Which is better: Don Corleone, or Daniel Plainview? It’s the ultimate actorly smackdown.
In its simplest form, method acting can be explained as a series of techniques used to emulate the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of a character. Even more simply, the actor attempts to become the character in order to provide the most convincing performance possible. Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro are two classically trained actors known for creating some of the most memorable characters in cinema history, with their use of traditional method acting techniques.
Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro is best known as the man who, improvising, uttered the famous words “You talkin’ to me?” into the gaze of a mirror (seriously though, he must be talking to you, there’s no one else here). He first caught the eye of directors and producers with 1973 baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly. But audiences hadn’t seen anything yet, until Robert’s highly acclaimed performance in The Godfather Part II, which gained him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
What’s of note is the fact that Bobby lived in Sicily for months in preparation for the role, in order to absorb the culture, and learn some of the dialect and language necessary to build the character. To completely uproot yourself to a foreign country and culture for a role is truly commendable, and as a result it made the character of young Vito Corleone feel undeniably authentic.
As demanding as that was, Martin Scorsese’s boxing biopic Raging Bull would see De Niro go from Mafioso mobster to boxing brute. In the 80s, De Niro wasn’t exactly a big guy, so to portray infamous middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, De Niro would have to gain a substantial amount of weight – 60 pounds in fact. De Niro also had rigorous boxing training, administered by none other than the real life LaMotta.
This time with Jake helped De Niro understand the man in and out of the ring, while also preparing the actor to film the boxing match segments which were frame for frame remakes of the original matches captured on tape. At one point, director Scorsese was even worried for De Niro’s life after he started to suffer from respiratory problems due to his excessive new weight. De Niro didn’t win any boxing titles during his tenure, but a nifty Academy Award for Best Actor would do, in addition to starring in what many consider to be the best sporting biopic of all time.
From paying to have his teeth filed down (for Cape Fear), to purposely angering a co-star with racial slurs (for The King of Comedy), Robert De Niro was once a highly dedicated actor willing to do anything for his career. As a result, he was able to portray any number of characters, from social introverts like Travis Bickle, to angry Italian boxers who rage at the world, rapists, or powerful mob bosses, De Niro stole the show consistently. Though many now say that, during the mid-90s, Robert De Niro sold out and got lazy, riding his talent and acclaim to projects beneath him like Meet the Fockers. That’s mostly a topic for another day, but it could be said that this devalues his career as a whole.
More on King Bobby: Five recent Robert De Niro films that weren’t terrible
Daniel Day-Lewis is widely regarded as one of the best actors to ever grace the big screen with his presence, and is well known for being the only man alive to make the phrase “I drink your milkshake” sound like a death threat. Some joke that he has the Midas touch, as almost every film he touches seems to translate into award-winning gold. In what was arguably his first leading role, for example, he portrayed the real life hardships of cerebral palsy suffer and sublime artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot, and won the Best Actor Oscar.
Day-Lewis poured pure devotion into the role, demanding he be in a wheelchair at all times on set, then forcing the crew to transport and carry him (as well as spoon feed him). This was an attempt to relive the hardships Christy went through, in an attempt to identify with him. The performance was mind-bogglingly good, with Day-Lewis capturing the movements, speech and persona of Christy down to each individual twitch and quirk of his condition. He also broke two ribs from the haunched position of being in the wheelchair at all times, and still continued to act. Now that’s dedication.
In preparation for his starring role as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis exiled himself to the wilderness, living there for six months while he sustained himself on only the bare essentials (according to director Michael Mann, Day-Lewis only ate what he killed during production). For Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York, more madness would ensue, as the eccentric actor insisted upon a butcher’s apprenticeship in order to best play the villainous Bill the Butcher.
For his most recent display of his apparently endless talent, Daniel Day-Lewis took on the lofty mantle of the 16th President of the United States, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The role saw Day-Lewis intensely study the character. He even insisted the cast and crew referred to him as Mr President.
Day-Lewis could be criticised for his pickiness with roles, in regard to only taking high regard, often literary roles instead of anything mainstream (Day-Lewis has appeared in only five films this century. And you probably won’t have even heard of two of them). As for maintaining his career, it’s primarily a good move that ensures his longevity in the acting world. After all, no-one wants to end up like Kevin Costner post-Waterworld.
While Robert De Niro has found more popularity with the public, and has certainly been in more films than Daniel Day-Lewis (80+) it could be said he stopped taking himself seriously at a point, notably after his collaborations with Martin Scorsese finished. With his sheer amount of accolades, consistently deep and unheard of dedication and method, to say Day-Lewis is the best actor of the two is not a hard claim to make.
Featured image: United Artists
Inset images: Paramount Pictures; Amblin Entertainment; Intermedia Films; Dreamworks