Saturday, October 27, 2012


Time magazine thinks so. They’ve just declared the British actor as the best there is currently on planet Earth. He’s a great actor, no doubt, and one who’s done a lot of amazing work, showing an incredible range that few have ever had. Hard to believe that the same actor who played so foppishly foolish in A ROOM WITH A VIEW could play so utterly terrifying in GANGS OF NEW YORK. Still, what’s even a more amazing accomplishment is that Day-Lewis has built such a reputation with a fairly small body of work, less than twenty films over 30 years. And in the last twenty years, he’s made only ten.

But they’re pretty damn good, most of them. Here are his last ten:

THE BOXER (1997)
NINE (2010)
LINCOLN (2012)
Daniel Day-Lewis in his upcoming role as our 16th President in LINCOLN
Critic and awards historian Tom O’Neil of Gold Derby online thinks that Day-Lewis is a lock to win Best Actor for his turn as the 16th President. ( If that happens, Day-Lewis will become the only actor in the history of the Academy Awards to win three Best Actor Oscars. Jack Nicholson has three Oscars but two are for lead (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, AS GOOD AS IT GETS) and the third is for his supporting turn in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Walter Brennan has three supporting Oscars from the 1930’s, but those wins are due largely to the fact that the former stuntman earned the votes of a lot of crew members who were tickled to see him become a star.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER.

 But back to Day-Lewis and the mantle of greatness. Is he really the best? Better than say, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortenson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Guy Pearce? Is it even fair to judge something so subjective? Or for that matter, why is the greatness confined to film acting? Is that fair? What about theater? TV? How about actors who do all three with equal aplomb? Sir Ian McKellen, anyone?
Sir Ian McKellen in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

The truth is that Day-Lewis is great but Time magazine didn’t really cast their net all that wide. I think they’re going largely on Day-Lewis’ buzz worthy portrayal of LINCOLN, already getting the most Oscar chatter of any acting this year, even though the movie hasn’t opened nationwide yet and has only been screened by some critics. But still, even without all that talk about that performance, Day-Lewis would be up there. He completely immerses himself in his craft and gives thorough performances every time.
Tom Wilkinson in THE GHOST WRITER. 

But if you’re going to have a discussion about the best actors, shouldn’t that list include a lot of character actors? (Arguably, Day-Lewis is a character actor, albeit in lead roles.) If I pooled a list of the greatest actors working today it would be heavy with the likes of character actors like Tom Wilkinson, Alfred Molina, Gary Oldman and Geoffrey Rush. A strong case could be made for Wilkinson as the greatest. He can do leads (IN THE BEDROOM), supporting turns (MICHAEL CLAYTON), dramas (VALKYRIE), comedies (THE FULL MONTY), thrillers (ROCKnROLLA), and even one-scene roles that devastate (THE GHOST WRITER). I ask you, who else could play both Ben Franklin (JOHN ADAMS) and James Baker (RECOUNT) in the same calendar year? Who else can do accents and be just as memorable using his native English one?
John Lithgow in season 4 of DEXTER on Showtime.

True, Daniel Day-Lewis can do ruthless men, like he did in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but he was pretty tepid as the lead in the musical NINE. John Lithgow has done ruthless (DEXTER) and musicals (DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS) and ruthless musicals (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS). Shouldn’t he be up there? Of course he’s not a big movie star so he doesn’t get the cover of Time magazine.

Look, no matter who’s judging, Daniel Day-Lewis is an inspired choice. (And I am a big fan.) And any time something like Time’s declaration gets the nation talking about excellence in the arts, well, that’s terrific. Still, if we’re talking about the greatest actor working today, there is one actor who outshines Day-Lewis. That actor?

Meryl Streep.


  1. May i just comment. A large chunk of your argument, i feel has much to so with versatility of the said actor(s) as opposed to actual performance. If you should go by that basis even Johnny Depp is an honourable mention.Its just an observation i make. In terms of performance i rate Daniel day lewis as the best living actor. While All Pacino and Jack Nicholson both close behind. Acting the given roles are almost second nature to them both but not for Daniel Day Lewis who immerses himself in the character he plays. All-time best performance i have seen would be Last Tango in Paris, Brando. An interesting blend of the two approaches i mentioned above.

  2. Well said, Joseph. And thanks for commenting!

    Interestingly, there are often two schools of thought regarding movie acting. The first is the Day-Lewis/Streep 'school' where more often than not the actor loses themselves in the role. The other is the Nicholson/Pacino 'school' where the role becomes a version of themselves. Either is great. And there is room for the movie 'actors' and movie 'stars.' I love Cary Grant just as much as Laurence Olivier though Grant didn't have Olivier's range. I think Brando was more in the Nicholson/Pacino boat most of his career, but he was a sterling actor, particularly in his younger years.

    Thanks for posting! And keep coming back here and commenting more.

  3. Now that you made that distinction between the two i agree. I was just wondering to myself how is it Pacino/Nicholson look almost too comfortable in their roles. They just exude confidence on and off set. I now even recognise that of Brando in Streetcar/Waterfront. But Last Tango was something else i felt. Such artistry. Unfortunately i havn't seen any of Oliviers except Rebecca. Also I lack an appreciation for Cary Grant, granted i have only watched North by Northwest and Notorious. I have much to watch!! :)