Doctor of Letters
Thursday 15 July 2010 - Orator: Professor Martin White
A year or so ago, walking home having just seen Daniel Day-Lewis as the ruthless American oil prospector, Daniel Plainview, in Paul Thomas Anderson's film, There Will Be Blood, I was in that state of excitement that one gets when having watched a great actor give a great performance in a great role. On screen for virtually every one of the film's 158 minutes, Daniel gives a disturbing, visceral performance, alienating yet drawing in the audience to the mind and world of the violent, vengeful Plainview. Then, some months later, I found myself walking back after seeing Daniel in his new film, Nine, based on the Broadway musical: a totally different kind of film and role, but an equally riveting performance as the suave, weak, self-obsessed, vacillating Italian film director Guido Contini.
As I walked, my thoughts went back to when I'd first seen him act: in the late-seventies when he was a student at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. In those days the school and the University Drama Department shared resources and teaching, and Daniel was friendly with many students in my department. I invited him to join the cast of a play I was taking, with Bristol students, to the Edinburgh Festival. He declined, politely, but firmly: I imagine he can only wonder what kind of career he might have had if only he'd accepted my offer. As it is, he has had to make do with two Oscars for Best Actor (My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood) and four Oscar nominations, three BAFTA awards for Best Actor and five BAFTA nominations, one Golden Globe Award and four Golden Globe nominations. He has also won the Screen Actors Guild Award three times, the New York Critics Award four times and the LA Critics Award twice, plus a host of other awards worldwide.
Daniel was born in London to a creative family - the second child of the celebrated actress, Jill Balcon and the distinguished writer, and later, poet laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis. His sister, Tamasin, herself a writer and film-maker, other members of Daniel’s family and some of his friends are also here, and we welcome you too, to Bristol. Daniel was first introduced to acting when he was at school. He describes himself as having been an 'unruly' pupil, so perhaps it is not surprising that in addition to school plays, one of his early roles was as an extra, playing a young vandal in the film Sunday Bloody Sunday. He joined the National Youth Theatre, and an acting career seemed on the cards. However, he had a love that rivaled acting – cabinet making. But while his application for an apprenticeship was turned down, he gained a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
When he completed his training, he joined the Bristol Old Vic company (with whom he has an ongoing association), and later performed with the Little Theatre Company, also in Bristol. After Bristol, he appeared in the West End in the hit play, Another Country, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, and he was busy in television too.
Then, in 1985, he secured a leading role in the film My Beautiful Launderette and, the following year, in A Room with a View, an adaptation of EM Forster's novel. These two roles could not have been more different: one, a South London racist skinhead who has a gay sexual relationship with a Pakistani, the other the shy, sexually-repressed upper-class Englishman, Cecil Vyse. The first English actors were associated with the sea god, Proteus, because of their ability to assume new shapes, and Daniel was certainly proving himself to be protean.
Significant stage performances would still follow (including the title role in Hamlet at the National Theatre), but these films marked a sea change in his career, and heralded a shift from stage to screen as the focus of his work.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, once an actor is in a position to choose what to do, those choices are very illuminating, and in Daniel’s case it is not only a series of contrasting parts, but often roles that are particularly complex and challenging. Even a selective list makes the point: Christy Brown, in My Left Foot, born with cerebral palsy and able to use only his left foot to paint and write; the heroic frontiersman, Nathaniel Poe – Hawkeye – in Last of the Mohicans; the pensive Newland Archer, torn between love and convention, in Martin Scorsese's brilliant version of the Edith Wharton novel, Age of Innocence; the monstrous and violent Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting in Gangs of New York; or Jack Slavin, a man as gentle as Cutting was violent, in the passionate and poetic Ballad of Jack and Rose (written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Daniel’s wife).
But it is virtually impossible, just from watching, to understand how an actor creates a performance, because that process differs from actor to actor. Some move in and out of character when working, while others seek a route to the core of the character, and sustain it through performance. Indeed, Richard Burbage, the first English actor to gain national fame and for whom Shakespeare wrote the parts of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, was praised for two qualities: doing things on stage as they are done in real life and for not dropping out of his character from the beginning until the end of the play, even in the dressing room.
Daniel Day-Lewis isn't so different from Burbage. Of the process of creating a role he says: 'It is one of the blessings of that situation where you feel irrevocably drawn towards the discovery of an other life as your own begins to recede behind you'. And for him, that process of discovery, of letting the character's life overtake his own, involves getting as close to the experiences of that character as he can.
For My Left Foot, for example, he rented a house near a leading Dublin centre for the treatment of people with disabilities (he would later become a benefactor), and spent months studying the patients. On-set, he stayed in character, remaining in his wheelchair throughout. For Gangs of New York he hired circus performers to teach him how to throw daggers and trained as a butcher; for Last of the Mohicans he learned how to live off the land, build a canoe, and to fire and load a Kentucky rifle while running; for The Crucible, he built a wooden-framed house. It is an impressive range of transferable skills. More notably, this aspect of his approach has a clear affinity with his early (and continuing) love of cabinet making, of understanding how things, and people work, the sheer pleasure of acquiring and practicing the craft skills needed to make something, be it a chair or a performance.
At other times, there is a need for an actor to understand why a character (fictional or one based on a real person) behaves as he does. In In the Name of the Father, he played Gerry Conlon, wrongly imprisoned for an IRA bomb attack on a pub in Guildford. Conlon had confessed to this crime he did not commit, a confession that led to his imprisonment for 15 years, and implicated his father, who died in prison. Faced with trying to understand why Conlon made this seemingly incomprehensible decision, Daniel had himself locked in the prison cell used in the film, was kept awake for three nights by men banging on the door every ten minutes with tin cups, and then questioned by three teams of trained interrogators for nine hours without a break. It was the only way, he says, that he could begin to figure out why an innocent man could destroy his own, and his father’s, life. After this experience, he thought he could begin to understand only too well.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of There Will Be Blood has said: 'People don't know how Daniel can do this job the way that he does it, and my feeling is, I just can't understand how anyone could do it any other way.'
I have had the great pleasure over the past few weeks of watching all Daniel's films. Seeing them together underlines the extraordinary ability to reinvent himself and desire to take on difficult roles that I've talked about. But what do they reveal of his qualities as an actor? Well, for me, in addition to his ability to get inside the skin of his character, they are his powerful physical presence, equally potent when he is most still and silent; his use of his body – you understand his characters partly by just watching them walk; his refusal to let a part become sentimental, or to try to gain the audience's approval; his apparent willingness to expose any aspect of himself that will illuminate the role; his ability to create performances on screen that have real scale (not, conventionally, what film acting is about) while retaining delicacy within that performance, and that is an extraordinary combination. And, watching him, I also have that sense, as Bob Dylan wrote, 'that there's something going on and I don't know what it is': an awareness, in other words, of a life, an energy, a mystery, beneath the visible surface.
He is, of course, a film star – but perhaps more significantly, he is a film actor, and without doubt, one of the greatest not only of his own, but of any generation. Mr Vice-Chancellor, it is with great pleasure that I present to you, Daniel Day-Lewis, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.