Santa Barbara The SBIFF’s tribute format has rarely worked as well as it did on Saturday, January 26, when Daniel Day Lewis received the 2013 Montecito Award from Sally Field. A packed Arlington crowd hung on every word from the celebrated star of Lincoln. He’s that rarest of Hollywood types—a complete success and a pure artist. Day Lewis is someone who can go years without making a film and then come back to win another Oscar in a new decade. His long career contains so many leaps and turns that just telling the story would be entertaining, but moderator Scott Feinberg, who had clearly done his homework, helped Lewis to articulate a remarkable degree of insightful reflection as well, and the result was heaven for the cinephile.
Lewis followed the established narrative on his wayward boyhood and eventual self-discovery at a progressive boarding school. But from there he began to build a subplot out of references and motivations, revealing the inspiration and sense of purpose that he derived not only from the films of the Ealing Studios, which his maternal grandfather ran, but also in particular from the brash naturalism of director Ken Loach. There was a refreshing candor to Day Lewis’s self-consciouness about working within a specific tradition. Like many young men of his generation in England, Day Lewis experienced the residue of the class system as something “obscene” as he put it. It’s in this context of an early life fraught with social contradictions but filled with the sense that art can offer a way out that Day Lewis’s mystifying work habits can be understood.
Few great actors have been as picky about their roles as Day Lewis, who is notorious for playing hard to get. Reflecting on his reluctance to take on a role until he is ready, Day Lewis acknowledged that he had turned down the role of Lincoln when Stephen Spielberg first approached him about it. He said that “I feel like I have taken an oath—and I know actors don’t take oaths—but if they ever did, they would swear, as I have, never to work except when they feel the personal compulsion and the artistic need to do so.” How nice to have that option of only working when you feel an artistic need to do so! But on further reflection, this way of looking at a career is not so unusual among top actors. What is unusual is taking that high road and actually benefiting from it artistically, something which Day Lewis has proven himself able to do with uncanny consistency.
Another interesting revision of the usual story about Day Lewis came when Feinberg asked a relatively simple question: “do you have a fascination with American stories?” Day Lewis answered with a classic piece of Anglo-grammar, saying, “I think I must do,” but from there he redirected the focus back across the Atlantic by adding that “Ireland was a secret garden for me when I was growing up.” “When people say ‘you’re mad’ in Ireland it’s a compliment” he added, by way of explanation. Of course it is through his work with Irish director Jim Sheridan that Day Lewis won his first Academy Award, for his portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot. And his later films with Sheridan, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer exist for many Americans at least as the definitive film portrayals of the Irish troubles. Day Lewis is an Irish citizen, and he and his family spend part of every year at their home in County Wicklow.
Along with “Shea,” (Day Lewis’s nickname for Sheridan), Day Lewis also showered high praise on Martin Scorsese, saying that “you feel the intensity of his wish on the set, and you want to be close to him, not just personally, but artistically, because he is genuinely accessible in his process.” Among fellow actors, Steinberg singled out Pete Postlethwaite, the father in In the Name of the Father, and asked Day Lewis if he had been a mentor for the young actor when he was at Brighton. Day Lewis responded with the night’s funniest story, about a Brighton production of Troilus and Cressida that included laughing boys in leather skirts and ended with Postlethwaite offering to direct them all in a play titled Funny Peculiar and concerning a man who wants something special from his wife. “We loved him after that” said Day Lewis of the late actor
Coming back around to the big question of his extreme selectivity with roles before viewing the evening’s final sequence of clips, Day Lewis thought out loud again about how he had gradually, through reading the Tony Kushner script, been drawn into the role of Lincoln. “I try every excuse and when I run out, I work. For me, it’s about the physical sensation of being drawn into a different world. If that happens, and you feel you can serve the director, then you do it.”