This week one of Hollywood’s greatest dropped a bombshell as Daniel Day-Lewis revealed his retirement from acting following his upcoming final film, “Phantom Thread”. Day-Lewis has been a celebrated actor for years and while he has also been one of the business’s most selective, the roles he did decide to take have proven to be iconic. So in honor of his illustrious career I decided to take a look at the best from the best, the top ten Daniel Day-Lewis performances.
For this list I looked at Day-Lewis’s 19 major film roles since 1982 and chose the ten best performances by the three-time Oscar winner. These roles were ranked based on their iconic status and the critical acclaim Day-Lewis received for the role with special consideration to those that have been recognized with awards over the years all though just because a film role received numerous awards does not mean it will be placed above more critically acclaimed or iconic ones. To that end some of this list is probably a bit predictable, but such is the nature of a list like this. Of course there may be some spoilers here as I’ll be delving into what made these roles so great so be aware of that.
What is your favorite Daniel Day-Lewis role? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list!
10. John Proctor, “The Crucible”
High schoolers throughout the United States should be familiar with this material as “The Crucible” is far from just a 1996 film starring Day-Lewis, it’s actually written by Arthur Miller, the man who wrote the play many students are forced to read while in school that chronicles the atrocities of the Salem Witch Trials. Leading the cast was Day-Lewis as John Proctor, a man who comes face to face with the consequences of his less than pure lifestyle, including infidelity, when the young woman he has been seeing becomes one of the girls accusing locals of being a witch. One of Day-Lewis’s more popular works of the 1990s, despite the movie’s lack of financial success at the time of its release, Day-Lewis’s turn as the troubled Proctor family patriarch was heavily praised although Day-Lewis was surprisingly left out when award season came around while a few of his costars and Arthur Miller himself received recognition. Still, Day-Lewis’s turn as Proctor was a solid and impressive performance as he managed to balance the subtleties AND the extremes of his character’s personality as Proctor seems to be one of the very few to understand the underlying motives of the accusers in the trials. His “My Name” speech at the end alone stands out as one of the film’s best and most iconic moments.
9. Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe, “Last of the Mohicans”
One thing Daniel Day-Lewis was certainly NOT known for was settling for popular roles rather than ones with substance. Here he managed to find a role that was both popular and deserving of his talent as he portrayed Hawkeye on 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans”. Commercially successful and critically loved, this film was inspired by the novel of the same names by James Fenimore and also took inspiration from a 1936 adaptation of the story. The film follows a trio of trappers who try to protect the daughters of a British Colonel during the French and Indian War, with Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye being the adopted son of a Mohican chief and one of the three trappers. Day-Lewis’s turn earned him praise and even made him a nominee for the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains” list as a notable honorable mention hero. Where many roles Day-Lewis takes are filled with eccentricities and can be considered more “Oscar bait” due to the depth of the performances, this was a role that didn’t receive any nominations but was celebrated by the masses due to its inclusion in a popular film. While being a white man in an Indian tribe, Day-Lewis was able to present a culturally sensitive performance and, as he was known to do, fully embraced everything about his character to create an accurate and worthy portrayal of a man raised to be part of a race and lifestyle few at the time may have even fully understood.
8. Johnny, “My Beautiful Laundrette”
This 1985 role was the first critically acclaimed cinematic performance for Day-Lewis, putting him on the path to superstardom and legitimacy as a true force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Here he plays Johnny, a street punk involved in an interracial gay relationship with Pakistani Omar. The two individuals act as representatives of the cultural divide between the English and Pakistani’s as we see their complex relationship progress. Universally loved by critics, this film was one of the first to show off Day-Lewis as an effective method actors and for many it was an introduction to the legend he would become over the following thirty years or so. Day-Lewis’s performance was heavily praised and it earned him a Best Supporting Actor award from the U.S. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. This established Day-Lewis as an award-season contender long before he received his first major industry nominations a few years later. One could say this was the role that made Day-Lewis’s career possible, and it was a significant one that required the talent of an actor of Day-Lewis’s caliber to pull off considering the fact that it touched on numerous controversial issues including interracial relationships, same-gender relations, and the stereotypes that come with anyone of a specific culture or sexual preference. As usual, Day-Lewis handled the role with great taste and careful planning.
7. Tomas, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”
Despite not receiving any nominations for his performance in this film, this is one of Daniel-Day Lewis’s finest performances as he portrays a womanizer who becomes involved with a woman seeking monogamy. Day-Lewis learned to speak Czech for this role, one of many commitments he has made for a specific role over the years, and oozes charm as he presents a man we can both love and hate, a pig with something much deeper in his heart that’s trying to get out. Day-Lewis charms not only the women, but the audience as well with a captivating performance that is at times annoying and at other times engrossing, speaking to Day-Lewis’s uncanny ability to capture the essence of humanity and the flaws and redeemable aspects of each of his characters in ways few other actors can achieve. It may not be his most well know, respected, or iconic role, but this was a performance that showed just how effective Day-Lewis could be as an actor and was in stark contrast to his performance in “My Beautiful Laundrette” but somehow managed to capture the same despicable but lovable charm all the same.
6. Danny Flynn, “The Boxer”
One of Day-Lewis’s most famous method acting performances, his turn in 1997’s “The Boxer” saw him play former Provisional IRA volunteer Danny Flynn as he tries to make it in the boxing world after his release from prison. The performance had to balance political undertones with inspiring sports-themed moments that required some of the most intense preparation Day-Lewis ever did for a role. He trained with boxing champion Barry McGuigan to perfect his abilities as a boxer for the part, becoming so good and believable in his on-screen portrayal that both McGuigan and UFC professionals complimented Day-Lewis on his work profusely. Many called “The Boxer” a standard drama that rose above its limitations thanks in part to Day-Lewis’s performance helping provide some great emotional subtext to the story. The performance earned Day-Lewis a Golden Globe nomination, although he didn’t win, and was one of numerous films Day-Lewis starred in to critical acclaim in the 90s. Of all those roles however, this was one of his most respected during that time and it was his only Golden Globe nomination in the 90s era as well as his final role on the big screen before the year 2000 as he entered a semi-retirement period after this film. His performance has sense become one of the most iconic boxer portrayals in film history, even if it is slightly overshadowed by more culturally celebrated films like “Rocky” or “Raging Bull”.
5. Gerry Conlon, “In the Name of the Father”
Another film focusing on the exploits of the IRA, which was apparently a common theme for director Jim Sheridan, 1993’s “In The Name of the Father” saw Daniel Day-Lewis as a member of the Guildford Four Gerry Conlon who in real life was wrongly imprisoned after being convicted of the 1974 IRA Guildford pub bombings. Conlon is a simple man who experiences the struggles and hardships of his wrong conviction in a very human manner, including an understanding of the difficulties he is facing trying to prove his innocence. Day-Lewis admitted it was a struggle to understand Conlon’s mindset as he had to embody someone who made the decision to sign his life away in a confession of a crime he didn’t commit. To that end Day-Lewis gives a powerful character study of a man betrayed by the law he has worked to follow and has to come to grips with anger and frustration as he works with his own father to try to prove his innocence, perfectly capturing what it’s like to be a son fighting for not only his own freedom but for the purity of his family name against the odds. The role earned Day-Lewis numerous nominations, including Academy, BAFTA, and numerous film critic considerations, and earned him the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor.
4. William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, “Gangs of New York”
For many, this is the role they know Daniel Day-Lewis for. It’s by far one of his most popular and culturally celebrated film roles and was his return to acting after his five-year hiatus. Day-Lewis earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as Bill the Butcher and a BAFTA Award for Best Actor as he portrayed a gang leader with a propensity for carving his victims like, well, a butcher. Day-Lewis fully embraced the role, even going so far as to apprentice as a butcher to educate himself in the eccentricities of the butcher art. Day-Lewis proves to be intimidating and truly diabolical in a rare villain role, harkening back to some of his earlier work with a more perfected and polished approach to a man who is violent and off to rail. With countless one-liners, a perfectly presented accent and characterization, and a truly mesmerizing physique and presentation, this role solidified Day-Lewis as one of the 2000s most celebrated cinematic figures and pretty much reestablished him as a household name. The role also contains a certain amount of subtlety as well as Day-Lewis presents some deeper personality traits and motives for his mad butcher that are only really present upon numerous rewatches. So if you’ve seen “Gangs of New York” before, I suggest you watch it again because it’s possible you may not truly understand the psyche of this mad enforcer and gang leader without further examination.
3. Daniel Plainview, “There Will Be Blood”
Daniel Day-Lewis struck oil, literally and figuratively, with this iconic role in 2007’s Oscar nominated film. His second Oscar win for best actor came from this performance as a ruthless oilman seeking greater wealth in the Southern California oil boom. Day-Lewis listened to recording of John Huston and read books and letters from the time to get into character, perfectly portraying the greed and ruthlessness hidden within all humans when it comes to making money and establishing a financial legacy. Daniel Plainview is an intimidating, entertaining, and, at times, comedic figure with the iconic “I drink you’re milkshake” scene itself being a perfect moment that captures everything great about the character. Day-Lewis brings a certain charm and likeability to a man we really shouldn’t like. He’s like the teacher in school who is amusing when he disciplines another student, but when you’re the one on the other end of his bony and dangerous pointer finger you better be afraid. As Daniel Plainview becomes more and more power hungry we literally see the transformation before our eyes and he becomes even more unhinged. It’s no wonder this film was considered the best of its year and one of the greatest of all time upon its release, and Day-Lewis’s Oscar winning performance is a big part of that success.
2. Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln”
While Day-Lewis proved he can be a badass in “Gangs of New York” and “There Will Be Blood” his earlier career was defined by his ability to embrace more subtle and fluid roles. Enter his take on the 16th President of the United States in “Lincoln”, a part that, like Daniel Plainview, won Day-Lewis an Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe all for lead actor and solidified him as the most decorated male actor in the Lead Actor category at the Oscars. What’s so great about this film is that Day-Lewis literally redefined the president in his portrayal of one of the country’s most celebrated leaders. For many the concept of taking a familiar role would be intimidating, but for Day-Lewis is was a challenge accepted and pulled off to perfection, as he literally became Lincoln on and off the camera. He also embraced a new vocal style contrary to how many have always perceived the president used to talk and even caused historians to reconsider how the president had been portrayed for many years prior to this Oscar winning project. Raw, genuine, and committed, this is a performance that neither glorifies nor demonizes a celebrated politician but opens viewers eyes to the man behind the desk. Day-Lewis is smart enough to know that Americans, and pretty much the world, know who Lincoln was and creates a more fluid and less dramatic portrayal of the man as we see his hardships and struggles during the Civil War come to life. With Steven Spielberg at the helm, this was an actor/director match made in heaven and it resulted in a product that does justice to its source material and shows us a more grounded representation of one of America’s most influential historic figures.
1. Christy Brown, “My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown”
It might not be his most decorated role, or his most well known to the general movie-going public, but this is by far the best performance the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis has ever presented. I’m far from the only person to believe this either as this performance is considered in some circles to be one of the best ever for any actor on the big screen. This was Day-Lewis’s first Oscar win for Best Actor, and deservedly so. The actor took on the challenge of playing real-life cerebral palsy patient Christy Brown as he tries to fit in with the world around him, eventually finding a way to use his only controllable appendage, his left foot, to his advantage as a writer and artist. Both audiences and critics adored this film and lauded Day-Lewis’s performance as he literally fully embraced the life of a man with an illness both on and off the screen. The most famous example of Day-Lewis’s legendary method acting approach, the actor literally lived as a cerebral palsy patient during filming, confining himself to a wheelchair and having crew members feed him as if he really suffered from the illness. It’s a hard performance to watch as Day-Lewis shows the struggles and hardships a real-life handicap person could, and usually does face when trying to fit in. Christy’s story proves to be inspiring, disturbing, and above all very believable as Day-Lewis perfectly captures everything about Christy, from his personality to his handicap, in one of the most legendary acting performances of all time. No Daniel Day-Lewis list would be complete without this film, and no self-respecting movie buff would ever ignore this powerful portrayal as the best one of the world’s greatest actors has to offer.