Heath Ledger and Daniel Day-Lewis: Two of Our Greatest Examples

Daniel Day Lewis When I first saw There Will Be Blood, I didn’t like it.  Well, truthfully, I kinda hated it.  I was in a rush to see all of the Oscar-nominated films and in contrast to the different and suspenseful experience that No Country For Old Men provided, this seemed incredibly bland.  I’ve since watched it again and I like it a bit better.  (Not in love with it, but it’s better.)

However, one thing stood true throughout both viewings.  Regardless of how bored I felt by the material, it was easy to stay engaged because of Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting.  I often get into arguments with my friends about how loosely they throw around the term “great actor”.  I get incensed because in my mind, being a great actor extends far beyond playing the same guy or girl twenty-eight different times – only turning up or down the intensity depending on the role.  This is what keeps me from labeling Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington (prior to Training Day) as truly great actors.  Don’t mistake my words: They are incredibly engaging and entertaining actors.  They are incredible at the roles that they play.  But in my book, a truly great actor is like a slab of clay.  If you return in a week after the director has guided their art through his vision, you will see a sculpture and barely recognize the clay.  As much as I enjoy Julia Roberts on-screen persona or Matt Damon or Ben Affleck’s personality, it’s a difficult task for me to reflect upon a role where they had truly stepped outside of their personality and shown us a completely different character.

By my description, there aren’t many people who I can comfortably label as great.  For me, great isn’t about who sells the most DVDs or has the highest per-theater ticket sales.  After all, one look at the best attended films for the past few years should make it painfully clear that people no longer want to be challenged.  They simply want to watch a two hour version of the trailer.  (I always kinda shake my head when the theater laughs at a joke I’m sure they’ve heard fifty times before during the commercial spot.)  This is not to knock other actors.  We need action stars and character actors.  Alfred Hitchcock used Cary Grant for a reason – once you saw him onscreen, he didn’t need to waste screen time selling his style and charisma to you.  In much the same way, when you see Morgan Freeman, you’re going to get witty, strong willed and benevolent.  He’ll do the right thing.  When was the last time Morgan Freeman played a whimp or an unlikable guy – and actually do it to the same level that he does the good guy roles.

My review of The Dark Knight was pretty much the same as everyone elses: we loved the Joker.  However, I really resented some of the criticism that I heard (of all critics – not just myself) in the days subsequent to the release.  “Would we be going ga-ga over him if he were still alive?”  “Was the performance really all that great?” The correct answers are, “absolutely” and “positively”.  There are clearly times when you make more of a person’s career because they died early in their rise.  Purely subjective, but for me 2Pac fits this bill.  As saddened as the country was over the death of John Lennon, I remember seeing the Grammys he received posthumously and even at a young age, I realized that these were probably “make-up awards” for other great albums.  But it bears repeating that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly was remarkable and unforgettable.  It was more than just ‘the pencil trick.’  It was the walk. The attitude.  The timing.  It truly rose the bar for super hero movies.  And using my own definition of great, this fits the bill because I remember watching and not being able to find Heath ledger under the makeup.  Where’s the Hollywood hunk who kept adorning the cover of magazines?  I didn’t even seen any resemblance to the Brokeback Mountain character.  He did something incredible.  He morphed.

In much the same way, Daniel Day-Lewis did the same thing.  I had seen him in interviews and in other roles like My Left Foot and it’s hard to find the guy I’d seen before.  But more than any makeup or transformation of one’s voice, his performance in There Will Be Blood reminded me of the way I felt when I saw Ledger’s Joker in that both performances were so great that they each outshine the source material.  The Joker is more than just a typical super hero villain.  And Daniel Plainview, despite my disinterest in watching a story about the rise of oil barons, took the role and magnified the more interesting parts of the story.  The subtle looks that are given whenever God or faith is mentioned.  The conniving way that he uses his stepson as leverage to gain sympathy in his dealings.  It’s a remarkable thing to watch someone get so enveloped into their role that you just wanna see outtakes to watch them break character – just to see if such a thing is even possible.

Again, this is not a slight to any actor.  To do what they do and so convincingly – whether they are simply extending their own personality or taking on a completely different one – is a beautiful thing.  But there are some who take it to such an extreme that they need to be recognized in a category all their own.  I dig Paul Giamatti.  He’s a spirited actor.  Personally I think he’d make an incredible antagonist if he got the right role.  But if you watch him on-onscreen, it’s really just Paul Giamatti doing a different set of lines.  They’re delivered with impeccable timing and humor and charm, but he’s not transforming.  And maybe he doesn’t need to.  He does what works for Paul.  John Adams sounds like Harvey Pekar… and I guess that’s ok.  But I challenge you to just listen to the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Heath Ledger and a few others like Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and you’ll realize that you’re in an entirely different league of actor who takes his craft so seriously, it’s frightening.

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