The Movie Club

Daniel Day-Lewis and Christopher Plummer, case studies.

Entry 10: Some great performances require years of preparation. Others take days.

Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Focus Features and TriStar Pictures.

Dear Clubbers,

I am beginning the new movie year as I almost always do, with a sense of irrationally boundless optimism (could I love Insidious 4? Why not? Who’s to say?), combined with a list, long and growing as I read about everyone else’s favorites, of movies from last year—oh, the pleasure of being able to call 2017 last year!—with which I need to catch up. So, Dana, I may be ill-equipped to name a movie that blew me away unexpectedly (OK, Get Out, but at this point that’s not exactly an undiscovered treasure) because I tend to go to most of the movies I see hopeful—and, more often than not, having already heard good things. That said, I experienced no shortage of pleasurable jolts. I didn’t walk into James Mangold’s Logan expecting to find George Stevens’ Shane, one of the best movies ever made about the toll of violence, explicitly and thoughtfully called to duty as a thematic touchstone. I didn’t expect anything about the quicksand madness of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, which became an internet meme—America’s Most Hated Movie!—before I even got to see it. (I would like Jennifer Lawrence to make some movie friends her own age, but I’m delighted that she was up for this.) That movie and Murder on the Orient Express both reminded me of how much I have missed Michelle Pfeiffer, who was also in a still-undistributed 2017 Sundance drama called Where Is Kyra? that I hope we’ll get a chance to see.

And, because this seems to be turning into an ode to actresses, here was a true surprise for me: Watching William Oldroyd’s chilly, pitch-black period drama Lady Macbeth, I saw a 20-year-old newcomer named Florence Pugh hold the screen with the steel, poise, and command of a veteran. The movie is a severe and tautly controlled piece of work; I can’t say I loved it, but it has stayed with me for months. And on the other end of the age spectrum, I didn’t expect to be as touched as I was by Jane Fonda in Our Souls at Night, in a role tailored to her by the expert screenwriting team of Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, who also wrote The Disaster Artist. Fonda, as she noted with wintry wryness on her blog this weekend, is now 80, six years older than Katharine Hepburn was in On Golden Pond. In Our Souls at Night, it is poignant to see her still try to get a reaction out of Robert Redford 50 years after Barefoot in the Park and heartening to note what a meticulous, honest, and searching actress she remains.

Speaking of Fonda, it’s a bittersweet pleasure that deepens as you get older, I suppose, but nothing is quite the equivalent of watching an actor you admire age decade by decade as you walk alongside them as a spectator. They become markers of both the reassuring permanence of movies and the unnervingly swift passage of years. I think that’s one reason that Daniel Day-Lewis’ announcement of his retirement from acting, at 60, felt like such a gut punch to many of us. It’s not But you still have so much more to give! It’s What? Now? Already? Not so very long ago, he was striding to the Oscar stage in flowing dark hair and a frock coat, sailing past Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise and Driving Miss Daisy’s Morgan Freeman to collect his Academy Award for My Left Foot and announce, “You’ve just provided me with the makings of one hell of a weekend in Dublin.” Retirement? It’s too soon! I refuse to acknowledge this! And in related news, I refuse to acknowledge the calendar or the mirror.

The last two major movies I saw in 2017 were Day-Lewis’ (and, oh yeah, Paul Thomas Anderson’s) Phantom Thread and Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, and they turned out to be a fine way to get me to the finish line. Since I’m supposed to be writing about surprises, Phantom Thread was a huge one—a movie, indeed, a kind of movie, that I didn’t know I needed. Dana, you started us rolling a couple of days ago by acknowledging how deeply our collective plunge into life under Trump shaped our perceptions over the past 12 months, and it’s true—I went through most of 2017 desiring, seeking, and finding films that would tell me something about how we got here or about the way we live now.

Well, Phantom Thread doesn’t. It has, unless I’m missing something, not an atom of contemporary political or sociological relevance, and God, did I savor it. Not as an escape, although I may have had an erotic dream or two just about the wall treatments, but as a reminder that some movie artists follow the news but some follow the muse, and we are as lucky to have the latter as the former. In fact, the latter is what Phantom Thread—a marriage comedy, a fairy tale, a horror story, a psychosexual triangle, a self-reflexive feat of imagination—is partly about: How far will you go, how inhuman will you be, how much of yourself will you give up, how fully will you reshape your world, in order to devote yourself to creating something? One thing you always hope for in a movie is that everyone involved is speaking the same language, and here, Day-Lewis, Anderson, composer Jonny Greenwood, co-stars Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps, and the entire creative team are all on the same rarefied vibratory frequency. It is a beautifully obsessive work about obsessiveness over beauty, and it is currently obsessing me.

All the Money in the World turned out to be a good bookend for Phantom Thread. One movie was concocted in the fertile forest of its writer-director’s subconscious; the other was based on a true story and, as everyone now knows, dramatically recast and reshot just a few weeks ago as a result of a different true story. I am as moved by the creative approach of Daniel Day-Lewis, who, in order to play Reynolds Woodcock, spent a year apprenticing himself to the costume director of the New York City Ballet, as by Christopher Plummer, who, weeks before his 88th birthday, said, Hell, yes, I’ll replace Kevin Spacey. I’ll be there Monday. Where’s my plane ticket? Despite Day-Lewis’ approach, his grand performance never feels overpracticed or embalmed; and despite Plummer’s lack of prep time, he imbues his J. Paul Getty with a level of polish, malice, and animal greed that suggests he’s been mulling him over for years. Actors will always find a way.

I also loved ending my year with All the Money in the World because the circumstances of its (re)production reminded me that movies are made, not hatched. We can call them seamless and praise their singularity and vision, and that’s not wrong, but they’re things, electronically pasted together. Cut that five frames sooner. Try this piece of music. Add more room tone. Find the take where he blinks before saying the line. Cut to her in the middle of his sentence—no, use the take where she was reacting to something else, nobody will know. Stay tight on him as he rounds the corner because otherwise the camera will catch the crane in the background. Those tens of thousands of decisions are craft in the service of art. And while we shouldn’t grade for effort, sometimes a reminder of how much effort goes into the illusion of effortlessness is welcome.