Electronic Telegraph - March 15, 1997


Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Day-Lewis are eerily similar. But being pale and interesting won't make them truly bankable stars, says Mark Steyn

They are Hollywood's favorite pair of rangy, upper-middle class Englishmen - though one's got a Welsh name and the other insists on pretending he's Irish. Both have had sex on screen with Juliette Binoche but only one off. Both have played Hamlet on stage, though one walked off. One gained 30lb for Schindler's List, the other lost 30lb for In The Name Of The Father, but both are invariably described as "haggard", "wan", "gaunt". In fact, one's gaunt, the other's cadaverous - or is it the other way round?

One is Ralph Fiennes, whose name, as Time magazine helpfully informed its readers, "rhymes with "safe signs" and not, as some Americans assume, with "Alf Viennas". The other is Daniel Day-Lewis, who is the child of former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and not, as some Americans assume, Doris Day's son by Jerry Lewis.

Day-Lewis can be seen currently in The Crucible, which sank quickly in the US and has proved a temporary set-back for him, and Fiennes in the English Patient, which is the art-house hit of the season, has been festooned with Oscar nominations and has put his career back on the upswing.

Both actors are thirtysomething, both had unhappy times at public school, both went into the RSC and both have been described as "grunge" stars. Following Day-Lewis's wild-man act in The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), Fiennes gave us a Heathcliff which Steven Spielberg hailed as "a feral man, a kind of grown-up wild child" but which Londoners might recognize more as the surlier sort of motorcycle courier. At the Hackney Empire and on Broadway in 1993, Fiennes played what critics called "the first grunge Hamlet". Day-Lewis, meanwhile, is the only Oscar-night guest to be criticized on grounds of personal hygiene: "Long hair like Daniel Day-Lewis's can work," sniffed celebrity coiffeur James Spardaro, "but it has to be clean."

When they are not being gaunt and wan, both men are "dark", "moody", "brooding" and "aloof" - at least for the purpose of interviews. Both can be difficult: "I did not become an actor because I wanted to be in magazines," snorted Fiennes contemptuously. Nor did Day-Lewis, but he has a harder time keeping out of them. He is famous for dumping the pregnant Isabelle Adjani by fax (not true, she says); for trysting with Julia Roberts while Adjani was giving birth to his child (true, she says); and for marrying Arthur Miller's daughter, Rebecca without first informing his live-in girlfriend. Fiennes has his work cut out catching up, but the trajectory of his relationship with the actress Alex Kingston (Moll Flanders) was not dissimilar to Day-Lewis and Adjani: after 10 years of dating, they married - which, as with Adjani's pregnancy, seemed to bring matters to a head. They have split up; and Fiennes has been stepping out with Francesca Annis, who like Adjani is an older and more established actress.

American actors privately remark that they "can't see what's with these thin-lipped Brits, but they drive the gals nuts". And it is curious that Fiennes bacame an American sex symbol by playing a sadistic concentration camp commandant in Schindler's List. Despite this, women interviewers tend to adopt a "trip to the moon on gossamer wings" approach: "Pale and haggard, he drifts around the stifling loft like a wraith," began Leslie Bennetts of Fiennes in Vanity Fair, "fragile as a hot-house bloom." You can never be too thin or too Ralph.

A trio of grungy, dishevelled Englishmen, Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Richard E. Grant, went to Hollywood before Day-Lewis or Fiennes, but none has enjoyed quite the same success, and both Roth and Oldman seem stalled in psycho roles.

Day-Lewis and Fiennes, by contrast, are admired for their range as well as their ranginess. The former has played a gay National Front yobbos (My Beautiful Laundrette), laconic snobs (A Room With A View), Yankee woodsmen (The Last Of The Mohicans), Belfast prisoners (In The Name Of The Father). And for the six week shoot of My Left Foot, Day-Lewis, and Irish passport-holder, stayed in character throughout, even off-camera, twisted in his wheelchair, speaking in that tortured voice and being fed by other cast members.

Although Day-Lewis undoubtedly has had the wider range of costumes and hairstyles, Fiennes seems more in command of those roles he does pursue, whether in minimal, understated performances such as the egghead whose gameshow cheating caused one of the great scandals of American television, in Robert Redford's Quiz Show, or now in The English Patient, where he emerges as a fully fledged, hot-blooded love interest.

The closest the two have come to a direct head-to-head was the 1994 Oscars ceremony, when Fiennes was up for Schindler's List (best supporting actor) and Day-Lewis for In The Name of The Father (best actor). However, 1994 was the year of Phildelphia, in which Tom Hanks played an Aids-stricken lawyer. Both Fiennes and Day-Lewis would have made a better job of it than the chubby-cheeked Hanks, for whom the ravages of Aids meant no more than a light perspriation and a few stick-on lesions. Indeed, it emerged that Day-Lewis had turned down the role, and he went on to become more famous for his romantic convolutions, while Fiennes progressed to Quiz Show, which flopped, and Strange Days, which did likewise.

Strange Days, in which Fiennes played a rogue cop, was one of those futuristic, apocalyptic, anarchist nightmares. After the film failed, Hollywood execs started saying they told you so, he's not a movie star, just another of those clever, clever tight-assed Brits who should never be let out of period costume. With The English Patient, he's back on friendlier turf.

It's doubtful whether either actor could carry a big movie in the way Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks can, but, in the right roles, they bring an intensity few can match. Go back to Day-Lewis's breakthrough role in My Beautiful Laundrette, and the moment when he looks in the mirror and fluffs up his hair: you notice how his face is different when he looks at himself from the way it is when he looks at others. Or take Fienne's breakthrough role in Schindler's List and the scene where the commandant enters the room and sees his beautiful Jewish maid: in a few seconds Fiennes's face registers the evil in his heart, the acknowledgement of her beauty, the possibility of human feeling, and the rejection of it. By the time he lashes out at her, the wilful moral perversity of his evil has been skewered as deftly as possible. That's acting!