Bart & Fleming: As Daniel Day-Lewis Exits, Who Wears Greatest Living Actor Crown?

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

Daniel Day-Lewis Denzel Washington

Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.

FLEMING: Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement announcement begs the question: who takes over as Greatest Living Actor? If you had asked me who held that title two weeks ago, it would have been a tossup between DDL and Denzel Washington, and those guys will have one last chance to decide it. While Sony hasn’t dated Washington’s next film, the Dan Gilroy drama Inner City, I’m hearing Washington’s performance is awards caliber. I expect that 3-time winner Day-Lewis and 2-time winner Washington will square off one last time in the Oscar race…if you believe that Day-Lewis is really hanging it up. I have a hard time believing it and I’ll tell you why.

BART: Do movie stars really retire? The announcement raised skepticism. One actor (a star) told me, “When an actor says he’s retiring, the translation is he’s not getting any offers.” That is not a problem for Lewis, who in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread plays a British designer who himself retired very early at age 52. I am an amateur at film history, but my theory is that only a small number of stars have voluntarily retired. Paul Newman decided to quit at age 75; he once told me he had lost his appetite for acting, not to mention his ability to remember lines. He also told friends that his salad dressing was outselling his movies. A thoughtful man with a keen interest in politics, Newman also had other things he wanted to attend to. Marlon Brando liked to say he was giving up acting, but he was always around when a producer offered him a million bucks for a three day gig. I remember playing tennis with the late Roger Moore, who told me cheerfully between sets that he’d be glad to go back to work if anyone offered a decent part.

FLEMING: I interviewed Day-Lewis for a magazine cover once. I was warned how protective he was about discussing his rigorous prep process. He came in holding a well-worn paperback copy of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (he was researching what would be his second Oscar-winning role in There Will Be Blood). Once he saw I wasn’t there to ridicule how he threw himself into building these great characters, he made me understand the toll his process takes on him, partly because his is a world full of intangibles. He gets a script and every time tries to talk himself out of doing it, because of what it takes out of him. When the script is too good to say no to, he spends up to a year becoming that character. Shooting starts and he stays in character, all through production. The punch line? He then can’t bear to watch his work onscreen, because it makes him think about all the things he could have done differently, and better. So the only validation he gets that his process paid off is a kind word from a director, applause at a premiere, or a shiny trophy. He cleanses these characters from his system by taking long sabbaticals, where often he’ll roll up his sleeves and learn a craft. The reason: if he makes a pair of shoes, or builds a cabinet, it might not be perfect, but it is a tangible thing he can hold in his hands. Much different than his real job, which he described as “chasing shadows.” I think for Day-Lewis, the retirement announcement creates another barrier from having to subject himself to that lonely process. Trouble is, it won’t stop directors like PTA, Spielberg and Scorsese from sending scripts anyway, and what happens when he finds another role he knows deep down is worthy of his time and skill? I also wonder how much of a factor in his decision was the recent death of Gene Parseghian, the smart gentleman who advised Day-Lewis since the beginning.

BART: Maybe he will find something else to do in the business. Some stars, upon retiring, made brilliant transitions to producing. Burt Lancaster, known for his acrobatic skills as an actor, was in fact a very intelligent man who went on to produce hits like Marty and The Sweet Smell of Success. Sometimes a flop changes the minds of great stars. Gregory Peck was well into his 40s when he made To Kill a Mockingbird, but retired after seeing the failure of Other People’s Money in 1991. Similarly, James Stewart wanted to retire in the mid ‘70s but was persuaded to co-star with John Wayne in The Shootist. When both stars kept blowing their lines, Stewart told director Don Siegel to hire better, or younger, actors. In retirement, Stewart took to reading his poems occasionally on the Johnny Carson show. Lewis may return to building furniture, or making shoes, which he talked about doing during earlier retirement announcements. Or he, too, may turn out to be a poet.

FLEMING: Retirement is a strange thing; you mention Peck bowing out in 1991, but wasn’t he great in 1976’s The Omen? Ted Melfi once told me about the long development process on St. Vincent with Jack Nicholson, who had Melfi do myriad rewrites to hone it as a Nicholson vehicle. Finally, Nicholson said he didn’t want to work anymore and urged Melfi to ring up Bill Murray. So I look with high skepticism at the notion of Nicholson returning for that Toni Erdmann remake he attached himself to. Robert Redford might make Old Man and the Gun his last movie; Sean Connery and Gene Hackman retired and stayed that way, but these guys are like prize fighters who quit and come back. It is disconcerting that Day-Lewis is leaving and that Quentin Tarantino has said he too will retire soon. Each has a trail of great work in their wake but still seem to have so much left to say creatively.

Peter, this is a frivolous discussion, but if Day-Lewis does leave, who inherits the Best Living Actor title? I say Washington, who always elevates the movies he stars in, and who doesn’t make stinkers for easy money. Told early in his career by Sidney Poitier that if they see you all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend, Washington avoids the spotlight until it’s time for him to shine on the screen. I might say Robert De Niro, but for every Silver Linings Playbook or Goodfellas, there is too much Dirty Grandpa and Grudge Match. Beyond Washington, there is Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Spacey, Robert Downey Jr, Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Tom Hardy, Samuel L. Jackson, Christian Bale, Mark Ruffalo and Cate Blanchett, all capable of greatness from time to time. The DDL retirement news does make me appreciate each new film by Robert Duvall, Anthony Hopkins or Tommy Lee Jones, latter of whom just signed to star with Brad Pitt in the Heart of Darkness in deep space tale Ad Astra from director James Gray. Peter, who would you put into the Greatest Living Actor category?

Tom Hanks Meryl Streep Pentagon Papers

BART: I prefer to ask the question this way: Which actors would cause the greatest stir if they were to retire or leave the scene? My answer: Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Because of their talent, character and work ethic, both have become enshrined in the landscape, like granite figures on a cinematic Mount Rushmore. They are simply ‘here’ and must always be ‘here.’ Next topic. When Kathleen Kennedy decided to bring in Ron Howard as the new director of the Star Wars spinoff, it sounded surgically neat and clean. In comes Howard, a seasoned old pro (he’s 63), out go Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after four months of shooting. Except it’s not that easy. Having lived through several of these film making upheavals as a reformed film executive, I am familiar with the costly chain reaction they trigger. It usually runs like this: First comes a shut-down for rewrites. The new director always has a favorite writer (at a few hundred thousand a week) for script repairs. Next come re-shoots. If an executive like Kennedy is distressed enough to fire her directors, then some of the footage will also need to be replaced. So next may come some re-casting: Perhaps some of the scenes don’t work because the actors lacked chemistry. All this will take time, so the release date (May 25, 2018) likely will be shifted and the campaign strategy changed. In this case, the Han Solo off-shoot doesn’t even have a title.

FLEMING: There is an ecosystem necessary for quality movie making, and the overseers of these assembly line franchises — who manage movies like institutional assets and not works of art — should be careful. They capture the best and brightest filmmakers these days, and I think the growth curve of potentially important directors is being damaged by mega movies that are not measured by artistry as much as dollars and in satisfying audience expectations looking for another helping of the same thing. Look at Colin Trevorrow and the beating he just took for his new movie, The Book of Henry, all because he signed to do one of these Star Wars films. Trevorrow jumped from the no-budget Safety Not Guaranteed to the wildly successful franchise relaunch Jurassic World, but does he deserve questions of whether he is worthy of a Star Wars? A young filmmaker like him should not always be making four quadrant formulaic films that please everyone; what’s wrong with doing something a bit polarizing, for a small budget? Even though they started by making avant garde movies, Joe and Anthony Russo fit seamlessly into the Marvel superhero machine. Not everybody does. Is it right that Lord & Miller have to take the equivalent of a perp walk because it didn’t work out on a Han Solo prequel that might be as derivative as was the JJ Abrams Star Wars relaunch? It concerns me when emerging filmmakers are treated as disposable by studios chasing billion dollar grosses. Get Out director Jordan Peele told me recently he didn’t see himself doing one of those movies. They will get made without him, he said, and he’d rather create and control his own vehicles. He seems to be the exception; as directors get dropped left and right for “creative differences,” it’s sometimes like watching mosquitoes fly into bug zappers after they are drawn in by the bright light.


BART: Selection of Howard to preside over all this in itself represents a contradiction. As chief of Lucasfilm, Kennedy, like other executives presiding over franchise films, has made a big deal of hiring young filmmakers to continue the legacy. Hence the choice of Lord and Miller, who did the Lego Movie and two 21 Jump Streets. Similarly, Gareth Edwards was brought in to direct Rogue One, only to be replaced for re-shoots by Tony Gilroy. Several other young directors also have been buffeted on films like this. It’s never been clear what happened to Josh Trank, who was reportedly about to start another Star Wars spinoff.

FLEMING: Trank cooked his own goose by disavowing Fantastic Four on the eve of its release, and no way would he be entrusted with a Star Wars movie after a stunt like that. You mentioned Rogue One; there, Evans got credit and Gilroy got a big paycheck. Like World War Z (it wasn’t clear who was calling the shots when they redid the film’s third act but it didn’t seem to be director Marc Forster), Rogue One‘s troubles were fixed. Isn’t this system like the Hollywood in which you grew up, when studio execs and producers held sway and would sack directors who displeased them?

BART: In the era of the studio system and the delightful transition years of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the director was by and large subservient to the producer or studio. As a young studio executive, I worked with Hal Wallis (of Casablanca fame), for example, and on a Wallis production, he picked the director, ruled the budget and turned in his cut to the studio. Producers today do not have that sort of authority. By the early ‘70s filmmakers like Coppola, Bogdanovich and Friedkin achieved greater autonomy, forming the Directors Company at one point — only they could fire themselves.

But replacing a director doesn’t always have to be an ordeal. A personal story: Upon completing an arduous production schedule on The Big Red One in 1980, Samuel Fuller, a great veteran filmmaker, came to me and said that he was exhausted and had lost his point of view on the film. “Why don’t you bring in another filmmaker to figure it out,” he said. As President of Lorimar at the time, I turned to the capable Monte Hellman for help. Hellman was reluctant but, hearing Fuller’s problems, stepped in with a new editor, did some re-shooting and re-editing, and came forth with an excellent war movie. Fuller, then in his 70s, thanked me and thanked Hellman. Artistic collaboration has its benefits, he said.

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