5 Best Daniel Day-Lewis Movie Adaptations: Is Lincoln the Latest?

Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Lincoln’/Photo © 2012 Dreamworks
Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Lincoln’/Photo © 2012 Dreamworks

As an actor, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't just have a thing for facial hair. The two-time Academy Award winner also seems to be a sucker for a good literary adaptation. It’s perhaps not a surprising proclivity for the son of a writer (his dad’s the late Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate of the UK), but a quick glance at DDL’s IMDB page reads like a Great Books reading list. And now with the role of Abraham Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg’s biopic "Lincoln," Day-Lewis adds another adaptation to that esteemed library.

To prepare the role, the notoriously meticulous actor hit the books -- according to The New York Times, spending the better part of a year reading up on Honest Abe, working his way through the President’s own speeches and papers, Carl Sandburg’s biography, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the book on which the film is based. So in honor of this most bookish of actors, and the upcoming release of "Lincoln" (in limited release November 9), we bring you our Top Five Daniel Day-Lewis Performances in Film Adaptations.

"There Will Be Blood" (2007)
Though Paul Thomas Anderson’s film deviates enormously from its source material, Oil!, the 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair, it brings the book’s major thematic elements of greed, envy, and Machiavellian ruthlessness to the screen with a vengeance. At the center of the film is Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a self-described “oil man,” steadfastly determined to make it big in the California oil boom of the late 1890s. As Plainview, Day-Lewis walks with a limp, talks with an unplaceable but somehow perfect accent, and delivers a performance that explodes with more fervor and anger than black gold erupting from a rig. Oh, and who could forget that “milkshake” line, which was instantly added to the pantheon of great movie quotes? (See clip in playlist below.)

"A Room with a View" (1985)
With perfect stick-straight posture, pursed lips, and a set of prim pince-nez, Day-Lewis is spot on as the straight-laced, often boorish Cecil Vyse in this Merchant Ivory adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel. But in the scene where Lucy (Helena Bonham Carter) ends their engagement, Day-Lewis allows us to see a small but compelling crack in Cecil’s pompous veneer. It’s one of his earliest -- and best -- performances. And besides: Who doesn’t love a guy who can admit, “There are some chaps who are no good for anything but books. I plead guilty to being such a chap”?

"The Last of the Mohicans" (1992)
As The New York Times noted in its original review of the film, the James Fenimore Cooper novel on which the movie is based is something of a slog. (Mark Twain famously wrote of the Mohicans scribe, “Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull.”) But the Times was also quick to point out that despite the difficult source material, Day-Lewis is still pretty resplendent as Hawkeye, a Caucasian adopted by the fading Mohican tribe, who refuses to bow down to Colonial forces during the French and Indian War. In this sweeping romantic epic, Day-Lewis spends much of the film shirtless, running through the forest, fighting off Europeans, and shouting about his great love for Cora (a stunning Madeleine Stowe, who, it should be noted, is currently doing more adaptation duty on ABC’s "Revenge"). Another actor might have succumbed to the fraught drama of it all, but Day-Lewis kept it real, learning to live off the land in preparation for the part, and bringing a real dignity to the role, even when making us a little weepy in his sentimental goodbye scene with Cora -- “No matter how long it takes, no matter how far. I will find you.”

"My Left Foot" (1989)
Based on the memoir of the same name, this was the film that solidified Day-Lewis’ reputation for intense and intensive preparation for his roles. To ready for the part of Christy Brown, whose cerebral palsy limited him to only the use of his left foot, Day-Lewis learned to draw with his toes and remained in his wheelchair even between takes. That devotion to craft paid off -- Day-Lewis nailed his portrayal of this brilliant man learning to live and triumph in an imperfect body, and the actor triumphed himself, earning his first Oscar.

"The Age of Innocence" (1993)
When this very faithful adaptation of the Edith Wharton classic first hit the silver screen, it seemed nearly every article mentioned the scene in which Day-Lewis’ Newland Archer slips off the glove of his would-be mistress Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) and gently kisses her wrist. (The moment even earned mention in this Twenty-five Sexiest Movies list.) But what made that kiss so sultry was that it came as a final moment of release from an otherwise buttoned-up, repressed Archer. For an actor known for his big, bravado performances, this was an impressively quiet, restrained turn. And yeah, the glove scene was hot.