Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Riske Business: Daniel Day-Lewis is Overrated

Allow me to be the first person in history to say I am not the biggest Daniel Day-Lewis fan. Get your stones kids! Blasphemy! Chase him to the old windmill!

Townspeople, I am not saying I dislike him as an actor or as a person (in interviews he seems genuine, interesting and humble to a fault), but I roll my eyes at people trying to convince me he’s “the greatest living actor."

Hear me out.

If you like to watch a performance strictly for technique, then DDL is your guy. You will never get any argument from me about his beat work, mannerisms, ability to bury himself into a character, etc. For these reasons, I respect him as an actor.

My criticism of Daniel Day-Lewis is inarguable: he leaves me cold. As an audience member, I never identify with any of his characters. I see him working, and it’s distracting. Is he terrifying in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood? Absolutely. But that’s just one note, and I’m very aware that he is ACTING. It keeps me at a distance and I can’t settle into the story.

Ever notice that Daniel Day-Lewis is so larger-than-life in his performance style that he seems outside of the movie? I see that all the time. He’s always acting AT people and never WITH them. How many scenes are there in Lincoln where Day-Lewis is talking and everything stops? People just sit there and stare at him as if they have no idea how to act or react with an actor so far up his own ass. As stupid as this might sound, he’s too in-character. Everyone else in the movie is historical while still feeling modern.
He doesn’t make actors around him better. Think about it. He doesn’t raise DiCaprio’s game in Gangs (one of Leonardo’s worst performances), Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood (although a lot of the blame rests on Dano, who is our shittiest living actor…seriously, watching the two of them in that movie is like watching a Lebron James/Hal Holbrook dunk contest) or Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln. Let’s stick to Lincoln from here on out.

Tommy Lee Jones is terrific in that movie. In his scenes with DDL, he not just survives -- he shows me that he is the better actor. I liked Lincoln well enough, but it’s a stuffy movie and only comes to life when Tommy Lee Jones is on screen. TLJ has a gruff persona, like Bruce Willis is a tough guy and Will Ferrell is a man child. These personas are very valuable to an actor. Day-Lewis does not have a persona or vibe to his performances. I’ve never seen such disconnect between an actor in interviews and the performances he gives in movies. It’s creepy, like watching someone give a speech talking about how exciting something is while their expression looks like they’re bored out of their minds. Call Tommy Lee Jones a grouchy asshole, but you have to acknowledge he at least seems to have blood pumping through his veins in Lincoln. I’d argue Day-Lewis does not.

Back to the “greatest living actor” debate. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (of whom I am a fan, but do not list among my favorite actors) is also known for his technique. However, Hoffman’s performances also have heart, even in something as cryptic as The Master. Boom! Hoffman is a better actor than Day-Lewis. Leet’s move on.

So what is Daniel Day-Lewis to me?

He’s the greatest actor of synthetic performances. It’s not Andy Serkis (who I’m hoping calls himself 'The Circus,' at least to Peter Jackson). Day-Lewis’ Lincoln feels to me about as lifelike as Gollum, or a wind-up toy, or that gorilla that plays the keyboard in The Rock-A-Fire Explosion. He’s man as animatronic. He’s Haley Joel Osment’s adult counterpart in A.I. He’s Gigolo Joe. The fact that Robert Zemeckis never plopped him in a mo-cap movie is one of cinema’s greatest missed opportunities.

If I put on my Doc Hollywood scrubs, I would tell Daniel Day-Lewis to act in something beneath him. Of course he’s going to crush something like Lincoln. That’s boring. He should have accepted the part he was offered as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. I want to see the dude act in a Transformers movie and elevate that. Why not be a villain in a Bond movie like Javier Bardem? Day-Lewis has proven he can play a drama chord, but why not riff a little bit? Who are you trying to impress anymore, Craft Man? Naomi Watts? James Lipton? If you want to get the Actor’s Studio in a tizzy, just light a cigarette. They’ll lose their minds. It’s a foregone conclusion that Daniel Day-Lewis will win Best Actor for Lincoln. This makes me unhappy. Try talking about Day-Lewis in Lincoln and the conversation stops usually before it starts. It goes “Can we all just agree that he’s amazing?” The end. I enjoy talking about performances, dammit, and DDL is taking all of that pleasure out of the Best Actor race. It’s like, "He’s going to win, so why even bother mentioning the rest of them?" It’s so aggravating.

Bradley Cooper showed a likeability and emotional depth I never knew he had in Silver Linings Playbook. Denzel Washington is an actor without a net in Flight (just when you’re about to be pro-Denzel, he snorts a line of coke in front of your face to say "Now what do you think of me?"). Speaking of without a net, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master! My goodness. Now that guy is buried in a character and it’s a miracle of performance and you still sympathize with him. Last and least, Hugh Jackman sings in Les Miserables and that’s brave?????!!!!*
So that’s my rant. I almost feel bad about dissing Daniel Day-Lewis so much. If you are reading, Daniel, it’s not your fault. It’s the world's fault for all that silly 'greatest living actor' hyperbole. If they just said you were their favorite actor, that’s inarguable. I know you’re embarrassed about all this praise. Why else do you thank every freaking actor working or deceased whenever you win an award?

Thanks for reading, and I encourage comments on why you feel that I am wrong. Who knows? Maybe I’ll change my mind. I used to like '80s and '90s DDL, but anything from Gangs of New York onward drives me crazy.

*Real quick: actors should not get nominations just because they sing in a movie and don’t suck at it. It’s my second least favorite trend going right now after "This book was said to be un-filmable." It obviously was not, because you made a movie out of it.

27 comments:

  1. Far be it for me to say that you're "wrong," Adam. If DDL doesn't do it for you, then he doesn't. All I can say is when I watch There Will Be Blood, I am absolutely riveted by his performance. Like deNiro in Raging Bull, DDL takes a genuine misanthrope and humanizes him - the point is not to LIKE him, but rather to understand him. SPOILERS COMING Watch the subtle modulations in his performance when he begins to realize that his "brother" is not really his brother. Then there's the speech he gives to Decaprio in Gangs of New York, where he talks about Decaprio's father (although I must say, they nearly ruin that scene by having DDL draped in an American flag - SYMBOLISM, people!). I myself wouldn't call DDL our "greatest living actor" - that's a label that will destroy anyone attempting to own it.

    Besides, that's clearly Kurt Russell.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree about DDL - I have never seen him in a movie that I enjoyed. Gangs of New York - boring - same with the Last of the Mohicans and Lincoln. Honestly for me they aren't great movies.

      Delete
  2. nice article and I wanted to comment on the actors who sing getting nominated, I couldn't agree more and I thought Hugh did a decent job in Les Miserables but that movie as a whole is rough to get through. Its like an action movie that literally has nothing but action. Thats what Les Miserables feels like to me, why cant they have a 5 minute conversation and take a quick break from the singing. Even Sound of Music, considered to be one of the best musicals of all time (and one of my favorites as well) takes a break once in a while, SPOILER ALERT for Sound of Music the last 15 minutes or so of the movie doesn't include a song about outrunning the nazis (although I have yet to look at the deleted scenes on the dvd)

    Anyway back to DDL, I still think he's a really good actor but I agree he doesnt give off a warmth feeling, I think it would be smart of him for the next role he take on be a bit more subdued, I don't know maybe a comedy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One of the worst trends that became fashionable in the 1980s in musicals is the "through-sung" musical. This is the composer's chance to feel like a big-shot and think they are somehow writing an opera. Thus we get two characts in a Lloyd Webber show singing about what they are going to have for lunch, or that classic sung exhange in Les Mis:

      "My name is Marius Pontmercy"
      "And Mine's Cosette."

      Genius! Not. Stephen Sondheim has talked about there being an inherent drama in shifting between spoken and sung dialogue, which is one of the reasons why "Sweeney Todd" has many sequences that alternate rapidly between speaking and singing.

      Delete
  3. You clearly have no idea how the Internet works. Cogent arguments, detailed examples, and a point of view are well and good, but this should have been called "Top 5 Reasons Daniel Day-Lewis Sucks"

    ReplyDelete
  4. I like how the Paul Dano mention threw me off. Just like he does in every movie outside of Little Miss Sunshine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Paul Dano was in last night's episode of The Sopranos (WHAT? [yeah, HBO is airing reruns {and they're F-ing great!}]), and he's not bad. Granted, he only has a few lines as one of AJ's douchebag friends. So, you know ...

      Delete
  5. The working title for this was 'Let Me Ruin Daniel Day-Lewis For You'.

    He's slightly above the E-Quaid-Er (the measure to judge if an actor/actress is good or not - are they better or worse than Dennis Quaid, an actor who will neither help nor harm your movie).

    ReplyDelete
  6. "E-Quaid-Er" is F-ing inspired.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What about actress? Off the top of my head, Alicia Witt(?). Alexa Davalos? I will leave it to another enterprising FHead to come up with a catchy tag.

      Delete
    2. I recall an episode of This American Life where someone posited that a movie could be judged as good or bad depending on whether it was better or worse than The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Public radio snobs, am I right?

      Delete
  7. I feel like I have to defend Dennis Quaid a little (he always seemed like a nice guy and the poor dude can't get Jaws 3d off his resume) and I will say Innerspace wouldnt have worked as well without him. I am not saying Innerspace is a classic I just think its a better movie with him. That being said I looked at the rest of his imdb credits and spot on Mr Riske, spot freaking on

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah Quaid's filmography isn't filled with many classics (Breaking Away is a personal favourite) but I've always liked him. I think it's fair to say that he neither makes or breaks a movie with his presence but the same could be said for so many reliable actors. He just happens to have the best name to be the yardstick.

      Delete
  8. @ Steve K - Glad you like DDL and thanks for your comments. I don't want to take that away from anyone. I see what you're saying about understanding him as opposed to liking him. That's a very good point. He's just not my angst, know what I mean? If anything I'm more of a "movie" guy and less of a "film" guy and DDL is "film film film". And good callout for Kurt Russell who makes everything better. Want to know how badass he is? Check out this quote he has about acting:

    "You don't have to be gifted just to hit a mark and say a line" - Kurt Russell (better than DDL)

    @Bartman454 - Thanks for commenting. You raise a lot of good points. I've avoided Sound of Music though I've had many opportunities to see it. Is it worth giving a shot? I like musicals about half the time.

    @Mark & Doug - I would rather have someone throw a full can of soup and my head than watch a Paul Dano performance. He bothers me a lot.

    @Darren - You're right - totally a convenient yard stick of a name but don't you agree? If you're better than Quaid you are a good actor, if worse you are a below average actor. He's the PERFECT middle.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Daniel Day Lewis to Adam:

    "I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you. I will find you!”

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hollywood Day-Lewis strikes again :-)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Interesting article, Adam. I haven't seen Lincoln yet, but for the sake of argument, you said that whenever DDL spoke in that movie, as Lincoln, everyone stopped and listened. Did you ever consider the reason everyone stopped to listen was because he was the president of the United States... And he's Abraham Lincoln??

    Just a thought. I like DDL.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @Luke

    Thank you for commenting and it's great that you like DDL. You should see Lincoln. Even if it's not one of my favorites, it's worth seeing. I would very much look forward to having a friendly debate with you about this movie BUT first....

    Don't be mad but this might sound douchey (just for a second) - for the sake of a fair debate you should probably see the movie first before calling someone out on their opinion if it's specifically related to that movie. It's like when politicians criticized Zero Dark Thirty but did not go see it. I was maybe going to agree with you actually on your points about Lincoln but I can't do that until you see the movie.

    It's not just in Lincoln but also in Gangs of New York, Nine and There Will Be Blood that other actors just stop and listen to DDL rather than work off of him. Not to be too much of a digression, but as someone who has acted on stage before it reminds me of an person doing their thing and not caring about anyone else on stage.

    ReplyDelete
  13. That's fair. I really don't like debating a topic when I don't fully understand the topic being debated. That being said, I just couldn't help but give my two cents after reading your article. I shall watch Lincoln, then I'll get back to you.

    I think i would like to see DDLbe a supporting actor along side somebody who is great, instead of him beingthe lead with actors who are good, but may not be able to show their true potential... If ya know what i mean.

    Some of these discussions would be so much easier to have in person.

    ReplyDelete
  14. @Luke

    You are a smart man. I hope you like Lincoln. Have a great weekend :-)

    ReplyDelete
  15. @adam- as to watching Sound of Music I say definitely give it a shot, its kind of like a cousin to Mary Poppins (what with also having Julie Andrews and all) the kids in the movie definitely fall under "Disney cute" but I don't think they reach Annie levels of annoyance (see scene from Serial Mom if you want my opinion on Annie) Probably the most upbeat movie about Nazi occupation ever made:)

    ReplyDelete
  16. I am not a fan of Daniel Day Lewis either. Never have been. I feel he is seriously overrated. His acting feels too exaggerated, leaving me detached and distracted from the story and his character(and I find myself bored and counting the minutes until the films are over)....and I have watched quite a few of his films from Age of Innocence (hands down Scorsese's WORST FILM!!!) to Last of the Mohicans, just to name a few. Anymore, when I find out he is in a film I think...well that is one I won't be watching.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "You don't have to be gifted just to hit a mark and say a line" - Kurt Russell (better than DDL)

    Spencer Tracy, arguably one of the cinema's greatest actors, famously said virtually the same thing as Kurt Russell. For all I know, Kurt's line is a knowing reference to Tracy.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This seems to be all the stuff I read anti-DDL... Have you seen his other work? In the Name of the Father? Age of Innocence? Unbearable Lightness of Being?

    I call BS; Tommy Lee Jones is awesome, so is Kurt Russell... but they're not "better" than DDL. You've commented in this article on Gangs, Blood, and Lincoln... all three characters are very clearly intended to be larger-than-life, show-stopping people. Can you imagine Tommy Lee Jones or Kurt Russell doing Lincoln, better? I think it's unfair to cast his performances off just because you've deemed them along the lines of "animatronic" - also have you gone back and rewatched any of those movies... or is it just based on your in-theatre-viewing? Legitimate question, not accusing!

    Hope to see a response :) Not the biggest DDL fan, but found this article and how you've constructed your points pretty silly without knowing a bit more, so hoping to!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fair enough. We can agree to disagree. I have my opinion and you have yours. I wouldn't have it any other way.

      To answer your question, I wrote in the second to last paragraph that I used to like 80s and 90s Daniel Day-Lewis performances (including some of the movies you mentioned) but my problems have been from Gangs of New York onward. I can't say if Tommy Lee Jones or Kurt Russell would do Lincoln better because I haven't seen what their performance would be so I'd be comparing it to nothing which is not fair to do either.

      I have seen Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln at least two times each. In fact I went back and watched Lincoln in consecutive weekends because I was shocked how cold his performance left me.

      If you think my opinion is silly I can live with that but I think I defended my position honestly and thoughtfully which is all I intended to do. I was getting frustrated by people not listening to my opinion that he's not the greatest living actor. A lot of people just say it like its fact and that bothers me because they don't want to have a discussion about it. They're right and you're wrong. Reactions to movies and acting are subjective. There's no right or wrong answer.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Delete