Daniel Day-Lewis has two Oscars, one for playing a paralyzed man with cerebral palsy whose left foot does the talking, and another for playing a megalomaniac empire builder who bludgeoned one enemy with a bowling pin.
Now, in the musical comedy, “Nine,” he follows the advice of the musical’s centerpiece number: “Be Italian.” DDL, famous for living his roles, seems Italian as crazed director Guido Contini in “Nine.” It’s funny to think since DDL comes from an upper crust Jewish family in England. His father was the UK’s poet laureate.
But Daniel lives his parts. It’s not like he went around butchering people while shooting “Gangs of New York.” But he stays in character while filming each role. He never lost his Italian accent during “Nine.”
He did have a lot of Italian experience. A decade ago, he dropped out of the acting biz for a while and worked in a shoemaker’s shop in Florence, Italy. No one believed this story when it was first told, but I can tell you first hand that it’s true. In 2003, I went to meet Stefano Bemer in Florence.
Bemer’s very small shop was not in a fashionable area of Florence, but hidden away and extremely discreet. It consisted of a tiny waiting area with a counter, adjoined by a similar workspace. There, a couple of workers banged on nails and tried not to inhale glue as they made one-of-a-kind pairs of men’s shoes.
The shoes then all carried the same price tag: $1,500 for the actual product, plus $250 for the three required fittings. I tried on a pair of suede desert boots which Bemer had in my size. The price tag for these was $730. They were lovely, but I declined in several languages. The word “no” always works.
Bemer had nothing but praise for Day-Lewis, whom he called a hard worker. “I used to say to him, ‘Daniel, no one is perfect,’” said Bemer, noting that Day-Lewis would often become disturbed when a stitch was not exactly right.
Day-Lewis worked for Bemer for an astounding 11 months in 1999. The shoe man would definitely take him back.’ Bemer, meanwhile, makes shoes for many of the well-heeled including Sting, who has a villa nearby in Tuscany.
A lot has changed in the time since DDL’s time as a cobbler. Just before that, in fact, he’d suffered something of a breakdown on stage in London playing “Hamlet.” Dame Judi Dench played his mother in that production. She was in a scene with him when Daniel, who was very intense about his identification with “Hamlet” and his father, snapped. Now, Dench tells me, “he’s a different man.” She’s in “Nine,” too, as Guido’s best friend and costume designer. “It’s having a family. He’s much lighter, and great fun.”
PS DDL’s Guido, of course, is based on the director Federico Fellini. He’s got it right, too. Here’s a clip of the original, from 1971: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4683240n