I just read an article, published a few weeks ago, by A. O. Scott of The New York Times. His point is basically that we are currently in a golden age of movie acting. He makes a compelling case, and argues that the historical development of American screen acting, from the persona-based studio stars to the raw and energetic postwar performers to the second wave of Method actors, has now culminated in a softer, quieter, and more subtle type of acting, one which blurs the distinction between star and character actor. Daniel Day-Lewis's turn in Gangs of New York does not quite fit this trend: it's pure showmanship, a bravura performance that revels in excess. And yet I claim it's one of the great moments in screen history. Never in my generation has an actor exuded such incredible presence and swagger, so that you can't help but keep your eyes locked on him/her. Cases like that are rare in the cinema: we can point to the great silent queens, to Brando . . . and now to Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher. Consider the following: Near the beginning of Gangs, the Butcher emerges from a ramshackle wooden house. First we see his boots, pressing against the snow as if marking territory. The camera rises to reveal a tall, imposing man, dressed in a bowler hat, with a large mustache. We cut to a wider shot of Bill and a few of his cronies, and then, in a startling procession, Scorsese cuts closer and closer to his subject, until Bill's glass eye, with an American eagle emblazoned on it as if it were his pupil, dominates the screen. Without a single word spoken, we feel the power of this manthe depth of his hatred, the magnitude of his threat, the force of his convictionpower which will drive and shape the entire movie. This is the greatest character entrance since Brando's Stanley Kowalski said "Oh, hiya Blanche" fifty years ago.
Of course, what I've described may seem more a salute to Scorsese's direction than Day-Lewis's acting. In fact, what is most remarkable is how the two mesh so completely and inform each other. Day-Lewis knows just how to occupy the spaces he is given, and Scorsese knows just how to follow and frame the actor with his camera. Just as Day-Lewis's acting is over-the-top, so too are the visual compositions he inhabits. He's constantly walking towards us, flanked by lesser associates, who are just as awed by his grandeur as we are. One early shot of him is at an impossibly low angle, reminiscent of Citizen Kane: we look up to Bill's towering figure, which is etched against a purple sky, backlit and framed by exploding fireworks. Certainly the Butcher knows how to dominate the screen, but the character's most compelling moments are in close-up. At these instances, we can see the glimmer in his eye, at once pure evil and admirable moral convictiona deeply human feature, yet caused in part by the fake eye and its eagle decoration. I particularly recall when he stares Boss Tweed in the face and taps the eye with his knife. This simple motion unifies all the motifs that surround and inform the character: the nativist symbol of the eagle, the shadow of Priest Vallon, who helped precipitate the removal of the eye that was once there, and, of course, the knife.
I'll return to that scene in a minute, but first, let's step back and examine Bill as a whole. He breathes contradictions: he's a dandy and a blood-thirsty warlord, at once a politician, a butcher, and a warrior, eloquent in his speech while barely literate.
In one scene, he gently takes an upper-class woman's hand, sniffs it instead of physically kissing it (a small detail which I particularly love), and says: "Orange blossoms. Delicious." In another scene, he rams his head against Amsterdam Vallon's until he is so covered in blood, his hair so drenched in sweat, that he looks as though painted in extravagant make-up (appropriate, since this exchange occurs in a theater and pagoda). While Bill's racism and hatred of immigrants is repulsive, there is something almost righteous about his insistence on honor and his unyielding faith in his beliefs. His extended monologue concerning Priest Vallon (whom he kills in the film's beginning, thereby setting young Amsterdam, the Priest's son, on the path to revenge), reveals more of his strange psyche, as he muses about Vallon's greatness, and how it was "only faith" that divided the two of them. The Butcher lives by tribal rituals rooted in ancient codes: because he couldn't look Vallon in the eye when the Priest beat him to a pulp years ago, he gouged out "the eye that looked away"; he invokes "the ancient laws of combat" when squaring off with the Priest in the film's opening. Ironically, these customs are not ostensibly part of the traditions of the New World, but of Ireland and the lands from which Bill seeks, through nativism, to distance himself. The Butcher is, quite simply, one of the greatest, most fully realized villains in American screen history.
Let's now return to that face-off with Boss Tweed. What does Bill say after tapping his eye?
"I know your works. You are neither cold not hot, so because you are lukewarm I will spew you out of my mouth. You can build your filthy world without me. You tell young Vallon, I'm gonna paint Paradise Square with his bloodtwo coats [he makes the sign of the cross with his two fingers]. I'll festoon my bed chambers with his guts. As for you, Mr. Tammany fucking Hallcome near the Five Points again and you'll be dispatched by mine own hand."Now, simply writing this dialogue down does no justice to Day-Lewis's delivery. He adds such color and flavor to these lines that they become almost Shakespearean. As his New-Yawkese accent emphasizes "festoons" and "guts," it's safe to say we're witnessing the unfolding of a new type of performance. The emphasis on the accent, on the pronunciation and diction of certain commonplace words, suggests the school of Method acting. However, Bill's exaggerated gestures, his over-the-top dress, his sheer verve and flare suggest something elsesomething more obviously theatrical. At times, Day-Lewis plays the role as if it were a part in a burlesque comedy or an antiquated vaudeville. He struts through each shot as if it were a stage, hamming it up along the way. And yet, in his twitches, the look of his eye, and other small details, we feel there's a quieter dignity to the character, buried underneath. When Bill is finally mortally stabbed by Amsterdam, he remains still for a moment, gazing into space. His end is far from the wild cackling of the Wicked Witch of the West as she meets her demise. Rather, it provides a pause for reflection: it's a restrained end to an excessive character. As he looks into space, he appears almost noble. Might we be forgiven for considering him a tragic hero?
Day-Lewis is a great actor, and his performance in Gangs of New York is, to put it in trite terms, decidedly unique. We've never seen anything quite like it before, and we'll never see it anything like it again. It's a marriage of cinema and theater, of the Method and performing for the sake of performing, of Brando and Lugosi's Dracula, of pure art and pure hamming. It's so highly stylized while being so incredibly convincing that it occupies a realm of screen acting all its own. It's wildly entertaining, simultaneously showy and nuanced, and it's a watershed moment in modern movie history.