Hollywood's crop of actors in their 50s is perhaps one of the most esteemed pools of talent ever assembled in film history: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh. But even among such a crazy talented group, there is one actor that stands atop the list: Daniel Day-Lewis.
Just as Meryl Streep is the greatest actress of her generation, so Day-Lewis is her male counterpart. It's not a precise science ranking the extraordinary. If we were to take into consideration who is equally gifted with comedy and drama (Hanks), or whose name is synonymous with Shakespeare (Branagh) or who is the most likely to make women swoon (Clooney, of course), maybe the results would be different -- but when it comes down to sheer virtuosity in every single role, movie critics and movie lovers alike would agree that Day-Lewis is simply the best.
At 55, Day-Lewis has made only 19 movies – less than half of other actors his age – but each performance has been an exercise in total immersion. Renowned for his chameleonic transformations, he was so convincing as the cerebral palsy-afflicted Christy Brown in 1989's "My Left Foot," that when he accepted his Academy Award for the performance, audiences at home (and probably at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as well) collectively gasped at the fact he wasn't actually disabled. Instead, he was downright gorgeous (funky tuxedo aside) in his "Last of the Mohicans" persona – flowing long hair, healthy tan and perfect posture. And the best part is that, despite the serious subject matter, the first line of his speech was, "You've just provided me with the makings of one hell of a weekend in Dublin."
It's those contrasts in Day-Lewis' performances -- how unrecognizable he is from role to role (whether literary, historical, or imagined) – that separates him from his peers, some of whom perfect one kind of character so beautifully they rarely stray from the comfort of certain types: the righteous underdog, the sadistic villain, the bedroom-eyed go-getter. Day-Lewis, however, can be anyone in any time, from the disabled Christy Brown and the swashbuckling Hawkeye to the milquetoast Cecil ("A Room With a View") and the ruthless Bill the Butcher ("Gangs of New York"). Go even further back, and you'll witness his breakout
The very fact that Day-Lewis, an actor of Irish and English decent, so brilliantly played America's most beloved President in "Lincoln" is just further proof of his living-legend status. If an award-winning American actor tried to portray Winston Churchill, there would be a public outcry from British audiences, but Day-Lewis is such a master, no one doubted him up to the task of donning the beard, and the magnitude, of our 16th President. As the New York Times said of his tormented Abe Lincoln, Day-Lewis "eases into a role of epic difficulty as if it were a coat he had been wearing for years."
Day-Lewis makes it look easy to play the unthinkably wronged ("In the Name of the Father"), the tyrannically ambitious ("There Will Be Blood"); the chronically insatiable ("Nine"). Remarkably, he doesn't seem to make movies for the paycheck (there are far better-paid actors, and there are no flops on his filmography), isn't interested in celebrity, and holds out for collaborating with filmmakers he trusts – Martin Scorsese, Jim Sheridan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Rebecca Miller (his wife).
To know Day-Lewis is the Greatest Of All Time, just allow his performances to speak for themselves. When he says "I will find you!," "Because it is my name!," "I've abandoned my child!," "You know how come I stayed alive this long? Fear. A spectacle of fearsome acts," and "I drink your milkshake!" you believe.
And you believe again when he proclaims as Lincoln: "Abolishing slavery settles the fate for all coming time, not only of the millions in bondage but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding? We must cure ourselves of slavery."
So come this January, if we are sure of anything, it's that Day-Lewis will once again be recognized for transforming himself on screen, for being the kind of actor that only comes around once in a genera