AMONG THE VARIOUS things Daniel Day-Lewis has perfected, as a New Yorker profile of his once mentioned, is the trick of vanishing. After every film, Day-Lewis disappears (one would be tempted to say to oblivion), only to reappear several years down the line, a period in which many films have released, several Academy Awards have taken place, fresher voices been discovered, new stars begun to shine and older ones to dim. A casual viewer might think the actor had long retired. And then Day-Lewis appears seemingly out of nowhere with another bravura performance. An astonishing trick if there ever was one in this modern age of show business. But now, as his spokesperson has stated, Day-Lewis will indeed retire.
He will probably stick to his decision. He has done something like this once before. Although he never formally announced the decision, he quit theatre back in 1989, when he was performing Hamlet. During one performance, there had been a widespread suspicion that Day-Lewis was talking to the ghost of his own late father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, rather than the Ghost of King Hamlet, in the fateful scene when the ghost appears. Day- Lewis began to sob uncontrollably, and walked off the performance mid-way, never to return to the stage, for this play or any other. He admitted later that this was true.
If one is to write about Day-Lewis, one might as well rattle off points of mythology around him. The manner of his immersion in each performance. How he takes years off to prepare for roles, how he undergoes remarkable transformations, how he taught himself Czech to play the lead in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the film was in English), how he learnt to track and skin animals and build canoes (and carried a gun everywhere he went) to play Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, how he spent his entire time in a wheelchair on the shoot of My Left Foot (he had to be carried on the set, even fed by others)... the list is endless. He rejects more roles than he approves, some of which, like the lead in Schindler’s List, The English Patient and Philadelphia went on to get great acclaim for other actors. Since the start of this century, he has done only five films, three of which got Best Actor nominations and two wins at the Oscars. (In comparison, Dwayne Johnson has done some 34 films). He rejected the script for Lincoln several times, making its director Steven Spielberg do many revisions, once even sending him a lengthy letter elaborating his reasons for rejecting it. At one point he writes, ‘I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, as fascinated as I was by Abe, it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told, rather than that of a participant.’ But filmmakers still woo him, because, chances are, he will probably get you an Oscar.
These stories of Day-Lewis’ methods have been going around for so long that they have now stopped to awe people and become more a form of amusement. (Did Day-Lewis insist on being referred to as Mr President on the sets of Lincoln? Did he sign off his texts as ‘Abe’). In a sketch, even Barack Obama once played Day-Lewis playing Obama.
The actor himself appears to tire from the legend being built around his methods of preparation. He once told Rolling Stone, “People talk, apparently on my behalf, about this torturous preparation period... but it misses the point, because for me it’s sheer pleasure.”
As Day-Lewis hangs up his boots, he does so with a monumental career behind him and the reputation of one of Hollywood’s all-time greats.