Throughout art history, the idea of the tortured artist has been prevalent. From Vincent Van Gogh to Edgar Allen Poe, many great artists seem to have extensive problems living in society. But one of today’s most troubled artists is not a painter or a poet, but an actor.
Daniel Day-Lewis has gone to great lengths to protect his privacy since he exploded into the mainstream with My Left Foot in 1989. An actor who keeps a tight hold on his privacy is nothing too unusual, but Day-Lewis has taken it to a new level.
In the 15 years since My Left Foot, Day-Lewis has acted in only seven films, an especially small number given that he was considered one of the best actors of the ’90s. Day-Lewis retired from acting after The Boxer in 1997, reportedly working as a cobbler in Italy until Martin Scorsese convinced him to star in Gangs of New York five years later. His performance in that film earned him critical praise and an Oscar nomination, but apparently did nothing to refuel his love for acting, as he’s only done one film since then and his wife was the writer/director.
Day-Lewis’s newest film, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, is a small, character-driven piece, more like his earlier work than like Scorsese’s epic Gangs. Jack and Rose, written and directed by his wife of eight years, Rebecca Miller, is playing the Miami International Film Festival on its way to a March release. The film also features Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich), Jason Lee (Chasing Amy), and teenager Camilla Belle, who is excellent in her first big movie role.
Despite great acting from everyone in the film, it’s Day-Lewis who will again earn the attention, and rightfully so. He gives yet another great performance, playing an environmentalist father trying to raise his teenage daughter on a secluded island. Keener comes in as a love interest for Day-Lewis, but the film is really about him dealing with his daughter, and it succeeds in hitting the emotional highs and lows of a real father-daughter relationship.
A great performance from Day-Lewis has become expected, not desired. After a variety of supporting roles in the ’80s, he won an Oscar and most other acting awards for playing a painter with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot. He then had a taste of big time Hollywood with The Last of the Mohicans and The Age of Innocence, but ultimately returned to smaller films. His work with My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan, which includes the Oscar-nominated In the Name of the Father and The Boxer, was considered to be the best of his career.
After The Boxer, Day-Lewis disappeared from acting for five years, showing no signs of needing it to live like some performers do. Instead, he settled down in Europe with Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, and had children, returning to acting only after Scorsese and Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein basically begged him to play Bill the Butcher in Gangs.
Day-Lewis remains a mystery to most people, mostly due to his refusal to do interviews or talk much about his work. Part of the reason he doesn’t seem to enjoy acting is probably due to the intense preparation he puts into his roles. He goes beyond method acting, and actually takes his work home with him. On several different films, including Gangs of New York, he is reported to have spoken with his characters’ accents at home and off the set for the entire period of shooting. He is also known to do heavy research in pre-production, studying old languages and history to get a better sense of the character.
While there are other actors known for being very prepared and thorough, Day-Lewis is one of the deepest. His background on Jack and Rose is not yet known, but obviously his wife’s involvement helped bring him into the project. The film isn’t his best, but is a successful one nonetheless, and worth watching if not just for the excellent acting.
Day-Lewis, now 47, doesn’t have any upcoming projects on his plate. He could retire to Europe for another few years, choosing maybe to only work on his wife’s films. He might have a change of heart and return to acting on a yearly basis. Or, to the displeasure of his fans and most movie lovers, he could never act again. Whatever he decides, The Ballad of Jack and Rose will be the only chance to see him for at least a couple of years, and it’s worth it for that alone.
Shawn Wines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org