Oscars: Daniel Day-Lewis and Why Retirement Doesn't Always Equal a Nom

Illustration by: Dominic Bugatto

The 'Phantom Thread' star says it's his last film, but history shows that may not mean the Academy will necessarily hand the 60-year-old veteran (and three-time winner) a nice parting gift.

Forget the gold watch. Why not just give the man an Oscar? That's the question confronting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as they decide whether to reward Daniel Day-Lewis for his latest performance — as Reynolds Woodcock, a fastidious, 1950s London fashion designer who's drawn into a complicated battle of wills with a young woman, played by Vicky Krieps, in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread.

That's because, in a surprise announcement made in June, a rep for the 60-year-old actor said that his latest performance also will be his final one, that he's retiring from acting.

Normally, that would trigger one of the Academy's time-honored traditions: the Career Capper Nomination, but given other factors in this year's best actor race, that sort of nomination might not be automatic.

Certainly, the situation is unusual. While there are such other actors as Sean Connery and Gene Hackman who have drifted away from the profession and effectively settled into retirement — Connery's last starring role was in 2003's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Hackman's was in 2004's Welcome to Mooseport — neither announced a pending retirement.

So usually, the Career Capper has gone to a performer who has died — James Dean and Spencer Tracy earned posthumous Oscar nominations, and Peter Finch and Heath Ledger scored Oscar wins, the latter in the supporting category. And, when Henry Fonda was named best actor for On Golden Pond in 1982, it was pretty clear that the film would be his last since he was ailing and in fact had less than five months to live.

Often, though, the Career Capper goes to an actor who simply has had a lengthy body of work and is perceived as not having gotten his due. Paul Newman had six acting nominations and an honorary Oscar when, at age 62, he won the best actor trophy for 1986's The Color of Money, a performance most agree was not his most memorable.

But Day-Lewis won't be able to play the "he's due" card since he already has more best actor trophies than anyone else — having earned five nominations, he's won for 1989's My Left Foot, 2007's There Will Be Blood (his previous collaboration with Anderson) and 2012's Lincoln. If any actor is to benefit from the "he's due" scenario this year, it's Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour, since, at 59, he has notched just one nomination, for 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Day-Lewis also is facing a couple of almost equally celebrated contenders in Tom Hanks (The Post), whose résumé includes five nominations and two wins, and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.), with seven acting nominations and two wins (one each in the supporting and best actor categories). Plus, there are a number of newcomers nipping at the heels of the veterans, most prominently Call Me by Your Name's Timothee Chalamet, who already has been hailed as best actor by critics groups in New York and Los Angeles.

The biggest challenge Day-Lewis faces, though, is that he hasn't really explained his decision. When one of his reps first broke the news, it was described as "a private decision, and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject." In a recent interview with W magazine to promote Focus Features' Dec. 25 release of Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis admitted he hadn't "figured it out" himself, saying only that while making the film, he was "overwhelmed by a sense of sadness," adding: "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."

As respected as Day-Lewis is, that may not play with some members of the actors' branch, for whom retiring from performing is one luxury, as much psychic as economic, that they can't imagine. And there's also the nagging question of whether he'll one day have a change of heart. Asked about Day-Lewis' plans during a Q&A following an early screening of their film, Anderson replied simply, "I would hope that he will reconsider."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.