Thursday, 25 March 2010

Performances of the Decade (Male)

I’m nothing if not consistent. There are actors who continually work for me, regardless of the role they take or the film they star in. When you view an actor as the finest of his craft I suppose it’s a bit weird when you have to make lists like these. I do consider this man to be the best actor below sixty at the moment, even if my favourite performance of his last decade doesn’t top the list. I know everyone continues to praise his Plainview, which was excellent even if it was outside the top 15. The Day Lewis performance that really impressed me last decade was this – unfortunately snubbed – piece.
              
#2 Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002)
If any actor can be referred to as a chameleon it’s Daniel Day Lewis. I’m uncertain who Daniel Day Lewis – the man – is. But he has the ability to become so many different characters that it’s thrilling even disconcerting at times. In Gangs of New York he plays Bill the Butcher – a man as charismatic as he is dangerous. In the thrilling prologue we watch as he kills the father of our protagonist. As I write the word protagonist I wonder if Amsterdam really is the central character of our story. Perhaps, a bit like The Departed dually centred piece Gangs of New York exists in the same realm. Bill is a thrilling character, and he’d probably show up high (higher than Plainview I think, even) on a list of iconic characters. But the iconicity of Bill doesn’t lie completely in the writing – it depends centrally on Day Lewis.
                 
I began my admiration of Day Lewis after this film, and this is actually the first searing memory of him I have. I remember when I first saw the man (out of character) I was uncertain if it really was him. It’s not just the makeup, because the use of cosmetics is slight in unearthing Bill’s character. But every movement from Day Lewis seems to be from someone completely different. His swaggering walk, his laconic manner of speaking and the little tics in his movement are all completely different from Daniel Day Lewis, as he appears normally. Gangs of New York is recalled as the last important Hollywood epic and though the film is not absolute perfection, like all of Scorsese’s films it’s well worth your time. Ostensibly Day Lewis is at his most exhilarating in the first third of the film. As he tears through the film, even though the cast (particularly DiCaprio, Diaz and Broadbent) do good work there’s no one that equals his excellence here. It’s a total immersion in character that’s almost frightening to behold. Even though the theatrics diminish as his character develops Daniel doesn’t become any less satisfying.
                 
Bill is a beast of a man, but it’s to Daniel’s credit that we never think of him as a monster. His devotion to Amsterdam is interesting to watch as is his reaction when Amsterdam’s identity is revealed. His barbaric swipe at DiCaprio is chilling as we watch the glint in Day Lewis’ eyes. He is never the hero of our story, but he continuously looms over the narrative like a bad dream of unnerving spectre that we cannot avoid. His final scene opposite DiCaprio is a poignant moment. We’ve spent the entire time waiting for this moment, and when it comes it’s not as satisfying as we hope it would be – no fault of Scorsese. It’s actually the point of it really. Bill is a terrifying creation, but he has his ethics and his reasons for why he lives. Even though the narrative never delves too deep, Daniel’s excellent performance always keeps us aware of this.
             
Gangs of New York isn’t remembered very fondly? But what do you think? Is Daniel Day Lewis as exceptional as I think he is?

7 comments:

Simon said...

If he's not exceptional, then he at least doesn't phone it in.

But he is exceptional.

Castor said...

Daniel Day Lewis is definitely up there as one of the very best actor of this era. It's just too bad he appears in a movie only every 2 to 3 years. In Gangs of New York, he was absolutely phenomenal and although I prefer his Daniel Plainview portrayal, it's only slightly more.

Dreher Bear (...Where The Buffalo Roam) said...

Any role played by Daniel-Day Lewis is simply incredible in my opinion. Gangs of New York was my first experience watching him act and just him walking into the first battle was breath-taking and sets up for the rest of the film. I have since gone back and watch his other films and by far my favorite performance is Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.

Marcy said...

Gangs of New York is kinda ridiculous but I really loved Daniel Day-Lewis in the role! And I LOVED his costumes! They were so lively, vivid, and awesome...and I thought it was perfect for a larger-than-life character like Bill.

The Floating Red Couch said...

I loooove GoNY, which is not a popular thing to say in a crowd, but screw 'em! DDL was totally engrossing, but I also get a lot of Dinero (especially Mean streets and Raging Bull) -- which makes me wonder if that is inherently due to Scorsese's direction of actors.

CrazyCris said...

You just discovered him in this one?! tsk! tsk! tsk!

My intro to him was through Last of the Mohicans, which is still fresh in my mind thx to a fabulous soundtrack, some beautiful cinematography, some damn fine acting (specially him!), and pissed off at how much they had mixed the book up!!! grrr... but if you haven't read the book then it's an excellent movie. ;o)

and yeah, he was the best thing in Gangs of New York... made having to swallow what's her name, Cameron Diaz (caan't stand her!) a bit easier...

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

but he IS exceptional...so true.

castor i am always pissed that he doesn't appear in more films. share the wealth man.

dreher my favourite of his is my left foot

marcy i was waiting for someone to talk about those costumes. they were so LOUD; but he pulled them off.

floating red couch that's a good point actually, but thematically all of scorsese's films seem to be similar (even when they're not)

crazy cris what is up with the cameron hate? you're not the first i've heard say this. come one, she's fair...right?