Searching for the Inner Tone
Does Daniel Day-Lewis appear in so few films now to avoid multiple personality disorder; that if he turns up in only a film every year or two he can return to himself without rebounding from one role into another? Imagine if you will a certain type of actor who gets lost in their roles as one can gets lost in a relationship, and bounces from one person to the next, never returning to themselves at all. However, instead of losing oneself in another person who exists, as the rebounding lover does, the actor loses him or herself in the roles they play, requiring one role after another to escape themselves. As Day-Lewis says in an interview in The Independent, “Well, absurd as it might seem, when you’ve been with someone else for that amount of time, it’s even more absurd when it’s over…it does take time to let go”. Day-Lewis couches his words in the language of relationships, and this approach to his roles is the opposite of the actor as hack, as someone who never quite embodies the part, and appears in film after film to finance interests beyond acting. An actor like Klaus Kinski, were it not for his parts in Herzog’s films, would have been one such actor: someone who claims in Kinski Uncut that he turned down working with Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini, Ken Russell, Liliana Cavani, Arthur Penn and others because “I do flicks only for the money”. This is the actor taking many parts as he takes many women: someone who doesn’t want to lose sight of his own needs and desires, and refuses to dilute them in a love of acting or a love of women. There is similar lack of affectivity here between the womaniser and the journeyman.
We draw analogies between the two when writing on Day-Lewis because it is as though where an actor like Kinski was interested in having as many roles and as many women as he possibly could (evidenced in Kinski Uncut), Day-Lewis seems interested in few roles and few women; but that his relationship with the roles he has played and the women he has seen create a similar sense of resentful alienation on the part of those caught in Day-Lewis’s life and work. In an article in The Daily Mail, the journalist Paul Scott claims that when Day-Lewis secretly married Rebecca Miller in Vermont, he forgot to tell “his long-term girlfriend of the time, fitness instructor Deya Pichardo, who was still living in his Manhattan apartment.” Isabelle Adjani claimed, Scott says, that “he had dumped her by fax when he discovered she was pregnant with (their son) Gabriel and initially made no payments for the child.” One film technician who has worked with the actor a couple of times claimed “I have never seen anything like it. We all had to call him by his character’s name, even if we bumped into him in the toilets.” On Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis fell out with co-star Liam Neeson, “who was furious that Day-Lewis insisted on addressing him by his character’s name even when they met in the gym at their hotel.” Whether it concerns the role or the relationship, Day-Lewis suggest a certain type of immersive tunnel vision.
This is of course all gossip, and we offer it not as fact, though it may be, but as grist to the speculative mill that this essay is predicated on. We are looking not to say anything categorical about Day-Lewis as a man or as an actor, but to try and comprehend an aspect of Day-Lewis’s persona (that space that ranges from the life to the work), and to open it up into a discussion about a certain type of acting closely affiliated with the Method, instigated by Stanislavski, taught by Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, and practised by Brando, Dean and De Niro. It is indeed after all through the Method that the actor doesn’t only play the role but also accesses their past, and within the context of cinema, and the star system, this can create an encompassing synergetic revelation that often leads to an especially strong sense of exposure. If the actor merely performs the part, that is one thing, and if the actor offers the role in conjunction with their own psychodramatic exploration that is another, but more revealing still perhaps is when the actor not only acts the role, not only psychodynamically draws upon their own emotional history, but also accepts that the role then played will become part of the persona that also involves a media dimension. This is a media dimension not without exaggerated gossip and rumour. As Day-Lewis admitted, in 1997 in Premiere magazine, despite trying to live a simple life, “that doesn’t prevent people from imagining the most extravagant circumstances around it.” Some of these stories that may or may not be true include mental health problems, with Scott commenting on Day-Lewis’s troubling time doing Hamlet (believing the ghost was his own dead father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis) and that he had a nervous breakdown after his agent died.
More than most actors, Day-Lewis has the potential to be exposed. He comes from a famous family including producer Michael Balcon as his grandfather, actress Jill Balcon as his mother and of course a former Poet Laureate as a father. The Premiere interview notes that “how many other actors can boast three generations of family members on display in London’s National Portrait Gallery?” This is a public family, the exposure exacerbated by his own fame. Then there is the internal need to explore the intricacies of the performance through Method acting: exacerbation and excavation leading to a twofold sense of exposure. Here we have then a famous family past, its exploration personally, and, on top of that, fame as a Hollywood actor. Is it any wonder someone like Day-Lewis may prefer to see himself in his day to day life as a man who works with his hands? There are stories of Day-Lewis’s fascination with being a cobbler, and supposedly his son believed for a time his father wasn’t a famous actor but a carpenter. It is as though even the roles he plays are not augmentative, contributing to the career of the actor, but an attempt to escape the problem of being Daniel Day-Lewis. If he can get deeply enough inside a role does he manage to obliterate Day-Lewis without losing his identity, as one might in a nervous breakdown, but finding a new one to counter the pressure of the famous persona he walks around with?
However, we don’t want this to be a speculative article on the private life and private psyche of Day-Lewis, and while Scott’s Daily Mail article is extremely useful for the biographical information it digs up, it tells us nothing about Day-Lewis as an actor of importance. What interests us here is why someone can say for example of Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood that it is the greatest performance they have ever seen; what is it in the actor’s work that makes him of interest to us even if the life can usefully help us explore it, as the Method demands? One of the key tenets of the Method as offered by Stanislavski is the following: the search for spiritual self-analysis. “The material considered here consists of living, personal memories related to the five senses, which have been stored up in an actor’s emotional memory, or acquired through study and preserved in his intellectual memory, and which are analogous to feelings in his role.” Out of such a search the performance will become, in Parker Tyler’s words, “psychodramatic”. Describing Marlon Brando in Sex, Psyche, Etcetra in the Film, Tyler says “Brando’s personality fits well into his role as Rio the Kid in One-Eyed Jacks because he plays a grown-up, permanently rebellious child, strangely isolated in a brooding, privacy, perhaps nursing some profound, elusive hurt…”
In such a performance the actor doesn’t engage in the world; but engages more with a self that will try and drag people into their psychic space, or repel people from it. This is partly what makes one of Day-Lewis’s lesser known roles one of his most interesting, Jack in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a film we should attend to perhaps before looking in greater detail at There Will Be Blood. Here he plays a wealthy Scot who moved to a small island off the East coast of the States. Jack became a member of a commune devoted to an ecological alternative life. Now Jack and his daughter Rose are the only ones left, and the pair of them have become ever closer after Jack removed his daughter from school when she was eleven to teach her at home. She is now in her late teens and almost a woman, and their relationship hints at an incest that becomes manifest when the sexualised Rose and Jack briefly kiss.
The film dramatically deals with the degree to which Jack has tried to control his reality, and perhaps if the film worked from a less insular performance than Day-Lewis’s, the film would have arrived at unconvincing melodrama, instead of intriguing psychodrama. Time Out critic David Calhoun describes the film as “somewhat melodramatic at the oddly unmoving climax.” While he acknowledges “superb performances”, maybe Calhoun doesn’t quite comprehend the nature of those performances in the Tyler sense: that if we see Day-Lewis’s acting as psychodramatic, the conclusion needn’t be moving so much as revealing. What happens is that Jack goes to the house of his nemesis, property developer Beau Bridges, and breaks down in front of Bridges and Bridges’ wife as he admits he has been astonishingly selfish. The scene however doesn’t work as conventional catharsis for a variety of reasons. Bridges is a property developer and thus hardly a priori sympathetic; Day-Lewis offers it as a moment of social embarrassment that leaves his daughter mortified and Bridges’ wife confused, and the site of this release comes in the most suburban of households, the very place moments before Jack has been dismissing.
This isn’t cathartic realisation, but emotional collapse, as Jack is aware of his mortality (he is dying of a heart condition), aware of his daughter’s asocial sexual inclinations, and aware also of his own as his earlier kiss demonstrated. It is a great scene of psychodramatic realisation over cathartic emancipation: the difference between first person collapse and a broader awareness. If Aristotle can claim that tragedy is a “representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play], [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions”, the psychodrama perhaps offers something else. Especially if we take into account that Aristotle’s notion of catharsis is often taken to mean “flushing out the audience’s unwieldy emotions” and functions off “moral purification”. This is what we might call third person release – an awareness on the character and the audience’s part that an error has been rectified, however tragically. This is the case, say, in King Lear where Lear realises he has been unfair to his youngest daughter who refuses to offer too fulsome public declarations of love for her father. By the end of the play she may be dead, but Lear, albeit in madness, allows us to acknowledge the truth of the situation, and feel cathartic release accordingly. In psychodrama, however, the emotions are much more first person, troublesomely expressed in all their manifestations, and thus obliterate any moral through-line. Tyler says “I suggest that the Psychodrama, as an American theatre motif is a precise sign of the search for a new operative identity by no means confined to individuals, but of which the individual (in the theatre and elsewhere) becomes a conspicuous medium. This motif has a markedly experimental cast, of which the Method is the theatrical formula.” Here we can see values are turned inside out.
Catharsis implies the outside in: that the character is secondary to the moral release, and so it would make sense why actors more interested in classic theatre and cinema would have problems with Method performers. Tyler reports that Ingrid Bergman noted after working with Rip Torn that the Method actor seemed to “make trouble for himself”, and that John Huston on The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe, “at one point abruptly absented herself from work on the film”, as if more concerned with the specifics of her emotions than the total movie. The stories of Day-Lewis we have already reported echo these comments; and we may accept that from a certain point of view the actors are making difficulties for themselves and others, but it is as though they are searching inside the character for a reason that cannot be cathartically offered but merely emotionally released. Undeniably in the scene from The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Jack is releasing his feelings, but these do not coincide with the arena in which they ‘ought’ to be offered, nor are they given to the person who ought to receive them. Partly what make the last few scenes in The Ballad of Jack and Rose ‘oddly unmoving’ is that they lack typical ‘arcing’, they lack the tentative move towards moral feeling, and instead are more interested in expressive feeling.
What makes Day-Lewis an interesting actor is that he seems an actor of the Method, which often suggests a high degree of interiority, but that he also offers the classical notion of the broader gesture, the theatrical movement that requires projection over introspection – the conveying of the performance within a broader world of the other actors, the dramatic action and the audience. The importance of the other actors, the play and the audience are hierarchically more significant than the introspection in classical drama. The Method often reverses this, making the introspection the priority, and this is why Tyler can talk of psychodrama. Yet Day-Lewis is often psychodramatically expressionist, as though caught between the two modes of Method naturalism and theatrical expressionism.
Indeed, in There Will Be Blood he manages to be both introspectively mysterious while also playing on the screen persona of John Huston’s occasional roles, in Chinatown and Winter Kills, especially ironic perhaps considering how we have noted the difficulties Huston had directing Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits. In Chinatown, Huston offers not an introspective display of complexity, but an external demonstration of power. Huston’s Noah Cross needs no inner life; he merely needs constantly to expand his external force. The incest he commits carries no inner drive, no inexplicable reasoning: it is the ultimate extension of his power and control over others. What Day-Lewis gives to his role as Plainview is the manifest lust for power and control, but contains it within an inexplicable dimension that asks us never to assume that his actions are about the power he has over others, but more the powerlessness he has over himself. There is a blind drive in Plainview, as if pushing through a greater impotence he cannot quite explain or explore. Where Cross sleeps with a daughter who produces a child that he will in turn sleep with, Plainview is the childless man, adopting another’s child as his own but somehow never quite knowing what his reason and purpose happen to be. In a review in The Times, James Christopher calls Plainview “a monster”, but while this word is apt when describing Cross, Plainview is more monstrously complex, a figure of ambition almost as an excuse for the emptiness that knows no way to fill itself with meaning other than allowing oil to course through his life as blood courses through another man’s veins. One can hardly even call him greedy, which is why driven is so much more appropriate to describe a man who has no idea what he is driving towards. Greed at least has tangible recompense, and Cross is nothing if not a greedy man. But everything in Plainview’s life is an empty sign, adrift in a play of meaning he can never quite find.
Two of the key scenes in the film reflect this. In the first we see people offering to buy Plainview out, and he realises, without quite acknowledging the fact, that his life has no meaning beyond the work that he does. What would he sell his company for: what would he do with the rest of his life? Where in P.T. Anderson’s earlier Boogie Nights the director wants to show the Freudian pleasure principle at work as Dirk Diggler gets lost in the wonders of the flesh the porn industry offers, and the material perks of cars, houses and coke, Plainview shows instead the death drive at work: manifest destiny as self-destruction. When oil company men sit around a table talking to Plainview as they try to buy him out, he asks what would he do with himself, and the oil men are surprised that he needs to ask, and says that he can concentrate on looking after his son. Shortly afterwards, after one of the oil men tells him that if he doesn’t sell his oil fields to the company he will be left with loads of oil and nowhere to channel it, and says that with the million he will make Plainview can look after his family, Plainview turns on the man and says one evening he will come to his house and slit his throat during the night. Here the oil man offers a possible pleasure principle, but Plainview immediately moves into overdrive as death drive: his will wouldn’t quite know what to do with itself if he weren’t working, and the oil man’s thoroughly reasonable suggestion is met with a quiet rage attack.
It is one of the film’s dress rehearsals for the horrific act of violence that concludes the film, with Plainview murdering the person who has most consistently nagged away at the emptiness of his existence, the young preacher, Eli. Plainview is not especially driven to kill, just as he is not especially driven to make money, but instead to be driven by drive. It is in this sense a very American film about extension, just as numerous ‘very’ European films are about thought and take the form of angst over drive: the fear of fear to quote the title of a Fassbinder film. Anderson’s could be called the drive of drive, an extrovert tautology, as opposed to an introverted one, and one perhaps Day-Lewis resolves as an actor no less driven than Plainview, but with what we might call a contained metaphysic. Here the actor may be as driven as any of the characters he happens to play, but grounds his performance in performance: paradoxically meaning comes from meaninglessness – from there being no underlying meaning required for the role beyond the role and its perception. Here the actor gets lost in the part but finds himself in the film that results from it and moves on to the next one and sees it as ‘play’. In an interview in The Independent, Day-Lewis, says “…it’s all just a big funny game.” One can hardly regard this as a frivolous comment from an actor who caught pneumonia in Gangs of New York “by refusing to wear warmer clothing that hadn’t been invented in the 19th century”, according to the website Obsessed with Film. But the site also note, that a few months after filming “he is calm, engaged, extremely focused and jokes light-heartedly about how mad he went during filming.”
Existential philosophy has often been interested in the actor, evident in the Kierkegaard article ‘Crisis in the Life of an Actress’, Camus’ comments in the essay ‘The Absurd Man’ in The Myth of Sisyphus, and Nietzsche’s note in Twilight of the Idols. “Are you genuine?”, Nietzsche asks, “Or merely an actor? A representative? Or that which is represented? In the end, perhaps you are merely a copy of an actor. Second question of conscience.” Is someone merely an actor existentially if he or she does no more than act the role? As Camus says, “the actor has three hours to be Iago or Alceste, Phedré or Gloucester. In that short space of time he makes them come to life and die on fifty square yards of boards.” As Camus follows by saying, “never has the absurd been so well illustrated or at such length. What more revelatory epitome can be imagined than those marvellous lives, those exceptional and total destinies unfolding for a few hours within a stage set?” we might wonder if the performance is absurd partly because of the playful absurdity of an actor so briefly occupying a role and then returning to their daily life. It is as though Day-Lewis, like many a Method actor, has based his career on wondering whether he can be not merely an actor, in Nietzsche’s words, but equally be ‘genuine’ as he lives the role? Is this the Method actor’s good faith?
To explain further let us look at Plato’s famous problem with poetry in The Republic, and Stanislavski’s notion of the actor in Creating a Character. Socrates has a problem with mimesis, with dramatic recreation because it is a double removal from the Forms. First we have the ideal as an abstraction like love, man, woman etc. and then we have their living reality as a poor version of the ideal in the individual man or woman, the living example of love. As The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism explains it: “The realm of Form is accessible not through the senses, as in the world of appearances, but only through rigorous philosophical discussion and thought, based on mathematical reasoning.” For Plato’s Socrates, “measuring, counting and weighing all bring us closer to the realm of Forms than do poetry’s pale representation of nature.” From such a point of view drama would be a further removal from the form, and yet a certain type of acting perhaps at least would return it to the sensual realm, as if the performances Day-Lewis gives are not so much performances as documents of a character he becomes. “There can be no present without a past,” Stanislavski says. “The present flows naturally out of the past. The past is the roots from which the present grew; the present without any past wilts like a plant with its roots cut off. An actor must always feel that he has the past of his role behind him, like the train of a costume he carries along.” In such an instance the acting isn’t merely an imitation of imitation, a man pretending to be a real man that is itself of secondary importance to the higher case ideal of man, but instead based directly on the immediate memory sensations.
When Stanislavski mentions “the train of a costume he carries along”, we might note that Day-Lewis takes this approach more literally than most: his parts are often shaped partly out of the costumes he wears: evident of course in the pneumonia he caught by insistently wearing nineteenth century clothing no matter the weather in Gangs of New York. But he seems also to want to return the role as we’ve noted, to the sensual, so that performance isn’t only acted, projected, communicated, but also felt, a sensual perceiving that returns it to the immediate and thus makes the performance paradoxically genuine but also feeling like a performance. Day-Lewis is after all not a naturalistic actor, perhaps one reason why, though he has often expressed his admiration for Ken Loach, it is unlikely he would ever work for him. Day-Lewis is too big a performer for such a social realist, as if he is looking not only for the specifics of the role, but also the universal beyond it, and the mystery contained within it. Day-Lewis is nothing if not an ambitious actor, and naturalism would probably seem too emotionally cramped to offer the bigger emotions, as if Day-Lewis wanted to return to the Platonic forms through the sensuous detail, by achieving a first principle through the second principle: mimesis as play gets eschewed for sensuality of event, and the emotional principle behind it. When Stanislavski differentiates between entertainments, psychological plays and “the best plays of all”, he notes in the latter “form and content are in direct relationship with each other; then the lie of the spirit is indivisible from the facts and the plot.” “Appraising the facts”, in this instance, is “of prime importance”. What Stanislavski calls appraising the facts we might be inclined to call recognising the forms: the big emotions of love hate, fear, with Day-Lewis working to capture their lower case sensuousness, but also their higher case principle.
However, frequently in Day-Lewis’s work it is as though the lower case sensuousness and the higher case first principle get lost to the emotional mechanics of mainstream filmmaking. Day-Lewis may be searching for the most complex of emotions, but what happens if the director registers a more manipulative approach to them? Is this not the case in a trilogy of films he made for Jim Sheridan – My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer? In the latter, there is the scene where central character Danny Flynn is talking to an old flame, played by Emily Watson. He was nineteen when he was imprisoned for fourteen years after getting involved in IRA activities, and they were both in love. Now she has a child and is married to another man who is in prison, but it is clear they still care for each other. Sheridan writes and directs the scene with sentimental instead of deep feeling, signalled by the music that strikes up as they cross from west to east Belfast in an attempt to escape the prying eyes of Catholics in the west that would not be happy to see them together. As they walk through east Belfast the music and the two reaction shots of a watching couple give the scene the tone of triumphal adultery, like the moment in a film where someone finally leaves their abusive lover for the sensitive soul in the waiting car. Watson plays her character like a woman who has never let go of Danny, but is equally constrained by her life as she waits for her imprisoned husband. It is no wonder that at a later moment she says she is going mad. Yet when the couple sit down on a park bench, and Sheridan offers shot/counter shots, we quickly realise we are in the dialectical exchanges of the Hollywood film, where characters argue their position. The conflict of deep feeling seems to give way to quick retorts, and we feel that the texture of performance gives in to ready dramatization. At one moment after Danny says he was madly in love with her and wanted to keep it that way: “rather than have it eaten up day by day”, Maggie quickly replies: “So you made the decision for both of us”. Danny says that she made some decisions of her own: she married his best friend. Did he then want to let her go; yet also expect her to be faithful she muses. Though Sheridan films it in a shot/counter shot manner that allows both actors to be in the fame simultaneously, so that we see the back of the head of the other actor, and so that we can see they are both in the scene and that the actor isn’t talking more or less to the camera, there is little in the form or in the dialogue that expresses the sort of emotion Day-Lewis’s preparation would seem to demand.
It is one of the problems of being a screen actor: no matter the investment in the performance, it is framed by the direction; and the actor may well wonder whether the director can find a form within which to bring out the emotional nuances the actor has tried to find within the performance. Elia Kazan explores this quite interestingly in Kazan on Kazan when talking of Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. “He’s the only character that’s that way in the whole picture. That was crucial. Brando was that. He had so much shame in him – from God knows what. He had the ability to project the inner struggle of conscience.” The role in The Boxer isn’t too unlike Brando’s in On the Waterfront – a boxer past his prime who could have been a contender, caught between opposing forces and trying to do the right thing. And though more interesting than Sheridan, Kazan was maybe not a great director, and rarely used the frame as innovatively as Nicolas Ray, Douglas Sirk or other less ostensibly respected directors of his generation. But he did have the capacity to myth-make – to get at a principle very deeply within the material, and used the actors to find it. Discussing myths he says “that’s what I think a writer or artist is – not only a storyteller, but, if he’s any good, he’s a mythmaker. The goal you should strive for is a mythic goal.” At his best, Kazan allowed the actor to find the mythic element and bring it out through the performance. This is partly why the scene in the cab in On the Waterfront is such a classic: it comes through Brando’s inner conflict (much more than through the music), with Brando offering a fugue of pain in the dialogue. The scene with Danny and Maggie on the bench needs to register fourteen years of separation, the sense of more than a decade of feeling given over to introspection and yearning. Yet Day-Lewis conveys it much more in his actions earlier in the film than in this dialogue exchange that leaves the actor stranded in conventional dialectics: the sort of inner conflict Brando so often mastered is here close to conversational one-upmanship. Danny might talk about how he internalised his love for Maggie, but the scene too easily externalises that love through form and dialogue. In this sense, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and There Will be Blood are much more interesting examples of balancing the internal conflict with the external expression. If Sheridan had played more on silence, more on the sort of shame Brando so well expresses and that Day-Lewis seems to possess also, and offered a slightly aloof form in which to contain it, the scene could have been both sensuously elaborated and mythically achieved. It could have been a moment of modern mythmaking, with Danny the returning Ulysses meeting once again his Penelope, but the form also encapsulating its contemporary aspect: here are characters caught in the flux of history trying to avoid getting in touch with feelings circumstances have attempted to bury. Their inability to touch, and their fear of being watched, could have been registered in a camera placement which reflected that physical withholding and also the possibility they are being spied on. After all, later we find out that they were, albeit benignly. The man we have seen earlier in the reaction shots turns out to be a fellow boxer, and walks Maggie and Danny back to the gate after saying Catholics don’t always get out of east Belfast alive.
It is often said in film criticism that we should concentrate on what is in front of our eyes and not what we would wish to see on the screen. But Umberto Eco, in an essay called ‘The Crisis of the Crisis of Reason’, mentions the idea of “hypothetical conjectural reasoning”, and by imagining how the scene could be filmed differently, we can locate why we believe the scene doesn’t get at the layers Day-Lewis can offer, because in the manner in which it is filmed, and the dialogue utilised in the scene, it could equally have been performed by someone who isn’t interested in accessing what Stanislavski would call the ‘inner tone’, but only the ‘score’ of the scene. The score is where the actor feels that in all their “objectives [the actor] felt the internal and external circumstances of their own accord stirring the [the actor’s] will and desires. In turn they evoked creative aspirations, which were capped by inner impulses to action.” When depth is there as well as the score, “the facts and the objectives are altered only in the sense that inner impulses, psychological intimations, an inner point of departure – all the things that constitute the inner tone of the score and give it a firm basis of justification – have been added.”
However, not all directors seem to be interested in bringing out this inner tone, and so consequently the scene on the bench plays more weakly than moments where Day-Lewis can keep the inner tone inside him. The scene where he breaks down the door of his own flat with a sledgehammer, bricked up after he went to prison, carries more inner tone, as do a couple of the fight scenes: one where he refuses to quit even though he looks like he is being beaten; a later one where he is demolishing another fighter but concedes defeat. If Day-Lewis continues, the other fighter will probably end up with brain damage, but the crowd wants blood, and Day-Lewis ends up walking off the canvas disgusted, as though winning or losing isn’t the point, but to find his own inner tone in the ring.
Perhaps Sheridan is simply not a director concerned with the interiority of a performance in Stanislavski terms, and this is partly why we would describe him as an efficient but hardly brilliant filmmaker: one feels Day-Lewis’s acting is always much more mysterious than the directing, and Day-Lewis’s performances in Sheridan’s My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father are also more intriguing than the direction. For example in My Left Foot there is the moment where after the woman whom Christy Brown has befriended and to whom he is clearly attracted, asks what he makes of Hamlet. Crippled by cerebral palsy since birth himself, Christy describes Hamlet as a cripple who couldn’t act, before announcing his liking for this woman with whom he has become close. Sheridan films it once again in shot/counter shot as Fiona Shaw’s character announces she likes him too, but that she has to go. What we have in Christy are years of yearning and desire, but Sheridan films it with the pragmatic aesthetic of the conventional. If he had held on Christy’s face we would have felt more of his loneliness and would have had to read Shaw’s reaction on his visage and not hers: a face already stricken with illness and now momentary but very deep disappointment. The scene would have been more inscrutable, but also would have captured more of the inner tone.
There is a scene in Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, though, that comes closer to capturing it, and it is the moment where Sean Maguire and his father are in the same cell and his father asks whether Sean committed the Guildford bombing he is being accused of. As his father asks him whether he did it, Sean goes off into his own childhood as he recalls a moment when his father asked him whether he cheated during a game. Sean won a medal, but the fact that he cheated, or rather that his father discovered his cheating, allows Day-Lewis to access the inner tone and bring it to the surface: as if the crisis he is in, the crisis of facing the rest for his life in prison, is momentarily irrelevant next to an emotional flashback where he remembers the long history of his father’s suspicions. It plays a bit like an inversion of the scene in The Boxer. Where in The Boxer Danny has already served the same length of time in prison that Sean will go on to serve, there is so little sense in the scene of those years sitting within him, and the silence that he says he practised. In The Name of the Father, Sheridan captures the inner aspect of the performance more astutely. Perhaps it lies partly in the off-screen sounds from prisoners in the yards, but it rests more in Day-Lewis taking the opportunity to dredge up an irritation and frustration with his father that perversely required the possibility of a lifetime in prison to activate. Certainly earlier in the film when Sean gets the boat from Belfast to England he throws a few of his father’s clichés back in his face, but in the prison he gets to offer a full Oedipal rage attack.
In these three films, Day-Lewis is Sheridan’s actor fetiche – as De Niro was for Scorsese, John Wayne for John Ford, Jean-Pierre Leaud for Truffaut. Apart from these three films, Day-Lewis has worked for no other director more than once, and perhaps one of the great pities of his career is that he has not searched out innovative or distinctive filmmakers as De Niro did in the seventies and early eighties, or Isabelle Huppert has done throughout: two actors capable like Day-Lewis of great inner tone. De Niro worked with Bertolucci, Cimino, Coppola, Leone, Kazan; Huppert for Godard, Chabrol, Denis, Pialat, Jacquot, Cimino, Hartley, Goretta and Chereau. Who has Day-Lewis worked with: Frears, Ivory, Hytner, Sheridan, and a little more innovatively, and only once, Mann, Scorsese and P.T. Anderson? It is as though Day-Lewis understands acting but doesn’t quite understand cinema, and maybe Anderson in There Will be Blood was the first filmmaker Day-Lewis has worked with where one strongly senses a director working through the actor and not round him.
What is interesting is that there are numerous actors who could have played many Day-Lewis roles, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine another actor in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Boxer, The Last of the Mohicans, In the Name of the Father, and even My Left Foot: few actors could have captured so well technically the cerebral palsy, but lots of other actors if they could have, would have been suitable for the part. But in Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood, Day-Lewis seems somehow irreplaceable. In each film he draws upon a violence that is strangely British, yet the film is so obviously American. Though there are hints of John Huston in the part as we have noted, there is also a sort of ‘regional’ Britishness present as well: the sort of internal violence Stanley Baker and Sean Connery sometimes showed and Richard Burton and Albert Finney occasionally projected. But if the roles need this hard to locate yet quite geographically precise tension; it also requires the body of the actor. Day-Lewis always threatens to loom large within the frame because of his height, but also most especially because of the length of his legs, the short trunk and the long, thin face. If one notices certain limitations in Sheridan’s direction in relation to the actor he is working with, this resides not least in taking too little account of Day-Lewis’s body within the frame. Yet there is also the singularity in his two best roles of an American character containing the voice and gesture of a non-American. The latter is difficult to explain, and if it were too readily present people would talk of the weakness of the performance as one talks of a wobbly accent. But the failed accent would be a failure on the surface level, on the level of the physical embodiment as Stanislavski would call it. Sometimes one senses this is chiefly what an actor gives to a role, with a smidgeon of motivation and desire, but no inner tone. However, what one senses in his roles in Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood is the capacity to access through the internal dimension, through the memory of self, a vague hint of regional Britishness.
In relation to the former aspect, the body, are Scorsese and Anderson more attuned to the singularity of Day-Lewis because they are much more cinematic directors than Sheridan and a number of other people Day-Lewis has worked with? We use cinematic here not in the sense of craft and technique, but more the filmically possible: the plastic elements of film that make anything from an actor to the objects in the frame equally of importance as an object has life and a subject has ‘objectness’. Think of the glass of alka selzer in Taxi Driver, the yellow cab, the rotting flowers in the flat. Scorsese lingers over objects, just as he can linger over subjects: over Cybill Shepherd as she walks into the campaign office, De Niro walking along the street, lying on his bed. This is a cinema that is cinematic as it doesn’t tell the story but observes the filmic possibilities of subjects and objects: in Gangs of New York and especially There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis becomes an object within the frame. He becomes a fascinating piece of plasticity, yet also a character with a strong psychodramatic dimension that an object of course cannot possess. In My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer, the actor is too centred: too much serving the story rather than the plastic and the psychodramatic, so that all Day Lewis’s work on the body language of Christy Brown, all the interior frustration of a man whose every word is a struggle for articulating what he means, becomes a story of triumph over adversity. Christy publishes a book about his life and finds love and marries. The film wants to take the extremity of Christy’s condition and normalise it: the film concludes on the ready cliché that Christy can be an inspiration to others.
That is a noble sentiment but not quite aesthetically interesting as we’re trying to define it. What makes many of the great modern actors so intriguing is that they don’t push the story. They are the story in the sense we have proposed: the plasticity of their bodies and the psychodynamic exploration of their mind put the narrative on relative hold as the mysteries the director searches out reside in the texture of the body of the actor, and the mysteriousness of their motives. This we might call, after Stanislavski and Tyler, the psychophysical. For an actor this allows for a far greater exploration of performance than when a director utilises the actor, sees him or her as no more than a conventional function of time and space, of narrative and mise-en-scene. Yet in There Will Be Blood, especially, but also in Gangs of New York and even The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed of course by Day-Lewis’s own wife Rebecca Miller, there is the exploration of the actor’s sense of time and space which is not quite that of the story’s. In My Left Foot, Sheridan is interested in Christy’s struggle: in his initial inability to speak, then his desire to write, and finally his love for a woman where his feelings aren’t spurned (as they are with Fiona Shaw’s character), but returned. The audience views Christy from the outside in the sense that his goals are the same as many people’s. They are consistent with Freud’s idea that if we have work and love we are happy: it is about showing how Brown became a happy man, and the triumph over adversity is achieved. However, though this is Sheridan’s purpose, that doesn’t mean it is Day-Lewis’s, and there is a Bacon like quality of frustration in Day-Lewis’s performance, a raging need for obscure credence not unlike that in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood. But it is as if this is too subterranean a feeling for Sheridan to run with, so that there is a performance slightly at cross-purposes with the direction: as if the actor’s theme isn’t the same as the director’s, and that the frustrated need for credence is too contained by the directorial need to reflect triumph. It is the same in In the Name of the Father and The Boxer – the directorial desire for a throughline; Day-Lewis’s wish to dawdle over the detail. Now obviously this is hard to verify, because all we have is the performance on the screen, but if we take into account the anecdotes about Day-Lewis’s working methods, and the inexplicable actions in his own life, then it would seem he is a person interested in behaviour that goes beyond the conventions a director like Sheridan settles for. It is as if Sheridan looks for the commonplace as Day-Lewis searches out the inexplicable, but where in many of the earlier Day-Lewis films the commonplace wins out; increasingly the inexplicable seems to be the place he and the director are searching for simultaneously.
A good point of comparison may be the televised scene in The Boxer where Danny deliberately allows the other boxer to win rather than physically damage him potentially beyond repair, and the moment in There Will be Blood where we realise Plainview has nothing in his life but his work. Sheridan insists on a cutaway after the fight to Danny’s terrorist nemesis watching the fight in a Belfast pub and saying he always new Danny was a quitter, and then shortly after the fight having Kenneth Cranham’s promoter telling Danny he will never work in England again. What Sheridan does here is take the inexplicable and make it as explicable as he possibly can. By having the baddie tell us Danny is a quitter, it reaffirms our belief that Danny has done the decent thing: he is of course not a quitter at all and he loses the fight because he doesn’t want to inflict undue pain on another man; the very undue pain it seems that his nemesis has been practising in Belfast for many years. In There Will Be Blood, there is no such reaffirming contextualisation, no counter perspective like the weak points of view offered by the nemesis and the promoter that allow us to affirm our own. When the oil man tells Plainview that he is mad, we are hardly likely to disagree, even if our focal point will continue to be Plainview, and even though the film allows us a degree of sympathy with the ‘little’ man against the corporation. However, where Sheridan reaffirms Danny as a good man instead of an inexplicable one, Anderson wants us to possess the most ambivalent of emotions, and Plainview to offer the most indeterminate behaviour. At one moment he is the man of reason explaining why he wants to hold on to his oil; the next someone who threatens to murder people while they sleep. Sheridan wants affirmation of character; Anderson, the bifurcation that cannot allow us too readily to identify with Plainview.
Now if Plainview was the baddie of the piece, this wouldn’t cause too many problems. Usually our relationship with villainy is contrapuntal rather than investigatory: based not really on understanding the villain’s deeper motives, but wondering how they will be bested. Indeed how often have we seen in films motivation reduced to irrelevancies as the hero hears out the villain’s self-justifications to buy time as he finds a way to defeat him? Our minds are only partly on the psychology of the villain, as we scheme with the hero wondering what may be at hand to save his or her life. This is one reason why Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York is less compelling than Daniel Plainview: Bill is still the baddie contrapuntally positioned opposite Leonardo Di Caprio’s character. But by making dissuasive behaviour central, the villain becomes closer to an anti-hero: a figure whose positive qualities are outweighed by his negative ones, but whose motivating behaviour usually fascinates. The contrapuntal becomes internalised, and often passes for contradiction, and can return us to ideas on the psychodramatic. This is evident when Tyler says it is, “a precise sign of the search for a new operative identity by no means confined to individuals, but of which the individual (in the theatre and elsewhere) becomes a conspicuous medium,” Tyler also interestingly invokes the existential as he mentions Camus: “both in psychology and fiction, modern researches in personality and behaviour have revealed the presence of the involuntary act arising from the unconscious and completed without the consent of the conscious”. The limitation of Day-Lewis’s work with Sheridan is that the psychodramatic forces are too readily narrativised and resolved. Without the cutaways to his nemesis in The Boxer, the concerns of Maggie, the film could have asked bigger questions of Danny himself: that his nobleness is one thing, but that he also has a self-destructive streak which could have been an even stronger and obscure motive. If an actor goes to the intensely internalising lengths that Day-Lewis does, if he tries to get so inside the character that the man disappears so that a character of great shade and complexity appears, then it is an abuse of that internalisation to turn the character into a narrativised hero. When Tyler says of Marlon Brando that “for him to ‘act roles’ in the sense that Laurence Olivier does would not only be intolerable; it would seem unnatural,” Day-Lewis, perhaps, lodged between the heritage of Brando and Olivier, hasn’t had enough roles equal to the effort that has gone into them.
Maybe, finally, there has been in so many of the roles that have been clothed in storytelling devices a coat rather more protective than the one that left him with pneumonia while filming with Scorsese. We have noted the difficulties involved in an actor who is third generation aesthetic aristocracy, a troubled figure searching inside himself, and a star of some international significance. For all the Method acting and the immersive research (boxer Barry McGuigan said that after training him Day-Lewis could have turned professional), was there a timidity that found comfort in working with Sheridan and his capacity for carapicing the actor in stock scenes and situations? In such an instance Day-Lewis receives the aggrandizement for the effort put in, but withholds an aspect of himself that would make the performance great and justify the work put into it. Day-Lewis is indubitably an actor of immense importance, but his brilliance has not always been matched by the resultant films, either through ill-cinematic judgement or perhaps a certain existential fear. In several recent roles, though, in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, in Gangs of New York and especially There Will Be Blood, the fear has subsided, and the directorial exploration of that inner tone of performance increasingly searched out.