Saturday, October 9, 2010

The dawn of Day-Lewis

On re-encountering an artist's work half a lifetime later

In March of 1986, I was a recent college graduate living in Manhattan on a $12,000 salary at a New York publishing house and migrating from sublet to sublet. I didn't have any money, but I had lots of time -- time to read the books that were always floating around; time gain discounted admission to exhibitions and the theater; time, above all, to go to the movies. I was of a mind to self-consciously turn myself into a cosmopolitan. So the idea of going to a movie about upwardly mobile Pakistanis in London -- and one that featured a gay romance -- was my idea of uplift. That's why I went to see My Beautiful Laundrette.

And that's how I first encountered Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis played a working-class gang member, Johnny, who runs into an old school mate, Omar, and falls in love with him. My Beautiful Laundrette is a fascinating document of Thatcherite Britain, and the varied attitudes people of the same ethnic group may hold toward what might be termed the English Dream. But the most riveting thing about the movie at the time was Day-Lewis, whose performance I found overpoweringly compelling.

Less than a week later, I went to see another British film, an adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel Room with a View by the famed team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). I had already read some of Forster's fiction before seeing the movie, and I so coveted the cover of the reissued novel, which used a still from the final scene of the movie, that I bought and read it on that basis alone. (I think I liked the typography almost as much as I did the profile of Helena Bonham Carter.) I was also aware that Daniel Day-Lewis was in this movie as well, this time playing the impossibly priggish Cecil Vyse. It was dazzling to see the same man was playing both of these people, particularly in two wildly divergent films, one a brash independent production and the other a stylish period piece. There was much commentary about this juxtaposition at the time, and I felt joy at being present at the start of a great career, much in the way one feels vicariously pleasure at the success of one's sports team or having been present for a major historical event.

I didn't quite become a Daniel Day-Lewis groupie -- I was unaware of some of his subsequent movies -- and while I greatly admired his performance in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (a novel I had also read as part of my ongoing Education) and  his Oscar-winning turn in My Left Foot in 1989, I spent the Academy awards night the following spring rooting for Glory, a film I was about to write about as part of my doctoral dissertation. It was not until the release of Last of the Mohicans in September of 1992 -- a date I remember because my first child had just been born I had believed my regular moviegoing days were about to end -- that I embraced Day-Lewis as my favorite actor and as an artist whose work I would follow with great interest. (It helped that in the next few years he'd be making movies with American historical settings at a time I had settled into becoming an avowed American provincial.)

Earlier this week I watched My Beautiful Laundrette and Room with a View back-to-back, neither of which I'd seen since 1986. I was less awed by them now than I was then, and Day-Lewis's performances seemed more like experiments in boundary-testing than fully three-dimensional characters. I also discerned a surprising vein of gender continuity in the two roles, as Vyse seemed more like a painfully closeted homosexual when juxtaposed against Johnny's liberated one.

It's a curious doubleness when works of art are joined to one's autobiography, and another curious doubleness to be the same person and experience the same works of art differently at separate moments in one's life. Sometimes I think it's miraculous when a work outside our lifetime manages to transcend it and speak across time, or that we continue to be moved by works in our lifetime when our circumstances change. I'm now aware that the quality of Daniel Day-Lewis's work has varied in the last quarter-century, and I have a fuller understanding of how that work is as much a product of his influences (like Robert De Niro, who in turn owes a debt to Marlon Brando) as it is an original contribution. In a weird way, it's the fallibility and limits of such work that makes me savor it more. We're all engaged in such a struggle with our mortality. It cheers one so to see flickering persistence in the dying light.