich. You believe him no less when he tousles his little boy’s hair and gazes upon him with wonder. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called an ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time and still function the test of a first-rate mind. To show two opposed emotional qualities and make the person showing them seem believable is the test of a very formidable actor.
What may be most memorable about Plainview is the voice that Day-Lewis concocted for him, a muscular croon that takes the sound of John Huston’s Noah Cross, in “Chinatown,” and makes it seem to emanate from the parched Western landscape. The emphasis he puts on “competitor” — competiTOR — in a scene with his now-grown son is like a reverse version of Freud’s family drama expressed in a single syllable. That voice seems all the more remarkable when contrasted with the homespun reediness Day-Lewis employs in “Lincoln” (2012). That film, which brought him his third Oscar, screens Feb. 12. That’s right, Lincoln’s birthday. Where Plainview’s single-mindedness is as plain as a closed fist, Lincoln’s is wondrous in a different way. It’s a tenacity masked in wit and guile and indirection as he fights to pass the 13th Amendment, banning slavery. Honest Abe is as close to a god as American history has. No small part of the miracle of Day-Lewis’s performance is how human he makes him, while if anything enlarging his stature.
As he would no doubt want, Plainview gets the final word. “What else would I do with myself?” he asks some men from Standard Oil who want to buy him out. He rejects their offer. No surprise there. Is it too much to hope for a surprise from Day-Lewis? That he ask himself the same question — he’s only 60, after all — and change his mind about retirement.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.