I don’t know how to play the piano but I understand how I could learn. I could get a book or a teacher and learn what sound each key makes. I could find out their names and the order I would need to play them in to make music. I would need to practice and have discipline and after a while, I would be able to play songs. I would probably never be David Helfgott or Rachmaninoff, but I would be able to sit down and belt out a passable tune if the need arose.
Acting, on the other hand, is a complete mystery to me. I understand that there are classes, teachers and books for dummies that would help me, but when I see certain actors and certain performances, I realise that I could try for a million years and never get close.
And then there is Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood. I’m not speaking out of turn or saying something radical when I say that this is the best acting performance ever put on film. It won Day-Lewis a cabinet full of awards, including a second Oscar, and is rightly held up as the gold standard of modern performances. Watching Day-Lewis play Daniel Plainview, oil baron and monster, is revelatory. It is unlike anything that came before it or anything that has appeared since. He disappears so fully into the character that even now, after re-watching the movie and spending the morning re-watching key scenes on YouTube, I still have to remind myself who it is who’s playing the role. I still have to take a few seconds to calibrate my brain that I’m watching an actor and not someone they brought in, pointed cameras at, and surrounded with other actors. And it is not as though Day-Lewis is hidden from us. He is not like Charlize Theron in Monster (another incredible performance) disguised behind make-up. He simply has a big mustache. That’s it. No scars, no prosthetics, just Day-Lewis embodying a character with such completeness that we forget he’s even there.
Much has been written over the years about Day-Lewis and his method acting. Gallons of real and digital ink have been spilled in lists of the ‘wacky’ things he’s done to get into a role, like learning to hunt and kill game for The Last of the Mohicans or getting pneumonia during Gangs of New York because he wouldn’t wear anything that wasn’t period specific. He is known for building a character from the ground up over months and years, and then staying in that role for the duration of filming. In an interview with The Independent, when asked about this practice, he explained, “You go to these great lengths to imagine another world and time and imagine a man, like Plainview, living in those times—and having spent your imagination on that, it seems more fun to live there all the time than jumping in and out. That is the playground you’ve created, so why not stay there and play?” On one hand, it makes a lot of sense, but you have to wonder why anyone would want to live as Daniel Plainview if they didn’t have to. Of course, the proof is in the pudding when we think about the success of these methods. There are videos on YouTube of There Will be Blood b-roll in which Paul Thomas Anderson has pointed the camera at Day-Lewis and let him just riff on Plainview. It is incredible. Every movement, every look, every slight mannerism, is in character and is perfect. Watching these videos you see that there’s no calculation about him, he is just that character down to his blood and bones, so everything he does just works.
Up until I saw There Will be Blood, my favourite performance was Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part 2. It is a small performance and he is only in the movie for a handful of scenes, but it always struck me as a fantastic piece of naturalistic acting. It is all very small movements and mannerisms. Every line of dialogue works for the character and is delivered without affectation or pomp. Eventually he gets his big shouty monologue, which is well-written and delivered, but it is the tiny, intimate parts of his performance that I was entranced by. In There Will be Blood, there aren’t many tiny, intimate parts to Day-Lewis’s performance. He is a big, brash character who shouts and wails and brings down hellfire upon his enemies. In their review of the movie, Esquire remarked “Day-Lewis [goes] for broke [and] it is a pleasure to be reminded…that subtlety is overrated.” And that is true. This is a big role that tightropes over a chasm of scene chewing but gets to the other side. It culminates in a drunken man shouting at his enemy as he gives him a lecture about drainage before yelling in his face, “I drink your milkshake!” a line that can be parodied and mocked forever but will never lose its intensity within the context of that scene.
Day-Lewis is in nearly every scene of this movie. We are made to feast upon Daniel Plainview’s onscreen presence in huge portions with very little space to catch our breath between courses. It is a testament to Paul Dano that he doesn’t get blown off the screen every time they share a scene, as Plainview dominates every frame and every character with whom he interacts. So, no, this is not a subtle role. It is huge. A lesser actor wouldn’t have had as much success with it and Anderson’s amazing script would have been wasted. I feel another actor wouldn’t have dared to go so bold and not have given the character his due, or risked going too big with it and making something melodramatic and false. In the end, Day-Lewis created something, alongside Anderson, that continues to blow audiences away and has yet to have the Film Twitter guns pointed at it. It is a wholly unique performance by an incredibly unique actor who somehow managed to find all the tiny little tics inside this atom bomb of a character and put all of it, and all of himself, on the screen for us to watch.
Featured Image: Paramount Vantage/MiraMax Films