In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Brian Tallerico makes the case for the Best Actor of 2017: Daniel Day-Lewis in "Phantom Thread." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
It’s disheartening that the Academy Awards so consistently take into account past awards and performances when it should ideally be about the specific film in question in that specific year. Consider this: Gary Oldman, while admittedly good in “Darkest Hour,” is likely to be the winner on Sunday night at least in part because of past snubs, but ask yourself if that would be the case if Daniel Day-Lewis had never won the big prize. What if he had been robbed for “My Left Foot,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Lincoln”? I can tell you the answer to that question—he’d be a lock to win for “Phantom Thread.” And so we have a system in which arguably the best actor of his generation is not possibly going to win for the best actor performance of 2017 mostly because he had won before.
Pardon the opening tangent, we’re not victim at this site to such things as allowing past victories to diminish current accomplishments, and so we’re here to discuss what Day-Lewis delivered in what he’s claimed is the final performance of his career. As with so much of what works about “Phantom Thread,” the brilliance is in the details. It’s in how Day-Lewis subtly alters the way he looks at Alma (Vicky Krieps) as she goes from object of desire to professional accomplice to outright annoyance to mother figure to, well, something else entirely. He sells every single transition both on the micro/character level and as a performer who clearly understands the complex themes of the overall piece. Most of all, Day-Lewis’ take on designer Reynolds Woodcock is obsessively considered without ever feeling precious or over-acted. It’s one of the elements of Day-Lewis’ career that’s been so remarkably consistent—the way he can clearly convey his attention to detail in a way that still feels organic to the character. The decisions he makes as Woodcock capture that stunning balance of craft and character yet again.
Of course, the meta aspect of a notorious perfectionist (in both Day-Lewis and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson) playing a notorious perfectionist has been widely discussed already, but not enough has been written about how tonally varied this performance is throughout the film. It’s refreshing to see Day-Lewis crack a smile or display a weakness given how often his characters are constricted by period and confidence. As awful as he can be to the people around him, Day-Lewis captures the charismatic, magnetic side of Reynolds Woodcock in ways that nobody else could possibly approach. In its detail and range, it’s the best performance of 2017.