It’s not that nobody loves a quitter, it’s that few people understand why quitting might actually be good for the soul. Especially when it comes to fame, the coin of the realm in our popular culture. If one’s worth derives from being seen, what happens when you walk away from all those eyes? Do you cease to exist? Or do you become yourself?
For actors, the question may be even more vexing, since they put on different selves as a matter of career and craft. Is that why Daniel Day-Lewis is throwing in the towel after 46 years, 36 movies, and a record three best actor Oscars?
The star, notoriously choosy about roles and diffident about celebrity, has let it be known that when he completes filming and promoting his current project, “Phantom Thread” (due this December) for his “There Will Be Blood” director Paul Thomas Anderson, he’s done. Finished. Hasta la vista, baby.
“Daniel Day-Lewis will no longer be working as an actor,” confirmed his spokesperson, publicist Leslee Dart, in a statement last week. “He is immensely grateful to all of his collaborators and audiences over the many years. This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”
He may actually mean it and yet change his mind down the road — that’s allowed, if also an invitation to public ridicule. Steven Soderbergh famously announced his retirement from making movies after “Side Effects,” in 2013; his new film, the NASCAR comedy “Logan Lucky,” opens in theaters this August. Jack Nicholson called it quits three years ago, citing difficulties remembering lines, but he recently attached himself to the Hollywood remake of the German art-house hit “Toni Erdmann.” And we all know how football legend Brett Favre feels about retirement. He’s in favor of it — repeatedly.
But athletes have a limited physical shelf life in a way that performing artists don’t. Rock ’n’ roll’s a young man’s game but Dylan and Paul McCartney and the Stones are still out there touring. Barbra Streisand has largely stepped away from the microphone and camera in recent years but remains a public figure to be reckoned with.
Actors who are also movie stars are in a double bind, lauded for their youthful glamour (which diminishes with time) and their talent (which can only mature). Day-Lewis has walked this line with caution and skill. In his commitment to the mysteries of changing his skin and in his extreme reluctance to engage in the business of celebrity, he recalls one of the first movie stars singled out as the greatest actor of his generation — Marlon Brando.
Brando also disappeared for long stretches and regularly made noises about giving up the whole dirty game. You could argue (although I wouldn’t) that in the end he stuck around longer than he should have and made movies he probably shouldn’t.
But presumably Day-Lewis’s intention to walk away is legitimate. He is, after all, 60 years old — just two years younger than Cary Grant was when he retired in 1966. Day-Lewis has just about done it all: been a strapping hero of romantic adventure in “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), played our most saintly president in “Lincoln” (2012), etched indelible portraits of robber barons, 19th-century gangsters, gay punkers, lovelorn Czech intellectuals, and Christy Brown, an artist trapped in a body wracked by cerebral palsy in “My Left Foot” (1989). (His three best actor Oscars are for “Foot,” 2008’s “There Will Be Blood,” and “Lincoln.”)
Has he ever made a bad movie? Sure. See “Nine” (2009) — rather, don’t — or the flaky “Eversmile, New Jersey” (1989). But the Day-Lewis persona, a rare combination of intensity and shyness, seems to lack the ego and neuroses that drove Brando. He appears to have successfully kept his film career and his personal life entirely separate. We don’t know what he does when the cameras aren’t rolling, and most of us don’t care — that innate respect for his gift and his privacy is part of the persona as well.
“Appears to.” “Seems.” This is the game we watchers play when talking about people we feel we know but actually don’t, not at all. And depending on where they are in their careers, vanishing from view can seem like an affront — a repudiation of the pact we moviegoers make (or think we make) with our stars.
Think of Greta Garbo, who threw in the towel at 35 — if you saw her final movie, 1941’s “Two-Faced Woman,” you can’t blame her — and proceeded to become the movies’ own ghost, haunting the memories of audiences while holding out the tantalizing possibility that she might return, someday, if the material and we were worthy of her.
Of course Garbo hid out in plain sight, living out the days until her 1990 death, in New York City, where a sighting of the actress was like glimpsing the Loch Ness Monster. (My favorite story is Groucho Marx behind her in an elevator, tilting her hat up to get a better look. “I’m sorry,” he said to the irate Garbo, “I thought you were a fella I knew from Kansas City.”)
Day-Lewis’s retirement, if he goes through with it, may become like those mysterious vanishing acts that periodically stud the arts and popular culture. Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger are extreme cases: one bestseller and a handful of classic works, respectively, followed by decades of silence, the lack of new work just feeding the mystique. Jean Sibelius spent 60 years composing musical masterpieces and 30 years hanging around the house, a period known to classic-music historians as “The Silence of Järvenpää.” The great Joseph Mitchell went to his office at The New Yorker every day and didn’t write anything for the last 32 years of his life; one of the longest writer’s blocks on record.
Day-Lewis may actually mean to retire from acting and yet change his mind down the road — that’s allowed.
By contrast, what Day-Lewis seems to be doing is what Sean Connery did after “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” flopped in 2003, or what musical satirist Tom Lehrer did in the early 1970s, or what cartoonist Bill Watterson did after 10 years of “Calvin and Hobbes” in 1995. Just . . . stepping away. The work is done. Other challenges present themselves. Maybe it’s not so bad to lie down for a bit. “By the end of 10 years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say,” Watterson told a reporter in 2010.
Of course, with “Calvin and Hobbes,” we wanted more of the same. In the case of an actor as shape-shifting as Daniel Day-Lewis, we expect him to be someone completely different, and galvanizingly so, every time he appears in a film. Which requires work and craft and perhaps a psychological toll of which we dull, consistent personalities know little.
Possibly he’ll be back. But possibly he wants to play himself until we’re no longer watching and it’s no longer a role. Our loss. His gain. Fair trade, given what he’s given us already.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.