Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Shooting Star

The long road to Hollywood -- by way of Ireland -- for a child of the British artistic aristocracy

The following post on Daniel Day-Lews is part of a work-in-progress.

As a general proposition, there's nothing particularly surprising about a foreigner doing a notably good job at explaining the United States to Americans. A long tradition stretches from the proto-sociological musings of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville (whose 1835/1840 study Democracy in America continues to be widely read) to the Taiwanese-born filmmaker Ang Lee (whose movies like The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, and the overlooked Ride with the Devil are pitch-perfect in their evocation of their times). Like countless travelers to America, Daniel Day-Lewis left his homeland. But his adopted country is not the United States, but Ireland, a nation of emigrants more than immigrants.

Day-Lewis was born in London on April 29, 1957, of distinguished lineage. His father, Cecil Day-Lewis, was a leftist poet who went on to become Poet-Laureate of Great Britain. (Born in Ireland in 1904, he declared British citizenship after the creation of a separate Irish republic in 1948.) Daniel's mother, Jill Balcon, was a film and radio actor, and the daughter of Michael Balcon, a British-born Baltic Jew who entered the nascent film industry at the turn of the twentieth century and rose to become head of Ealing Studios, where he collaborated with figures such as Alfred Hitchcock. The marriage between Cecil Day-Lewis and Jill Balcon was the product of a May-November romance, and the birth of their daughter Tamasin and son Daniel was in effect the groom's second family (he had two sons from a previous marriage). Biographical accounts suggest both affection and distance between father and son, with his mother a presence until the end of her life in 2009.

Daniel Day-Lewis spent the first years of his life in the fairly posh Greenwich section of London in a childhood that is described in multiple accounts as "middle class." But this is a bit hard to believe. While it is certainly true that actors and poets do not typically have huge incomes, the mere fact that he was raised with live-in nannies suggests some degree of affluence. So does the string of literary celebrities (Vanessa Redgrave, Kingsley and Martin Amis, et. al.) that appear at his home in accounts of his youth. And the fact that he attended elite boarding schools. The first of these, Sevenoaks, was traditional and Day-Lewis hated it. He was later allowed to transfer to the more progressive Bedales, where his thespian aspirations first took root. (At age 12, he had a cameo appearance in the 1971 John Schlesinger thriller Sunday Blood Sunday.)

Day-Lewis appears to have had a relatively happy childhood, but but there are indications of restlessness and turmoil in his adolescence. He spent a fair amount of time scouring South London in what would prove to be a longstanding fascination with working-class life. Cecil Day-Lewis died in 1972, when Daniel was fifteen years old; the following year he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a drug overdose, which he claimed then and since was a misunderstanding. Though he had a long-term relationship that lasted for many years after high school, he was viewed by his peers as a loner. Uncertain of a career path after his graduation from Bedales and participation in Britain's National Youth Theatre program, he considered a career in carpentry. But he ultimately decided to follow in his mother's footsteps, gaining admission into the prestigious Old Vic Drama School in Bristol.

Over the course of the next decade, Day-Lewis embarked on a career trajectory of a professional stage actor. He appeared in a series of school productions, and upon his graduation endured the feast-or famine existence that characterizes the life of people struggling make a living as artists. He appeared in high-profile Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre productions, and also did television work for BBC movies and television shows. There were also occasional cameo appearances big-budget productions like the 1982 Academy-Award winning Best Picture Gandhi (he played a racist South African) and a supporting role in a 1984 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (which flopped). Family connections were a factor in Day-Lewis's ability to land such parts, though his talent was never in doubt. Day-Lewis was also in good company: his peers included actors like Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett, and Gary Oldman, and Tim Roth, who would all go on to have distinguished stage and screen careers.

But Day-Lewis had a secret ambition that was not quite legitimate in this elite milieu: he wanted to become a bona fide move star. "Where I come from, it was a heresy to say you wanted to be in movies, leave alone American movies," later explained. "We were all encouraged to believe that the classics of the theater were the fiery hoops through which you'd have to pass if you were going to have self-esteem as a performer." [Hirschberg] Day-Lewis made a major step toward realizing his goal in the mid-1980s as a result of his wildly divergent performances in two films whose simultaneous release generated international attention. The first of these, My Beautiful Laundrette, started out as a BBC television drama written by Pakistani-British screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and helmed by veteran director Stephen Frears. A vivid document of Thatcherite Britain, the film is a cross-class and racial gay love story between an upwardly mobile Paki entrepreneur with strong family connections and a London punk reconsidering his thuggish ways. Day-Lewis, who had earned acclaim as a gay character in a 1982 West End production of Another Country, campaigned for the part by sending Frears threatening letters [Jenkins, 164], an early indication of what would prove to be a  uniquely intense approach to method acting. Greeted enthusiastically at the Edinburgh film festival in the fall of 1985, it was redirected for theatrical release, reaching the United States in early 1986. In a rave review of the movie as a whole, Vincent Canby of the New York Times singled out Day-Lewis for a "performance that has both extraordinary technical flash and emotional substance."

Shortly after finishing his work on My Beautiful Laundrette, Day-Lewis landed a role in another British film, this one an adaptation of the 1908 E.M. Forster novel A Room with a View. This project, a collaboration of the famed team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, was a world away from My Beautiful Laundrette in its period detail, burnished production values, and literary pedigree. Interestingly, the part Day-Lewis sought and won was not the lead figure in a love triangle (that would go to Julian Sands), but rather that of the insufferable prig Cecil Vyse, whose snobbery costs him an engagement to the young woman played by Helena Bonham-Carter. As he later explained, the character of Vyse was that of "a man whose skin I could occupy in some of my worst nightmares." (Indeed, a morning television interview he gave at the time, while lacking the arrogance of Vyse, nevertheless conveys the patrician unease that has made Day-Lewis an elusive figure when it comes to dealing with the media.) Yet Day-Lewis's ability to humanize this almost cartoonish character in a crucial scene where he is rejected by his fiance was a principal reason why he won a New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actor.

Again: the synergy here is important in transforming Day-Lewis from promising journeyman to overnight success. My Beautiful Laundrette and Room with a View were both released in the United States on March 7, 1986, and the experience of seeing them both in close proximity was, as I will testify personally, almost overpowering.  Canby called Day-Lewis's performance in View "spectacular," noting "a style and wit all the more remarkable when compared with his very different characterization in My Beautiful Laundrette." Chicago Sun-Times review Roger Ebert was even more emphatic. "Seeing these two performances side by side is an affirmation of the miracle of acting: That one man could play these two opposites is astonishing," he wrote.

While the two movies certainly raised Day-Lewis's profile internationally, they did not transform his career immediately. He followed up his work on them with a small role in an Anglo-French production, Nanou (1986), and appeared onstage in Futurists, a National Theatre Production of a play about the Russian Revolution. His next film project was a starring role as Tomas, a doctor, in a 1987 screen version of Milan Kundera's 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a love story set amid the Prague Spring of 1968 and directed by the Philip Kaufman (who had worked with Clint Eastwood before being fired from the set of The Outlaw Josey Wales). Clocking in at almost three hours, Lightness is a beautifully made film (Day-Lewis worked with the accomplished Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche, among other actors), but a bit plodding in its fidelity to the novel. It was not a commercial success. Nor was his next project, Stars and Bars (1988), in which Day-Lewis plays Henderson Dores, a hapless London art dealer who comes to America in the hope of procuring a valuable painting from an eccentric patriarch (Harry Dean Stanton). His love interest, played by Joan Cusack, makes this one of the most interesting casts of any Day-Lewis has made. But the creaky stereotypical plot -- borderline offensive in its portrayal of Southern whites -- helped ensure it virtually disappeared without a trace.

Clearly, Day-Lewis was a successful actor. But it was much less clear that he had truly attained movie-star status, notwithstanding his evident sex appeal in the erotically-charged Lightness. Ironically, the role that helped him reach it was that of that of an unlikely real-life character: the handicapped Irish writer and poet Christy Brown (1932-1981). Teaming up with the seasoned stage director but film neophyte Jim Sheridan, Day-Lewis gave a tour de force performance in My Left Foot (1989), which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1990. It was in this role that Day-Lewis's growing penchant for staying in character for an entire production became a practice of widespread comment -- and, for the crew that had to treat this able-bodied man as if he were paralyzed -- some irritation.  But there seemed to be no arguing with the results. Day-Lewis would team up again with Sheridan for In the Name of the Father (1993), in which he played Gerry Conlon, an Irishman wrongly jailed with his father for terrorism, and The Boxer (1997), movies which capture the claustrophobic character of Ireland at the time of "The Troubles." The intensity of Day-Lewis's identification with the country is suggested by his decision to reaffirm his connection with the land of his father's birth by becoming an Irish citizen in 1987.

Following My Left Foot, Day-Lewis once again made an off-beat foray to Patagonia, where he played an itinerant dentist in Eversmile, New Jersey (1989), a British-Argentine production. He then made embarked on a Royal National Theater tour of Hamlet. This turned out to be a disaster, not so much in terms of reviews (which were mixed) but in the emotional strain the role seemed to impose. There was much speculation at the time that the performance led Day-Lewis to dredge up unresolved feelings about his own father. About three-quarters of the way through the production Day-Lewis suddenly froze on stage in October of 1989. He never returned to the show -- or the stage.

It was at this point that Day-Lewis crossed paths with Michael Mann, a Chicago-native director who rose to fame on the strength of his fashionable 1980s television series Miami Vice. Mann was leveraging his commercial Hollywood power for a surprising project: a big-budget blockbuster version of James Fenimore Cooper's 1825 novel Last of the Mohicans. Certain that Day-Lewis was perfect for the lead, Mann succeeded in recruiting him for it. In some sense, at least, it probably wasn't all that hard. Long a fan of American movies -- and a devotee of method-actor predecessors like Robert DeDiro -- Day-Lewis was fascinated by the United States. "I didn't know America," he said in 2007, explaining why he went to see Taxi Driver over and over again upon its release in 1976, "but that was a glimpse of what America might be, and I realized that, contrary to expectation, I wanted to tell American stories." And so he did.

We now need to break the chronology of this story. Day-Lewis made a string of movies about the United States between 1992 and 2007, ranging from the seventeenth century world of the Puritans in The Crucible (1997) to the aftermath of the 1960s in The Ballad of Jack & Rose (2005). Though they were not made in order, and though it's very unlikely there was much in the way of a conscious design, it is the contention of this chapter that they trace a thematically unified narrative arc. So we're going to follow them in the sequence of their settings, not their production. And begin, as well as end, in New England.

More to come.