WHEN Daniel Day-Lewis carved out a little piece of Oscar history, becoming the first person to win three Academy Awards for best actor in a leading role, it seemed to confirm what a number of critics, commentators and film fans have been saying for years: that Day-Lewis is the finest actor of his generation, perhaps even of all time.
It’s a bold claim to make, but not an unreasonable one. Laurence Olivier may have been the most notable classical actor of his day, and no-one will ever quite match the seismic impact Marlon Brando had on the industry. But in terms of technique, mystique and sheer transformative ability, Day-Lewis surpasses the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman as the inheritor of Brando’s ability to fully inhabit a role. His performance as Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s otherwise soporific film is certainly something special – although Oscars aren’t necessarily a true reflection of quality (if they were, we would have to accept that until Meryl Streep picked up her second best actress award last year for The Iron Lady, two-time winner Hilary Swank was the finest actress of the modern age).
But since winning his first Oscar for playing a cerebral palsy-afflicted artist in My Left Foot, Day-Lewis’s films have – with the exception of the 2009 musical folly Nine – become cultural events. From My Beautiful Launderette on, he’s never chased money or fame, just interesting roles, sometimes holding out for years for the right one. It’s as if his extended absences are necessary to build up the intensity required to deliver performances as crazed, ragged and out-there as Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York or the ruthless oil tycoon in Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent There Will Be Blood (for which he won his second Oscar).
Yet his gracious, self-deprecating Oscar and Bafta acceptance speeches mocked his devotion to Method acting in a way that reminded audiences that he is, in the end, just a person (albeit and incredibly talented one).