Daniel Day-Lewis and the Ghosts of Hamlet: An Excerpt from WHY ACTING MATTERS by David Thomson

Join the Roxie Theater and film critic, writer and historian David Thomson on Wednesday, March 11 for a book signing, film screening and discussion celebrating the release of Thomson’s new book Why Acting Matters (from Amazon, Indiebound or Yale University Press).

Tickets are $15 for the 6 p.m. book signing reception and $10 for the 7 p.m. discussion and screening of Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks (1976, via Amazon or Indiebound).

Horizontal RuleWhyActingMattersCoverIn the following excerpt from Why Acting Matters, Thomson examines the challenges of playing Hamlet, and the role’s impact on one of the most acclaimed actors of today:

Hamlet has gathered its many ghosts over the years. In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis took on the role at the National Theatre in London, with Richard Eyre directing. That casting was a coup, for Day-Lewis was at his first peak. Several remarkable stage appearances had been sharpened by his movie career, and he had just won his first Oscar as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (via Amazon or Indiebound). For that picture, he had become Brown for the duration of the shooting: he pretended to be crippled by cerebral palsy so that he had to use a wheelchair—the crew members grew bitter about lifting him here and there. He elected not to speak, except in the very limited ways available to Christy. Was he in control of this immersion, or was there a point at which he became its sea creature?

Are we in control of the life we are leading, or does it occasionally run away with us? One reason we love actors is because we are so understanding of their professional predicament.

In addition, by 1989 Day-Lewis was fretting in his new celebrity status. He was in a relationship with the French actress Isabelle Adjani, not known for a calm temperament. And then came Hamlet . It was one thing to embody a semicoherent paraplegic, and maybe a tougher test to become Hamlet. But Day-Lewis made that venture, and he was increasingly fixed on the idea of a young man who sees the ghost of his father. Daniel’s own father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, had died when the son was fifteen. Daniel had never studied at the Actors Studio, but he had grown up affected by Method actors. He took on the agony of Hamlet for himself—as Lee Strasberg would have advised, he found the prince in himself.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet at the National TheatreThe play opened and was poorly reviewed, sometimes by critics who attacked him for being “a film actor.” Some felt that Day-Lewis was not “reaching” people. He became distressed, and this rose to such a pitch that in one performance Day-Lewis started to sob on stage. That could still have been Hamlet—the text can absorb some improv. But then the actor left the stage and took the role with him. He could not return. Jeremy Northam (who had been playing Osric) took over and performed brilliantly. In the heat of the moment, Day-Lewis said (or believed) he had seen the ghost of his father on stage. In Ingmar Bergman’s great film Persona (via Amazon or Indiebound), Liv Ullmann plays an actress, Elisabet Vogler. One night, playing Electra , she is struck dumb on the stage. That silence prompts her “retirement” to an island with a nurse (Bibi Andersson) … the film is begun .

Richard Eyre was directing the Day-Lewis Hamlet , and he felt he had failed his actor. For Eyre, it was the process and the play that had been overwhelming:

When [Day-Lewis] left the stage in the middle of the scene with the Ghost, it was because, with his remorselessly punishing honesty, there was nothing else he could do. His problem was not so much his relationship with the Ghost of his father, as his relationship with the play. He wrestled nightly with its subjects—fathers, mothers, sons, grief, suicide, sex, love, revenge, intellect, violence, pacifism, discipline, and death and if they floored him he was guilty not of neurosis or incompetence, but of an excess of ambition.

That is generous, but insightful, too, and it leads us to this challenging brink: if Day-Lewis had to escape that stage, perhaps Hamlet is compelled to quit Denmark. He does try. But here we are close to a disconcerting prospect: that an actor is so intensely “in” a play that he has to rewrite it?

Horizontal RuleDavidThomsonDavid Thomson is the author of more than twenty books, including biographies of David O. Selznick (via Amazon) and Orson Welles (via Amazon or Indiebound), and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (via Amazon or Indiebound). He lives in San Francisco.

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