The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

Ariel Schudson continues her look at the early, manly films of this year's Oscar nominees with The Boxer and My Beautiful Laundrette.

Ariel Schudsonby Ariel Schudson

Myth of Macho has concentrated quite a bit on the action genre. Cinematically, it is one of the primary locations where masculinity is performed and displayed to its greatest effect. However, what can you say about an actor whose most “bang up/action-packed” film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1826? You probably just shake your head and say, “Yep, it’s that Daniel Day-Lewis guy again.” From Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992) to this year’s Lincoln (Stephen Spielberg, 2012) The man who gave new meaning to drinking milkshakes has a career that carries with it the emotional force of an army and consistently puts the “man” in a “manly” role.

As I noted in last week’s Robert De Niro column, for the next few weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, I will be dedicating Myth of Macho to the male nominees and some of their lesser known or overlooked films. Our topic this week will be Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis, nominated for Best Actor for his role as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. A brief glance at his career illustrates his selectivity. A more in-depth look highlights the qualities that Day-Lewis struggles to find in each character that he plays and why it is that he may be so selective: these characters and films are unusual and don’t come around very often in the cinematic world.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

For Daniel Day-Lewis to take on a role it must be someone he can become; someone he feels an attachment to. He is a method actor and quite literally transitions into whomever he may play at the time. On the set of My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989), when he played Christy Brown, a young man struck with cerebral palsy, Day-Lewis remained in a wheelchair at all times, relying upon the other players to move him about so that he could get the full experience of having the disease. Day-Lewis’ choice of characters seems to come about because he sees something in them, a story, a quality, an issue… perhaps d) all the above, that must be communicated. Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor who is highly intense and highly talented. It is, in fact, far more difficult to find roles he has done that have not been up for awards than those that have.

None of this changes the fact that he is about as manly as a being with a XY-chromosome value can get. The genuinely masculine power that he puts into even the most reserved or emotionally resistant characters like Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993) are still smoldering with passion and virility, and characters like Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans reinforce his capacity for triumphant, feral performance. Day-Lewis may not do many films, but there’s no doubt that in every film he does, he is a man.  

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

For many years, Daniel Day-Lewis has been known to be an actor who will not make a film “just for the paycheck.” To emphasize that point, the man has gone years in between films and had no qualms about it. The son of a poet and an actress and the grandson of one of the heads of Ealing Studios, Daniel Day-Lewis has a pedigree in the dramatic arts. But this is not something that he has ever held over anyone’s head or entitled him to anything special. In fact, he is just as famous for being reclusive and private as he is for grabbing award-nominations or being a method actor.

For the purposes of this week’s conversation, our focus will be on Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer (1997). While these two films are separated by cultural markings, time-period and political environment, these are also the things that bring them together. It is not just the fact that they are from the same island, nor is it that they are both dealing with the unwieldy and invasive politics of the British (although that could be argued), it is that they feature male characters who must look at their environment critically and see how it applies to their own personal development and future.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

My Beautiful Laundrette and The Boxer are explorations of two of the roughest periods of the UK’s modern history: issues in and around Northern Ireland and the upshot of the mass immigrations into England during the 1970s and 1980s. The characters that Day-Lewis plays in both films are men who live through and are part of these historical events, making that part of their masculine development; remaining determined not to let it effect their ability to be their own person.

So what do you get when you mix the testosterone-fueled sensibilities of a boxing film with Northern Irish politics? You get Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer (1997). The last of three films Daniel Day-Lewis has made with Sheridan, The Boxer tells the story of ex-IRA member and boxer, Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) returning home to Northern Ireland after having served 14 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Danny’s reappearance makes waves in the community for a variety of reasons, his prior relationship with Maggie Hamill (Emily Watson), the now-married daughter of the local IRA leader, being one of the main ones. Her current husband, aside from being Danny’s best friend, is currently doing time for IRA activity, and thus she is considered the wife of a Prisoner of War.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

If that wasn’t enough to make his return uncomfortable, Danny’s timing brings the kettle to a boil: it coincides with the IRA Ceasefire. While Danny’s goals may be synonymous with those of the ceasefire, not everyone is in favor of the peace, and those individuals make it very clear by trying to use Danny as the fall guy for the second time in his life (the first time being why he ended up in prison). But this time Danny has had enough: just as Northern Ireland grew weary of the Troubles, he has gotten sick and tired of his own personal set of incursions, and decides to fight back.  

Historically, films about boxing and organized fighting all center on issues of masculinity. The Boxer, however,is more complex than the average organized fight film. Danny Flynn’s masculinity is tightly sewn into his socio-political identity and not entirely by choice. In a film like Warrior, actual physical confrontation provides much of the conflict in tandem with a training narrative. With a film like The Boxer, most of the information needed to interpret the film’s message is contained within one man’s body and its individualized expressions of masculinity within a highly male-centric culture.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

The film opens up on a marriage in the prison that Danny is being released from. Shortly after Danny’s departure, the film cuts to the wedding party and focuses in on a speech being given by Joe Hamill (Brian Cox), IRA leader, talking about the women of the Cause, standing by their men when they were in prison. Aside from mentioning the new bride and her dedication, he discusses his wife and his daughter, Maggie, and that all the POW-wives are, in essence, keeping the “home fires burning” for their men until they come home. While the speech is intended to fortify the female members of the community whose job it is to stay faithful to their husbands and be their rock while they serve their time, it is clear from Maggie’s face that this dynamic may not be palatable for everyone. Joe’s speech clearly defines the world as a Man’s World.

Danny’s re-entry into this Man’s World brands him as less than a man due to the fact that he refuses to react violently to aggressive behavior. When he is drunkenly admonished by his former boxing coach, Ike (Ken Stott), for past IRA involvements that Ike saw as having damaged his future, he looks directly at Danny and says, “Put your gun down and fight me like a man.” Ike knows that it’s not the guns or the warfare that has been tearing Northern Ireland apart for years that will make you a man; it is the desire for a better future beyond revenge and violence. Communicating this disappointment to Danny only reinforces Danny’s dedication to stay away from his former ways: he wants to be a man and the only way to do so is through non-violence.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

While men like Harry (Gerald McSorley), another IRA officer and former colleague of Danny’s, see the IRA cause as a one-way-ticket to manhood, Ike and Danny have more progressive ideas in mind. Harry’s “way” is what got Danny into prison in the first place. Danny never gave anyone up for the crime that he was in prison for and Harry tells him, flat out, that this is why he was “still a healthy man.” He inquires as to why he never even spoke one word to his “old friends in the IRA” during that whole 14 years. Danny just looks at him blankly, silently. Harry’s own guilt registers on his face as he stands there and re-places the blame onto Danny. “It’s not my fault you got caught, “ he says, “You should’ve run.”

Danny Flynn comes back to his home in Northern Ireland, a place in the middle of rapid change. He, too, is in the middle of rapid change. Danny entered prison at age 19. He is leaving at age 32. This release from prison is allowing him a release from all of the things that his adolescence was keeping him bound up in: mob mentality, accepted and approved violent behavior, blind obedience and loyalty. These experiences are not specific to Northern Ireland, either. These young men are drawn in and are especially willing to participate in this kind of culture because it has a high sense of masculine involvement.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

Look at Boyz n the Hood. While the political details are significantly different, the turf war-ideology and highly applauded culture of violence all neatly wrapped in a package of male-bonding is not unattractive to young men, worldwide. Danny Flynn represents what happens when the boy is removed from the group/gang just at the stage where he would’ve made the transition to senior member. Thus, upon release from prison, he has the ability to see what (and who) has failed him in that system, and is ready to choose a different system: himself. He rejects anything but his own strictly defined sense of manhood that he has been able to develop completely free of any kind of outside contamination.

Danny’s methodology doesn’t make him the most popular guy in town. He starts spending more time with Maggie, and gets shot at for his efforts. He and Ike rebuild the non-sectarian gym for the local kids and it shortly becomes the location of a post-ceasefire bombing, major riots and eventually gets burnt to the ground. But Danny is not willing to let fear and reticence to change prevent him from making progress, no matter how severe the consequences may turn out to be.

A film like The Boxer discusses serious politics while investigating gender performance and the nature of violence in an incredibly valuable way. Danny is positioned as an outsider whose ethics and belief system is one that has only just become acceptable by more powerful senior male figures in the community. Danny’s anarchic male identity displays a kind of individualist message while being realistic about the kinds of reactions that might erupt as a result, especially in a society that does not always favor the individual.

Individualism has been a thread in Daniel Day-Lewis’ work from the very beginning. While he had a few TV movies under his belt and a few minor feature roles, Day-Lewis’ first real break-through performance was in My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985), playing Johnny, a National Front-championing punk in 1980s Thatcher-ite England who becomes romantically involved with an old school chum. Two complications: 1) the school friend, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), is male, and 2) Omar is Pakistani. Neither of these things sits well with Johnny’s skinhead buddies. On the flipside, Johnny’s ethnicity isn’t high on the list of things in Omar’s Pakistani family’s estimation, either; the Asian population got dealt a pretty rough hand in the 1980s, and was not about to trust a young man who had fallen in with racist crowds, whether he had gone to grade school with Omar or not.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

So, when Omar decides to partner up with Johnny and take over his Uncle Nasser’s (Saeed Jaffrey) laundrette, this makes all involved parties quite nervous. Johnny’s crew believes that he’s betraying his race and Omar’s family simply doesn’t understand why Omar would want to partner up with someone who (they think) would more likely steal from him or harm him than help him. As for the romance… well, Johnny and Omar try to keep that as confidential as possible, while the high-drama of racial politics seems to provide them at least a modicum of shelter.

Much like The Boxer, My Beautiful Laundrette uses history and politics as its base with gender and social norms as the emulsion. Just as Belfast and Northern Ireland had the Troubles, England’s issues with the immigrant population and the National Front did not spring up out of the blue. Now would probably be as good a time as any to point out that there was a time, not that long ago, when “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Before 1962, anyone from any of the British territories or countries considered to be part of the Empire (which later become known as the Commonwealth after decolonization in WWII) was more than welcome to immigrate to England itself.

This policy rapidly changed with the sudden influx of people, many of them from India and Pakistan, and later from Caribbean and African locations. Parliament issued the Commonwealth Immigrant Acts of 1962, 1968 and 1971, each amending the one before it, but all of them widely seen as being racially motivated. While the first Act controlled who arrived through applications for work vouchers and were looked at based upon their employment possibilities, the Act of 1968 strictly limited immigration to those who had at least one parent or grandparent already residing in England. 1971’s decree made it so that all Commonwealth immigrants would have to face the same process as other immigrants: job permits, yearly reapplication, and immigration registration. In addition, should they wish to return to their country of origin instead of this process, England was quite willing to give them an all-expenses-paid repatriation. So, even though they were considered British citizens as part of the Commonwealth, they still were compelled to jump through all the same hoops as other immigrants.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

England’s economy wasn’t doing so well and the influx of several new populations over the years did not sit well with the working class citizens. While the working class people were trying to sort their own lives out, they saw any incursion as a threat. Thus, racist political groups such as the National Front were created and there was a rise in anti-immigration marches and race riots that not even legislation like the Race Relations Act of 1965 could stop. This is the landscape of My Beautiful Laundrette and these issues are what the characters within the film deal with and explore in a variety of ways. The fact that the film makes the effort to turn some of the race issues on their head in order to show how universal they can really be makes this piece quite singular. After so many years of anger and bitterness, it seems that a film such as My Beautiful Laundrette,like The Boxer, was necessary.

While Omar’s life has been lived within cultural tradition and familial connection, Johnny’s life has been lived on the outside, in solitude. Omar is Johnny’s chance at social rehabilitation, while Johnny is Omar’s opportunity to learn how to sharpen his independence and think for himself. The night that Johnny and Omar are reunited, Johnny’s punk friends (dressed to the teeth in white-power gear) attack the car that Omar is driving home from a family party. Johnny is not, however, part of the assault squad; he stands alone, against a pole, surveying the scene. Omar jumps out of the car, recognizing his childhood friend, and runs up to him, grinning with happiness. Johnny is cool and standoffish at first, but then he responds in kind, smiling back. This is the scene in which each young man separates himself from the alliance and group that he had previously affiliated himself with in order to form a newer, healthier bond. It is the underlying principal of the film.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

Before reentering Omar’s life, Johnny’s life was one of transience. The first shots of Laundrette show Johnny being ejected from the squat that he was living in, while the ultra-sleazy Salim Ali (Derrick Branche) leads the eviction crew. Later on in the film, it is this same figure, Salim, who intentionally causes problems between Omar and Johnny and it is Salim who plays the role of the entitled (read: racist) British citizen. On the way back to the newly remodeled laundrette with Johnny and Omar, Salim sees Johnny’s punk friends. His words echo National Front and anti-immigrant rhetoric when he states, “Look at them: what a waste of life. They’re filthy and ignorant; they don’t respect people, especially our people, Omar. What this scum needs is a taste of their own piss!” At this point, Salim proceeds to deliberately run down the punks, who had incidentally been helping Johnny and Omar with the laundrette remodeling.

This scene is a trigger for Johnny. While he is perfectly aware that his friends are not of the highest caliber and they have their own problems, they had made an effort to support Johnny in his endeavors and had stopped harassing both Johnny and Omar. However, this incident changed the landscape, changed the punks’ position (now they were out to seek revenge) and put everyone back at square one. It was at this juncture that Johnny was able to see that maintaining an aloof and detached status was actually more of a benefit than a disadvantage. This aspect of his character was what gave him the ability to see all the things that Omar was blind to on account of familial encasement. This becomes crystal clear when Nassar’s daughter Tania (Rita Wolf) comes to the laundrette and asks Johnny to go away with her. He rejects the offer, to which she says, “Omar just runs you around everywhere, like a servant,” Johnny looks at Tania directly, and says,  “I’ll stay here with my friend… and fight it out.” She looks at Johnny and responds, “My family, Salim and all. They’ll swallow you up like a little kebab.” He looks at her, coughs, and says steadily, “I couldn’t leave him. Not now. Don’t ask me to.” In this situation we can see that, although Johnny’s love for Omar is clearly the guiding force, it is not the only thing that has helped him make this decision: it is the possibility of moving forward from a difficult and stagnant past into a free and independent future, one that is worth fighting for.   

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

Like Danny Flynn in The Boxer, Johnny is in transition, leaving his misguided and misspent youth behind in favor of a life in which he can work hard and be rewarded for his efforts. Like Danny with Maggie, Johnny has been reunited with Omar and found an avenue for progress instead of remaining trapped in the same dead-end life that all of his mates seem headed for. Both Danny and Johnny are characters that reject the boys that they used to be in order to embrace the men they will become. However, neither character is able to do so without fully coming to terms with their past. In fact, they literally partner up with it through romantic attachments.

Johnny’s love affair with Omar and his association to the punk subculture make him stand out as a powerful and unique filmic character aesthetically and narratively, but it is his final attitude towards the rest of the world and his place in it that holds the real wealth. Johnny’s evolution from boy to man gains momentum the more he watches his preconceived notions about Omar, himself, and other cultures get broken down. Indeed, Johnny is able to discern where he stands because his perspective, while subjective due to his relationship with Omar, is also objective like the audience’s own, since he has made it clear from the very start of the film that he is an outsider’s outsider.

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

My Beautiful Laundrette, like The Boxer, demonstrates the way external circumstances can make or break a young man’s masculine identity. In both films, the primary characters work to build something in and for a community (in The Boxer it is a gym, in Laundrette, it is a laundrette), and in both films it is physically attacked and at least partially destroyed by the people of that community. There is no argument that these movies take place inside political and historical warzones and that Johnny and Danny are soldiers. In essence, these are war films. Unlike much classic war cinema with its blind patriotism, these films have a flavor of modern war cinema, making them far more critical. The patriotism that these films espouse is focused upon individualism and promotes the ability to think for one’s self instead of buying into historically accepted belief systems and traditions that make monsters out of men.

The choice is simple but the process is hard: become your own man or throw up your hands and become a pawn for larger authoritative bodies or systems. In The Boxer, we are shown how years and years of IRA warfare has turned Harry into not a man but a war-machine robot, willing to throw Danny under the bus, having lost all sight of what the cause was really about and what Joe and the others were ever working for in the first place. In My Beautiful Laundrette, men like Salim can only see skin color and hatred, the exact things that one would traditionally see portrayed within the racist groups, willing to run down Johnny’s friends, only interested in ideas of capitalism, still a slave to England, without even being aware of his captivity.  

The Myth of Macho: Daniel Day-Lewis

The characters that Daniel Day-Lewis has played have shown the difficulties of working through history and politics to become recognized as men. The internal and external struggles displayed in The Boxer and My Beautiful Laundrette can be seen in much of his other work, as he has a tendency to work within historically based cinema. While not all of his films have political threads, many of his characters do struggle with masculine concepts that are historically-centered, bringing up the same ideas about past and future, independent thought or going with the crowd. As an actor, Day-Lewis has importance because he has talent, sensuality and passion. As a figure of masculinity, his power lies in his continuing ability to make the evolution of independent thinking a key part of being a man.

Thanks for tripping down memory lane a bit this week on Myth of Macho. I do hope you’ve enjoyed the journey! Please join me again next week. Until then, remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!

Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.