This week I watched two films starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The first film was Gangs of New York (2002) directed by Martin Scorsese. In this film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Bill the Butcher, a seemingly unbeatable and unforgiving gang leader fighting for control of the 5 Points area of New York City in the late 1800’s. His gang is made up of the “native” white people of New York who aren’t pleased by the influx of immigrants making their way into the area. Bill holds tightly to the reigns of his control even keeping the politicians and police under his thumb. Everyone in 5 Points fears him. Daniel Day-Lewis made this character larger than life and even made it possible to have some sympathy toward the character.
The second film was My Left Foot (1989) directed by Jim Sheridan. A far cry from Bill the Butcher, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown, a man born with cerebral palsy to a working class Irish family in 1932. Christy Brown struggles all his life just to be able to do the things that everyone else can do and to be able to express himself. He is bound to a wheelchair (though he didn’t even have that until he reached adulthood) and has no ability to use his limbs with the exception of his left foot. Eventually Christy is able to use his left foot to write, type, and paint. As a person with much experience with people having cerebral palsy, I would say that Daniel Day-Lewis was spot on with his physicality. He did an amazing job of capturing the thoughts and emotions of the character as well.
Knowing Daniel Day-Lewis, preparation for both of these roles was incredibly intense. I think that the role of Christy Brown was probably a little harder because it was a real life person and because he had to learn to deal with the physical challenges of cerebral palsy. I would also guess that he probably did learn to write, type, and paint with his foot which would be a feat (no pun intended) in itself. I did see something however that said that most of the shots of him using his foot were done through a mirror because he could only manipulate his right foot. I’m sure he was upset about that. He stayed in character throughout the entire process of filming – refusing to leave his wheelchair. At one point even his agent stormed off the set when he wouldn’t break character. His Oscar was well deserved. Bill the Butcher was also a challenging role that required knowledge of the history of New York, immigration to the United States, and the people that the characters were inspired by. However, I think it may have been a little easier because of how much was left for him to come up with purely by imagination. Both roles were executed flawlessly.