Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for his preparation for the characters he plays. For My Left Foot, he spent the entire shoot in a wheelchair, to try to grasp the challenges of someone with cerebral palsy. For In the Name of the Father, he spent two days and nights in a prison cell without food. For Unbearable Lightness of Being, he learned to speak Czech. For Gangs of New York, he trained as a butcher and went out on the streets to pick fights with strangers.
As for his latest film, Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis spent more than a year learning to sew and absorbing the traits and talents of a high level dressmaker–a couturier–to play the character of 1950s London designer Reynolds Woodcock, a high-strung perfectionist whose clothes are purchased by the world’s richest women, based on the life of the painfully private Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga.
Day-Lewis was nominated for Best Actor for his role in Phantom Thread in the 2018 Academy Awards, and the film garnered five more nominations, winning one for Best Costumes. He has already won three Best Actor trophies. But according to the 60-year-old actor, this will be his last film. He said in an interview with The Telegraph that he made the announcement to “draw the line” and not be “sucked back into another project.”
Day-Lewis said in the same interview, “All my life I’ve mouthed off about how I should stop acting, and I don’t know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do.”
The son of Cecil Day-Lewis, the actor, married to Rebecca Miller and father of three children, has not in recent years played many English characters. He told W Magazine, “I don’t know why, but suddenly I had a strong wish to tell an English story. England is deep in me. I’m made of that stuff. For a long time, a film set in England was too close to the world that I’d escaped from–drawing rooms, classic Shakespeare. But I was fascinated by London after the war. My parents told stories about living through the Blitz, and I felt like I ingested that. I am sentimental about that world. And my dad was very much like Reynolds Woodcock. If a poet is not self-absorbed, what else is he?”
In Phantom Thread, Woodcock lives a rarefied existence in London, his day to day managed by his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), when he falls in love with a waitress named Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, and his life plunges into chaos.
Paul Thomas Anderson, who also directed Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, said the film was based on the life of Balenciaga, who, as he said in an interview, “led a very monastic life, completely consumed with his work—sometimes at the expense of other things in his life.”
Balenciaga, the son of a seamstress, was born in 1895 in a fishing town in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa. By the 1950s, Balenciaga’s clients were the best dressed women of the world: Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, the Duchess of Windsor, Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill, Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Helena Rubenstein, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Barbara Hutton, and Mona Harrison-Williams, countess of Bismarck.
Rather unusually for a high-level designer, Balenciaga used his own hands to design, cut, and sew the model’s clothes throughout his career. To prepare for the part, Daniel Day-Lewis watched footage of fashion shows of the 1950s, studied the designers, and consulted with the curator of fashion and textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
To get hands-on experience, the actor apprenticed under Marc Happel, head of the costume department at the New York City Ballet. In the end he created a Balenciaga sheath dress from scratch, using his wife as a model.
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Fashion historians and editors and curators who’ve seen Phantom Thread say it is a remarkably convincing depiction of a top designer in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The film will be available on digital format on March 27 and on Blu-ray and DVD on April 10.
Nancy Bilyeau, the U.S. editor of The Vintage News, has written a trilogy of novels set in the court of Henry VIII: ‘The Crown,’ ‘The Chalice,’ and ‘The Tapestry.’ The books are for sale in the U.S., the U.K., and seven other countries. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.