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The 10 best Daniel Day-Lewis performances


Often considered to be one of the greatest actors of all time, Daniel Day-Lewis does more than commit his time and effort to a film project, he dedicates his entire mind and body. Famously adopting and popularising ‘method acting’, a type of performance which involves the individual embodying a certain character in front of and behind the camera, Day-Lewis has subsequently put together some of the finest performances of the new century. 

Securing Academy awards for his roles in There Will be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson as well as in Lincoln by Steven Spielberg and My Left Foot by Jim Sheridan, Day-Lewis made the surprising decision to retire from acting in 2017 despite being at the top of his game. “I did want to draw a line. I didn’t want to get sucked back into another project,” he told RTE, adding, “All my life, I’ve mouthed off about how I should stop acting, and I don’t know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do”. 

Having collaborated with some of the best filmmakers of cinema history, including the aforementioned likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg, as well as Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Richard Attenborough, Day-Lewis bowed out from the profession whilst he was very much thriving. Enjoying around 40 years in the industry, however, let’s take a look back at Daniel Day-Lewis’s top ten best performances.

10 best Daniel Day-Lewis performances:

10. The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)

The Michael Mann movie The Last of the Mohicans may be Daniel Day-Lewis’ most peculiar role of his entire filmography, ditching a flawed dramatic character for Hawkeye, a brutal, physical role in an intense historical action movie. Featuring alongside Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Colm Meaney and Pete Postlethwaite, Day-Lewis has support from several terrific actors, though often has to lead the film on his own. 

Enduring gruelling stunt work and an extraordinary shooting schedule, Day-Lewis proved to audiences and critics that he was capable of much more than his previous filmography suggested.  

9. The Boxer (Jim Sheridan, 1997)

Everyone loves a boxing movie, so quite why Jim Sheridan’s 1997 sports flick is so often forgotten from the repertoire of Daniel Day-Lewis is unknown. Playing ex-boxer Danny Flynn, a fighter just released from prison, who quickly realises he must return to a life of violence if he is to survive in contemporary Belfast, the actor gives the enjoyable character his all. 

Perfectly fitting Day-Lewis’ acting style, the character of Danny Flynn allows the actor to show off his dedicated physicality, whilst still allowing him to explore his deep emotional fragility.

8. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)

A strange mix of fantasy and reality, Gangs of New York is a pulpy, yet undoubtedly enjoyable thriller that follows several gangs that clash in the titular American city whilst living through the brutal Civil War, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill ‘The Butcher’. Joining the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson and John C. Reilly, Day-Lewis shines as the eccentric lead character.

Bloated and drawn-out, Day-Lewis makes the most out of Scorsese’s peculiar crime story, elevating the film with his melodramatic yet thrilling performance.

7. A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1985)

Popular with critical and commercial circles upon its release in 1985, James Ivory’s A Room With a View, adapted from E.M.Forster’s novel of the same name, stars Day-Lewis as a snobby, pretentious man with a vast amount of wealth. Though only a supporting character, the actor brings the perfect amount of melodrama to the romance, adding to the story without forcing the attention away from the lead characters. 

Asking the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) for her hand in marriage, Day-Lewis’ character has a considerable impact on the story, though it’s Cecil’s dry wit and brutish arrogance you’ll truly remember.

6. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Winning the award for Best Leading Actor at the 2013 Academy Awards in emphatic fashion, there is no doubt that Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is truly special. A factual account of the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln, who struggled to contain the chaos of his own cabinet during the American Civil War, the actor plays the titular President, complete with some impressive makeup.

Featuring alongside the likes of Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook and Tommy Lee Jones, Day-Lewis perfectly embodies the psychology and mannerisms of one the most iconic presidents of American history.

5. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Too easily forgotten from the glittering filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread is the final film to date from Daniel-Day Lewis, with the actor providing a gracious, powerful swansong. Appearing alongside Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville, Day-Lewis gives one of his most gentle and difficult performances as Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker whose life is disturbed by a fervent lover.

Bottling an intense passion, the actor’s performance is the perfect culmination of several of his previous screen roles, bringing every nuance of his past characters to this final curtain call. 

4. My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985)

1985 was a special year for Day-Lewis, as whilst he appeared in the aforementioned hit A Room with a View, he also showed his versatility as a completely new character in Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette. Playing Johnny, the leader of a group of street punks who terrorise a local laundrette owned by his old school friend, Frears’ film switches from a harsh British drama to a charming romance. 

Showing great nuance in his performance, Day-Lewis plays a complicated character with excellent acting verve and precision, elevating the supporting cast of actors around him, including Gordon Warnecke and Saeed Jaffrey.

3. My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1985)

When Day-Lewis’ commitment to his craft is discussed, his performance in the 1985 film My Left Foot is often brought up. Playing Christy Brown, a painter born with cerebral palsy who learns to paint with his left foot, the actor spent much of the film’s production bound to a wheelchair, imitating the experience of the real life artist. 

Winning an Oscar for his extraordinary portrayal of the disabled artist, Day-Lewis commits himself fully to the role, insisting that everyone on set refer to him as Christy Brown, refusing to reply to Daniel. More radical, however, was the actor’s physical dedication to the role with Day-Lewis learning to type and paint with his feet just like Brown, as well as demanding to be pushed around the set on a wheelchair. 

2. In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993)

The modern appreciation for the work of Daniel Day-Lewis all too often disregards the collaboration of himself and filmmaker Jim Sheridan, who worked with the actor on such greats as The Boxer and My Left Foot. Though the latter is often discussed as the actor’s best, it is his more understated role in the emotionally wrought drama In the Name of the Father from 1993 that passes the test of time.

Starring in the true story of a man who is coerced into confessing to an I.R.A bombing he didn’t commit, the actor effortlessly evokes sympathy with a performance that urges an powerful emotional response. 

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

There’s no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson draws the very best out of Daniel Day-Lewis, with his 2007 film There Will be Blood proving this in abundance. Dedicating himself entirely to the role of Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector at the turn of the 20th century whose obsession turns to hatred and gradual madness, Day-Lewis helps to bring one of the best films of modern cinema to life. 

Working in perfect synchronisation with his supporting cast that includes the likes of Paul Dano and Ciarán Hinds, the understanding that Day-Lewis has with Paul Thomas Anderson is so organic that it simply imitates life.