Friday, January 11, 2008

Wrong Footing, Right Acting

Daniel Day-Lewis hasn't made a lot of films in his career. He's almost 52 and has made less than 20 features. He's only made 4 of those in the past 10 years. After seeing him in Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, and now My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989), I understand why. It must be exhausting to be so brilliant.

I think he's seriously the bravest actor around. He chooses the most grueling roles and prepares painstakingly for them, down to the last detail. He lives and breathes the characters on and off screen during production. During the filming of Gangs of New York, he spoke in his New York accent constantly and got sick because he wouldn't wear a warmer coat (since that coat didn't exist in the 19th century). I've heard that he isolated himself for weeks before filming There Will Be Blood to get into Daniel Plainview's state of mind. For My Left Foot, in which he plays Christy Brown, a man with cerebral palsy, he wouldn't leave his wheelchair, cracked ribs from staying hunched over the whole time, and refused to break character whether they were filming or not. He even had people help feed him. That kind of dedication is extraordinary.

Whatever his method, it always pays off. I don't think he's capable of giving a less than outstanding performance. My Left Foot, directed by Jim Sheridan, is a biopic based on the autobiography of Irish-born Christy Brown, a real-life acclaimed painter/poet/writer with severe cerebral palsy. He comes from an enormous family, and they totally accept him and treat him with love and respect. He is especially close to his mother. The only limb he has any control of whatsoever is his left foot, and he learns to write and draw and paint with it. It's a laborious, painful process to watch when he first does it, and many times thereafter. Kudos to Hugh O'Connor, who plays Christy as a young boy for a small portion of the film and does an amazing job, especially in that first writing scene. Christy also gains the attention of a doctor who helps him articulate better so he can speak, even though it's still difficult for him and he's still hard to understand at times.

The film takes the traditional biopic approach and guides you chronologically through Christy's life, building up to this benefit in his honor. The story cuts away briefly to him waiting for the benefit to start every now and then, but most of it is in the past. Daniel Day-Lewis takes over as Christy at age 17. No offense to Day-Lewis, because it's not his fault, but I laughed when I saw that. There's no way he's even close to 17. In fact, he was just over 30. But okay, I let that go, because he's so awesome. I would believe it if they told me he was playing Christy at age 5.

I really didn't like the film very much. It feels like it's desperately trying to win awards. It's one of those films where people whisper all the time to sound really important. Everything around Christy seems so inauthentic. There's no depth or reality to his world. It doesn't have to be that way in a biopic - check out La Vie en Rose, which paints a vivid picture of the France that shaped Edith Piaf. Hell, even Walk Hard seemed more real in its depiction of Dewey Cox's universe. For me, it's like Christy exists in a vacuum. A phony vacuum.

I hardly ever say this, but My Left Foot is too short, especially for a biopic about such an important and intense subject. It's less than an hour and 40 minutes. I was TOLD that Christy was a great painter and author and poet, but I never saw the development of his talents. Occasionally, he paints, and he has one gallery exhibition, but I feel like this part of his life and his passion for his art are glossed over (this is a flaw with the script and directing, not with Day-Lewis). It's like, all of a sudden, he's famous. How did that happen? Also, there's a seemingly random relationship with this woman who acts as his nurse at the benefit. It comes out of nowhere and plays out awkwardly. The last shot of this film is also painfully corny.

It's a shame that the film is so mediocre when Daniel Day-Lewis is so magnificent. It's worth seeing this film just to see his performance. He kept me so captivated that I was able to block out the negatives until after the film was over. It's often excruciating to watch him because he makes the illness so real. There's a scene at a restaurant that is just heartbreaking. It's downright masterful. It's clear that Day-Lewis became Christy Brown in this process. I'm not sure I've ever seen an actor immerse himself so deeply in a role before. Oh yeah, except for Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. And Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. See a pattern?

Day-Lewis won an Oscar for My Left Foot, and he deserved it. He's astonishing. It is certainly one of the greatest performances in film history. But I have to be honest - I think his work in There Will Be Blood is even better and more complex. And that's quite a statement. If you've seen My Left Foot, you understand why. It's practically inhuman how good he is and how he keeps getting better. After seeing My Left Foot, I'm convinced he's our greatest working actor. He definitely deserves the Oscar for There Will Be Blood, and he'll get it, at least I hope so. He better get it. I'm shaking my fist at you, Academy.

With There Will Be Blood, I think he finally found a film worthy of his genius.

Film Rating: *** (out of 5)
Daniel Day-Lewis: ***** (Of course - he's remarkable.)

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