The Celebrity's Worst Fear - The Fame Audit

Fame Return


Fametracker Fame Audit

by WC



Daniel Day-Lewis


Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis

Audit Date

March 17, 2003






21 movies, 2 BAFTAs, 1 SAG Award, 3 Oscar nominations, 1 Oscar




William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting is my most beloved character in film history. It's not like I've seen every movie ever made or anything, but I have seen a lot, and loved a lot of movie characters, and from his first stovepipe-hatted moment in Gangs of New York, Bill displaced Peter Gibbons (Office Space), Trent Walker (Swingers), Richie Tenenbaum (The Royal Tenenbaums), and Eric Cartman (South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut).

I looooove Bill the Butcher. You have to put aside the whole thing where he's a homicidal sociopath in order to appreciate his cruel wit and charisma -- but of course, that's kind of the point of the movie: Bill, the despicable sadist, manages to win over the audience the same way he wins over the even more reluctant Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), the orphaned vigilante who's sworn to kill Bill in order to avenge his father's death. At first, Amsterdam worms his way into Bill's posse in order to get close enough to him to (eventually) kill him. And, ultimately, his mission is successful and he goes through with his plan. But the middle stretch of the movie shows us an Amsterdam struggling with his ambivalent feelings toward Bill. The Butcher comes to love Amsterdam like a son -- installing him high up in his gang, crowing over Amsterdam's entrepreneurial criminal spirit -- and Amsterdam seems to have fun with The Butcher and even saves his life from a would-be assassin. (While everything about Cameron Diaz's Jenny Everdeane is utterly extraneous to the forward motion of the plot, one might argue that the reason she exists is to polarize her sometime lovers, Bill and Amsterdam, against each other, each thinking that she isn't worthy of the other -- or to stand as a surrogate for Bill and Amsterdam's unconsummated love for each other.)

Much of the credit for the deep impression Bill leaves on the audience is due to Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan, and Steven Zaillian, who wrote Gangs of New York's Oscar-nominated screenplay. But there isn't another actor working today who could have done the job Daniel Day-Lewis did with a role that is, on paper, so unsympathetic, and yet is the linchpin of the whole film. His phenomenal performance poses a challenge to every other actor in the production, and few of them are up to the task -- certainly not the feeble Diaz; not DiCaprio, who is certainly more convincing as a 1960s con man (in Catch Me If You Can) than an 1860s thug; not even the generally excellent John C. Reilly. Apart from Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson, none of the principal cast members is credible opposite Day-Lewis. He makes the enormous sequence of choices that compose his performance as Bill look so effortless that the other actors, concentrating on their poor Irish accents or complicated undergarments, really show the strain of all the ack-ting they're doing. (Particularly Diaz. She's really just so terrible and it can't be said enough.)

I have seen a goodly portion of Day-Lewis's twenty-one movies, and I have never seen him play the same role twice. (One cannot say the same of his fellow Best Actor nominee, Jack Nicholson -- who is heavily favoured to win the award this year.) Recently, I watched Day-Lewis again in A Room With a View, in which he plays Cecil Vyse. Cecil is the Merchant Ivory version of Obstacle Guy -- Helena Bonham Carter's Lucy Honeychurch gets engaged to him because she's confused and upset by her actual feelings of love for Julian Sands's George Emerson. (If I may digress for a moment: I first read the novel on which the movie is based several years after the movie was released. I knew who was in the cast of the movie, but I mistakenly swapped Sands's and Day-Lewis's roles in my mind, and I submit that Day-Lewis would have been just as good as the taciturn, intense George, who is positively transformed by his love for Lucy. It could have been like that production of True West where John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman traded roles each night: only really great actors can take on a challenge like that.) Anyway, if the brutal, carnal maniac Bill the Butcher is at one end of the spectrum, Cecil is at the other: he's a prissy, effete, insufferable snob who is plainly wrong for Lucy. None of the people in his circle is up to his high standards (including his fiancιe), and the only activity that appears to give him anything resembling pleasure is making fun of badly written books. Say what you will about Bill the Butcher -- that he's a power-mad xenophobe, blah blah blah -- but at least he isn't an anhedonic prat like Cecil. There's a world of difference between the characters of Bill and Cecil, and Day-Lewis is no less convincing in one role than the other.

In the years between Room and Gangs, Day-Lewis showed off his range in roles as diverse as disabled writer Christy Brown in My Left Foot (for which he won his first Oscar) and classed-up sexaholic Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being; lovelorn lawyer Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, and falsely accused IRA terrorist in In the Name of the Father (for which he received his second Oscar nomination). He hasn't taken as many jobs as some other actors of his generation -- unlike fellow nominee Nicolas Cage, he isn't a common feature in terrible action movies, choosing instead to concentrate on films that don't suck donkey cock. I mean, the next time you find yourself defending Nicolas Cage's career and talent, stop for a second and try to picture Daniel Day-Lewis in a prison jumpsuit and hair extensions in Con Air, and I think you will find that defense hard to sustain. There are actors, and there are hacks. Nicolas Cage stopped being an actor a long time ago.

It's not mandatory for an actor to prove his commitment to his craft by withdrawing from the public and promotional jobs that are collateral to Hollywood filmmaking, but it helps -- at least as far as we're concerned, although in Day-Lewis's case, it makes the question of calculating his level of fame that much harder. In a celebrity-obsessed culture (or "culture"), the choice to suspend one's public life is especially meaningful, and once Gangs finally premiered, much was made in the press of Day-Lewis's five-year hiatus from films. He has been frank in interviews about the fact that he could go five more years without making a film and not miss the process, commenting, "There's always a general sense of having fallen short. It's just 'is that all it was? I thought it was bigger than that.' It always seems terribly small to me, so to be honest, I'm not sure I'd like to do it again. I have no plans to work on a film any time soon." And: "As much as I love the work I also love to stay away from it." And: "Nothing happened over the course of making Gangs of New York that made me think, 'Why don't I do this more often?'" It's almost as though fame is immaterial to him; he doesn't do anything to increase his level of fame (such as appear on numerous talk shows or saturate the market with his movies), and seems slightly uncomfortable at the level of fame he has already attained. So, we'd have to say his fame level is just right: he's famous enough to get offered the best roles, and concerned enough about not getting too famous that the ones he does rarely play are spectacular and satisfying events.





• Ability to rock a handlebar moustache and stovepipe hat is not sufficiently valued in this day and age, but he does it

• Has been very public about his love and respect for John C. Reilly. He shares the love!

• His wife is as talented a writer as he is an actor; their sons are going to be supermen

• If he wins Best Actor, ears and noses will be the trophies of the day

• Reticence about Hollywood bullshit could give the impression that he's a snob

• His extreme commitment to the role of Bill the Butcher -- including suffering illness while shooting because he refused to wear a historically inaccurate coat offscreen -- makes him seem like kind of a wacko

• The story of his walking out in the middle of a stage production of Hamlet, never to return...more evidence for the "wacko" argument

• "Stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you!" will probably be in his obituary



Fame Barometer

Current approximate level of fame: Daniel Day-Lewis
Deserved approximate level of fame: Daniel Day-Lewis