Daniel Day-Lewis dropped a bombshell on fans of his work worldwide when he announced that he would be retiring from acting, just a few months before the release of his purported last role, in Paul Thomas-Anderson’s upcoming “Phantom Thread.” One of the world’s most coveted actors has a surprisingly nimble filmography. Even as it stretches back to the early eighties, Day-Lewis didn’t become a big name until his breakout role in Stephen Frears’ 1985 “My Beautiful Laundrette,” followed by a series of acclaimed roles in “A Room With a View,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and “My Left Foot,” which won him the first of three Academy Awards. The other Oscars arrived for back-to-back roles in “There Will Be Blood” and “Lincoln,” leaving no doubt that the versatile performer was still at the top of his game.
But these highlights are only a few of the astonishing achievements in the actor’s robust output. Here are the ones we’ll treasure for all time, while holding out hope that this legendary talent’s final performance will land a spot as well.
“A Room With a View”
It was one of his very last supporting roles, but Daniel Day-Lewis was the embodiment of Cecil Vyse in Merchant Ivory’s 1986 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s “A Room With a View.” In lesser hands, Lucy Honeychurch’s jilted suitor might have been little more than a prissy sad sack; Day-Lewis invested the character with empathy, as if Cecil knew his reach exceeded his grasp. While Lucy may have viewed their match as a prison narrowly escaped, Day-Lewis’ performance suggested a man who couldn’t get beyond his own pince-nez, but loved her so much that he let her go. —Dana Harris
“The Age of Innocence”
“Gangs of New York”
There’s a titanic force lurking under each of Day-Lewis’ roles, but nowhere was that energy unleashed better than in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 city-spanning epic “Gangs of New York.” Bill the Butcher combined the actor’s ferocity with an unbridled villainous streak, an antagonist as evil as he is charming. Day-Lewis has always excelled in quiet roles, but Bill is a reminder that his flair for the theatrical is rarely equalled. Watching Bill play to an audience inside a rowdy theater or to a gathered crowd of terrified citizens, there’s a twisted thrill in seeing a true performer playing a true performer. —Steve Greene
“The Last of the Mohicans”
Day-Lewis won this third Best Actor Oscar — more than any actor in history — for playing the title role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” because the movie is unimaginable without him. It took years for Spielberg to convince the recalcitrant Brit to play the American icon. Always willing to wait years between cherry-picked roles, replenishing his batteries by reengaging with the world, Day-Lewis finally broke down after Tony Kushner’s sprawling script focused on January 1865, when Lincoln maneuvered Congress into passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery in America. “The important thing is they got Lincoln,” Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin told me at the L.A. premiere, “his stooped walk, his high-pitched voice, his humor.”
Day-Lewis is a draw for moviegoers because when the match is perfect between director and role, when it feels right, he gives his all. He embraces a role so totally that it consumes and overtakes him. He loses himself in the part throughout production. As usual, Day-Lewis’s preparation was intense. He worked in seclusion until he sent Spielberg tape recorder audio of his approximation of the 16h president’s reedy tenor. He nailed his first scene on-set, an eight-minute speech about the Emancipation Proclamation, on the first take with no on-set rehearsal. Day-Lewis stayed in character throughout the shoot, addressed by all as “Mr. President.” No socializing on set saves energy, Day-Lewis has said. It’s fair to say that Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln, and the people went to see it because the actor was in it. —Anne Thompson
“My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown”
Jim Sheridan’s period drama revolves about Christy Brown, the cerebral palsy-stricken painter who struggles to engage with the family around him until he discovers the one vocation he can control with his foot. However, that summary barely gets to the essence of the movie’s emotional core. It’s a naturally engaging story about perseverance against daunting physical challenges, made all the more heartbreaking by the intolerant times in which it takes place — but it would be nothing without the young Day-Lewis in the lead role, one that few actors could tackle without risking accusations of parody. Instead, he turns Brown into a vibrating, energetic creative figure battling to express his emotions and overcome the pity that surrounds him at every turn. It’s at once heartbreaking and hopeful, a testament to perseverance in which the performance embodies the themes to its core. Day-Lewis won his first Oscar for the role, and even as he continued to tackle new challenges, he already confirmed his mastery at this early stage. —Eric Kohn
“My Beautiful Laundrette”
From the start of his career Day-Lewis showed a penchant for muscular, angry and violent roles, starting with Stephen Frears’s searing 16 mm portrait of Margaret Thatcher’s London, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” which jumped from TV movie to arthouse phenomenon at the Edinburgh Film Festival. “I spent most of my time on the front line of London street life,” Day-Lewis said at the 2013 Santa Barbara Film Festival, “playing soccer, fighting on the school playground, and rebelling against authority and the British class system.” A controversial early exploration of sex, race and class, “My Beautiful Launderette” broke out Lewis, director Frears, rookie screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (who earned an Oscar nomination) and Working Title Films. With swaggering, sexy humor, Day-Lewis played Johnny, the street-tough ex-National Front boyfriend of Omar (Gordon Warnecke), the son of a Pakistani immigrant, who helps his childhood friend to renovate his uncle’s Battersea laundrette. Fears cast Day-Lewis after meeting him and asking him about his South London accent. Frears said: “‘You’re the son of a poet laureate, why are you speaking like that?’ He said he’d been to a comprehensive and had adopted it as a defence. Then he wrote me a letter saying he’d kill me if he wasn’t cast.” No one knew “My Beautiful Laundrette” would become an iconic film about the 1980s. —Anne Thompson
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”
“There Will Be Blood”
His voice lowered to a rumbling baritone beneath a scruffy mustache, Daniel Plainview becomes an extraordinary figure of capitalist intensity within a matter of minutes. Paul Thomas-Anderson’s most audacious filmmaking feat was matched by Day-Lewis’ remarkable transformation into the scheming, relentless oil miner and the empire he cobbles together in the heat. From the virtuosic intensity of his early management of a drilling company to the psychotic extremes of his final stage, Plainview is emblematic of the darkness lurking at the center of the American dream — which is why it’s all the more extraordinary that he’s played by an Englishman.