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Article – Is Daniel Day-Lewis Retiring Really So Bad?


Posted November 26, 2017 by

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Is Daniel Day-Lewis Retiring Really So Bad?

As the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread grows ever closer, it marks a bittersweet prospect, it will be Daniel Day-Lewis’s first film in five years, but also – reportedly – his last, with Day-Lewis announcing his retirement prior to the films release. This news has been met with unanimous heavy-heartedness – perhaps the only ones finding joy being the unfortunate actors that find themselves squaring off against Day-Lewis when it comes to awards season – and Day-Lewis’s adieu will undoubtedly create a huge cinematic void, the three time best actor Oscar winner leaves behind a sterling career of iconic films and even more iconic characters, and at sixty – not particularly old for an actor – relinquishes any prospects of further continuation that could be potentially decades-worth of work. But despite the sobering notion of a Day-Lewis-less world, is it really so bad? Phantom Thread – another Anderson collaboration – will most likely see him leave at the top of his game and his career will remain (almost) blemish free and he will only ever be remembered for greatness, would continuing his career, and potentially damaging it, be worth seeing him on screen again?

Is Daniel Day-Lewis Retiring Really So Bad?

Day-Lewis’s retirement – frankly – isn’t hugely surprising, he went into ‘semi-retirement’ following The Boxer (1997) and has always been a the highly reclusive and selective actor, having only completed twenty features in thirty-five years, and only six this century. This selective approach has been down to lengthy preparation processes for creating characters, learning their regional dialects and accents and mastering their physical attributes and skills, but it is also down to outside interests such as shoemaking, and his other great love –carpentry – crafts that have continually divided his attention and are rumoured to be behind his latest retirement, with Day-Lewis apparently becoming enamoured with the art of dress making whilst making Phantom Thread.

While his approach may be the antithesis of being prolific, it has led to the creation of some of cinemas most iconic characters, such as William Cutting A.K.A. Bill The Butcher from Gangs Of New York (2002) and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007) and a career of very few failures, with Nine (2009) being his most widely acknowledged flop, even then he still earned a Golden Globe nomination. Few actors – if any – can boast spotless careers, and just as few choose to retire, with Doris Day, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson being a few high profile exceptions, not many reach such exalted heights as Day-Lewis where they can pick and choose their projects, and this inevitably leads to films of varying quality, to put it politely.

 Daniel Day-Lewis

Imaging a world where Day-Lewis more of a typical jobbing actor, would it be worth it see continue seeing him on screen? Not even the very best of actors can claim to have kept their dignity intact, greater output and career longevity comes with a price. It is worth comparing Day-Lewis’s career with another actor considered one of the greatest of all time, Robert De Niro, who is only fourteen years Day-Lewis’s senior yet has appeared in over five times as many films. De Niro grew to iconic status early in his career with standout performances in The Godfather Part II (1974) Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) but over the years – particularly in this century – the quality of his work has decreased, notably whilst the frequency has increased, a career once awash with classics now struggles both critically and financially, and has bordered on self-parody.

De Niro’s slide in quality started in the 90’s, as his output with Martin Scorsese began to slow down – there last collaboration (not including The Irishman) was Casino (1995) – the less respectable choices began to increase, which became particularly noticeable, glaring even with his appearance in The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle (2000) a role which saw him ‘homage’ his infamous “You talkin’ to me?” line. This moment has come to unfortunately define De Niro’s later career, post-Scorsese, where he has continued to debase his iconic status with more questionable role-choices, with films such as: Righteous Kill (2008) Little Fockers (2010) New Year’s Eve (2011) The Big Wedding (2013) and most disconcertingly Dirty Grandpa (2016)

The films stars De Niro as the ‘dirty grandpa,’ who wants to sow his wild oats after the death of his wife, and the thoroughly demeaning events that follow wrought the displeasure of almost everyone unfortunate enough to witness it, with an embarrassing 11% on Rotten Tomatoes and critical consensus that read “Like a Werther’s Original dropped down a sewer drain, Dirty Grandpa represents the careless fumbling of a classic talent that once brought pleasure to millions.” The film was so despised is saw De Niro suffer the ignominy of a Razzie nomination, and become see many question if he has permanently damaged his cinematic legacy, the last 10-15 years of De Niro’s career – the stage Day-Lewis would now be entering – has seen a undisputable decline in his cinematic value.

robert deniro

It is of course worth noting that at De Niro’s age, the leading roles are much less afforded to him, and like many once-leading men, he has had to branch out into supporting roles, or ‘bit parts,’ something Day-Lewis has never had to contend with, whose staunch dedication has commanded leading status for most of his career, and even turning what could have been supporting roles – such as Bill The Butcher – into leads. Even for an actor like Day-Lewis, you would have to imagine leading roles could not last forever, and while supporting avenue can prove lucrative, it has also bettered some of the very best. Al Pacino, once one of the defining faces of 70’s and 80’s cinema, like De Niro has had to contend with the acceptance of supporting roles, which came to prominence with the universally derided Gigli (2002) and while that might potentially be the worst entry on some actors CV’s, Pacino managed to sink even further in Jack And Jill (2011)

Starring Adam Sandler and Adam Sandler (or Sandler²) the film earned a record 10 Razzie wins, including one for Pacino, the actor who was once famous for his studied, intense performances, here shows up his bug-eyed “Hoo-Ah” post-The Godfather Part III persona, his is another later career that has verged towards self parody and damaged the good fortune from past glories. There are plenty more examples of once-greats who have gone on to ‘slum it,’ taking on roles that belie their cinematic status: Jon Voight in Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004) and Transformers (2007) Michael Caine in Jaws: The Revenge (1987) and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) Ben Kingsley in BloodRayne (2005) and The Love Guru (2008) and Harrison Ford in Cowboys And Aliens (2011) and Paranoia (2013) and that’s just the male examples. For actors that love to work, or need to work, these kinds of supporting roles, that offer generous paychecks and give filmmakers a big name for their posters, are a by-product of their continuing screen presence, quality cannot always be a guarantee.

Give this is something Day-Lewis has always strived for, aiming for perfection with meticulous preparation and extreme ‘method’ acting, in reality supporting roles are never going to appeal to him, surely this has its positives. If Day-Lewis followed the work ethic of De Niro or Pacino, would it be worth seeing him undermine his iconic status, In Jack And Jill Pacino stars in a Dunkin’ Donuts advert, ‘riffing’ on his cinematic image, and lets not forget Harvey Keitel ‘reprising’ his role as Winston Wolfe in the Direct Line adverts, surely accepting Day-Lewis’s retirement is a small price to pay to spare the world from Day-Lewis teaming up with Shake Shack or playing another gloriously moustachioed villain in further entry of The Expendables.

al pacino

Day-Lewis’s career seems to transcend that of others, no matter how great, much like that if Stanley Kubrick, who only directed thirteen films in a forty-plus year career, but none of them bad, instead being mostly iconic. Like Kubrick, Day-Lewis oft-stagnation raises the question of ‘what if?’ had they been more prolific would have they had a greater cinematic legacy, should have such great artists applied themselves more readily? But perhaps the reality of their inefficiency is the better option, to see always them best, without the prospect of faltering and never having to face cinematic embarrassment or degradation. Day-Lewis retiring of course brings sorrow; he will be a great loss to the medium, but spares us of that alternate reality, that could see him sinks to the depths that many other greats have suffered, and never having to hear the words “I drink your milkshake” from anyone but Daniel Plainview himself.


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Written by:

Sam May
Freelance Contributor

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