After a period of intense mourning that involved rewatching that scene in There Will Be Blood—you know the one—five UrbanDaddy editors wiped their tears away and hopped on an email chain to answer the question on everyone’s mind: now that Day-Lewis is out of the game, who is the new best actor of our generation?
To be clear, this debate assumes several things. One, that Daniel Day-Lewis was the previously best actor of our generation. Two, that actresses are, for the purposes of this particular conversation at least, their own category. And three, that this whole quitting thing isn’t just Daniel Day-Lewis going method to play a fictionalized version of Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s biopic, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Geoff Rynex: I’ll start this off by saying I don't think anyone's in Lewis's class in terms of hit/miss ratio. Really his only not-awesome movie is Nine. I've been going back and forth between Joaquin Phoenix, Christian Bale and—twist—Gael Garcia Bernal, as our finest working actors. I've never seen a bad Bernal movie (or Amazon show). I'm also a big Clive Owen fan but he's got a stinker for every good performance, and his finest effort may have been a television show (The Knick).
Thompson Brandes: I can't remember that last time I saw a Leo movie and didn't come out of it saying "Fuck, that was good." Also a big Joaquin guy. I think Steve Carell is low key a very smart, versatile actor. Real tough call.
Sam Eichner: I think Leo is sort of the obvious choice, if only because he's the guy most people would probably think of first when you think "best actor of his generation." Say what you want about the guy, but he goes full out all the time. He has the charisma to make anything he's in that much more interesting, and I'd be willing to bet history looks back on his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street and deems it one of the best ever.
Of the ones you guys mentioned, I'm not that hot on Steve Carell and Gael Garcia Bernal, neither of whom have anything close to the body of work necessary to really be a part of this conversation (in my opinion, Carell is an amazing comic actor but a grossly overrated dramatic actor—I think people tend to conflate the appealing fact that he does those roles with the good-not-great performances themselves). I love Clive Owen, but he's not quite there yet for me either, in part because he’s never really been in any truly great movies.
Christian Bale and Joaquin Phoenix on the other hand are certainly contenders for me. Can you think of a movie either of them were less-than-stellar in? Bale has the serious method-ness of Day-Lewis, so he seems like the natural choice to accede to the throne. But with Phoenix, every performance is different; the range of roles he's played is incredible. Try naming another actor who could play both the ruthlessly evil sort-of brother in Ridley Scott's Gladiator and the lead in Spike Jonze's Her. Then stop trying. Because it's impossible.
Two more actors I feel inclined to throw out there for the sake of debate: Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt. What do you guys think about them? Denzel has to be up there, I think, but Pitt is a little harder to pin down. Though he's probably the greatest movie star of our generation, most wouldn't really put him in this particular conversation. I think his career merits discussion—especially because of his smaller, more character-actor-y parts.
And here's one wild card, just for fun: Paul Dano. Just look at what this guy's done in the past 10 years or so...
-Little Miss Sunshine. Remember when Dano, whose character is mute for most of the film, breaks his silence with a gut-wrenching scream? Of course you do. Remember anything else? That's what I thought.
-Swiss Army Man. The degree of difficulty for carrying a movie whose only other character is a flatulent corpse is Tom Hanks-in-Cast Away-high.
-Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. Considered, affecting, better than Jon Cusack.
-Going toe-to-fucking-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. The list of other actors capable of matching Day-Lewis' maniacal ambition in Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece is staggeringly short. Maybe—maybe—Joaquin Phoenix could've played that part.
As a footnote, I think it bears mentioning that both Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman, had they not passed, would certainly be a part of this conversation (Hoffman, in particular, was probably neck-and-neck with Day-Lewis for this mantle when he died).
TB: You are probably right about Steve Carell not being nearly ready for the “best actor of our generation” discussion. I just might love him so much that I was blinded from the actual debate. Though I will say that no actor has made me laugh and cry more than Steve Carell. He has a unique ability to evoke the very widest spectrum of emotions and feelings in people within a singular role—a core value of great artistry.
Though if we’re tossing out Carell, is it OK if we also throw Paul Dano overboard? Paul Dano is one of those actors you Google because you don’t recognize the name only to see his picture and say, “Oh yeah, I know that guy—he’s good.” (I know this because I just went through the exact routine.) He could maybe, ever so slightly begin to reach the upper echelon of great actors one day. But until then, let’s go ahead and save him for the Greatest Actors You Have to Google Image to Know Who They Are debate.
A lot of people certainly like to lump Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt into that category of actors who are spectacularly polarizing but guilty of kind of just playing themselves in every role (George Clooney and Ryan Reynolds are season ticket holders for that ball club.). But I think it’s pretty dumb to discount them as talentless solely for that reason. I have an aunt who refuses to watch any movie with Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt in it. Isn’t that so fucking stupid? She literally turns Django Unchained off the second Leo enters the movie. Every time. Never seen the ending. So I feel very comfortable saying that I enjoy each and every one of these guys for their own uniquely perfect method of acting.
Maybe that’s my answer: I don’t have a fucking clue. Like you said, Joaquin Phoenix’s repertoire of roles is uncanny. Add in films like Walk the Line and I’m Still Here and he always leaves you wondering if he is the most brilliant actor alive or the most insane (it’s probably both). Every time I watch Training Day or Inglorious Basterds I’m paralyzed by Washington and Pitt’s twisted charm. Christian Bale is phenomenal every time. Hell, I think Matthew McConaoughey still has a few glorious roles up his sleeve.
[Najib enters debate with blood-hand-printed volleyball and Big on DVD]
Najib Benouar: I also have a cut-out of Hanksie's face on a stick that was used as a photobooth prop at my wedding and returns every year the day after Thanksgiving when we invite all of our friends over to celebrate T.Hanks-giving. But I guess I would throw my hat in the ring for Leo. It's the easy answer, but sometimes the easy answer is also the right one? Joaquin is also very compelling choice. Bale, too. And what about Adrien Brody? Probably doesn't have the resumé, the consensus is that he kind of fell off, right?
GR: Leo's takes the crown for best acting/lifestyle combination. But in terms of pure acting, as good as he is, I don't think he's quite on Joaquin or Bale's level. I'll concede I might be docking him points for being in such huge movies, where, when I think of Day-Lewis, I think of a guy who would probably turn in the one of the best performances you've ever seen as Beyoncé Backup Dancer #12 in an NYU student film that, save for Lewis's ten seconds, was an unabashed critical (read: the professor) failure.
As for Washington and Pitt, I'm one of those guys Thompson mentioned that thinks they both just play a version of their (highly charasmatic) selves in every movie. That said, I thoroughly enjoy basically every movie they're in (even Fallen, and World War Z, respectively). They're out for best of the generation for me though. Thompson, I read "Ryan Reynolds" as "Ryan Gosling," so consider him my addition to the "guys who play themselves" club. Let's talk about him quickly. He's very likeable, game, and capable, but somehow he never quite does it for me (and I maintain Drive is one of the worst movies ever made). Maybe the new Blade Runner will redeem him.
Paul Dano. Sorry—you're an incredible actor, and you fall into your roles in the exact way the aforementioned stars don't, but what is Swiss Army Man, and what makes you think you're too good to even attempt a blockbuster?
McConnaughey's out because he needed his own renaissance. Keep in mind Day-Lewis's win percentage here. The guy arguably made just one movie that wasn't a bona fide classic. Classic.
I'm worried I'm putting too much weight on Phoenix and Bale's method credentials here, but my final call is Phoenix by a nose. I've yet to see Bale play a truly layered romantic lead, and how disappointing was Knight of Cups?
SE: I don't necessarily agree with your guys' critiques on Washington and Pitt—Pitt, especially. How different were his character in, say, True Romance, versus his character in Tree of Life? People think he's just playing versions of himself because the celebrity of Brad Pitt subsumes any character he plays. (And on the subject of Tree of Life and Terrence Malick, I too was disappointed by Knight of Cups—what a complete and utter waste of Christian Bale and Natalie Portman's talent.)
Unfortunately, celebrity can keep a great actor from being the best actor of his generation. Leo, to a lesser extent than Pitt, is still always Leo; as Najib said, he's the answer, but maybe that's what makes him the wrong answer.
Looking at it this way, Bale and Phoenix are much closer to the crown. They're recognizable, but the fact of their celebrity never permeates the world of the film. That's both a testament to their talent and the parts they've chosen time and time again, which, with the exception of The Dark Knight, do not a celebrity make. Dano, I'm willing to concede, is too close to the other side of this spectrum: you can't be the best actor of your generation if nobody knows your name.
Like Geoff, I'm going to give the edge to Phoenix. Given the intensity and sheer power Bale brings to a role, I just can't imagine him playing sensitive (or romantic) parts with the same level of nuance as Joaquin.
GR: Re: Pitt in Tree of Life. That was Jessica Chastain's world. Brad Pitt was just living in it.
SE: I’m willing to go on record saying that Jessica Chastain is the most overrated actress of her generation, if only because of how genuinely awful I thought she was in Zero Dark Thirty.
GR: This might end in fisticuffs.
Andrew Bradbury: Before this devolves into all-out Chastain-related war, I’ll go ahead and second the nods for Bale for his versatility. He can do Patrick Bateman, Batman, the pot-bellied con man from American Hustle to the borderline autistic trader in The Big Short. And now he's playing Dick Cheney.
Young up and comer: Eddie Redmayne, not just for his Oscar winning role in in Theory of Everything but also his stunning turn in The Danish Girl. Having two Best Actor nominations at 35 is nothing to sneeze at, but I can't really picture him playing the heavy.
TB: Whenever I am in a tough Best Actor debate—which is roughly every 24 days—I tend to lean on the answer to one single question: "Which one of these actors was in the movie Signs?"
In this case, it's Joaquin Phoenix. He was in Signs. And thus he must stand above the rest.
NB: Swing away Merrill. Merrill...swing away.