Before he was inspirational Abraham Lincoln, before he was ruthless Daniel Plainview, before he was terrifying Bill the Butcher, Daniel Day-Lewis licked a guy’s neck.
And not just a quick and gentle flick, but a slurp, a sexy and transgressive slurp so iconic that it’s the image that appears on the cover of the new Criterion Collection edition of Stephen Frears’ “My Beautiful Laundrette.”
Seeing a young Day-Lewis be so cheeky and playful on screen is quite a shock to viewers used to the intense, obsessively prepared, method-y Day-Lewis that we’re used to hearing about. As comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who had a small role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” described it in his “Laboring Under Delusions” one-man show, “I had been told that Daniel Day Lewis was kind of an intense person. But he’s really not. He’s really THE MOST INTENSE PERSON WHO HAS EVER LIVED ON THE PLANET OF EARTH. He’s not doing anything. He’s sitting in a chair. And I am terrified, as if a jungle cat has wandered onto the set.”
Not the sort of actor you offer your neck to. It’s hard to imagine that the boyishly handsome 27-year-old British actor we see in “Laundrette” would be so intimidating. And yet, in its own playful and sweet way, Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Johnny, the romantic skinhead, has the seeds of the kind of alive and fully committed performances he would become known for in later, darker roles.
Day-Lewis plays Johnny, one of a gang of punk skinheads in Thatcher’s England, aimlessly and angrily looking around for Pakistani immigrants (“Pakis”) to harass. They find one in Omar (Gordon Warnecke), an affable, upwardly mobile young man looking for opportunity. In the first of many surprises in the film, it turns out Omar and Johnny know each other. They were old childhood friends, and possibly more.
Omar is hired by his rich uncle to fix up a seedy laundromat, and Omar in turns hires Johnny to help out. Their friendship is sort of a queer ‘80s British take on “Romeo & Juliet” – Omar’s Pakistani family doesn’t trust the presence of a skinhead in their midst, and Johnny’s neo-Fascist crew doesn’t understand why he would hang out with a Pakistani. What neither faction can see – the perspective that we share with Johnny and Omar – is that both groups are marginalized in ‘80s Britain, pitted against each other by the ruling class. Joining forces, rather than squabbling, is the only chance to get ahead. For Omar, a partnership with Johnny is the chance to make big money. And for Johnny, it may be the ultimate act of rebellion to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a Pakistani man.
And the fact that Johnny and Omar are conducting a clandestine love affair, one that if discovered would ostracize them both from their marginalized families, is a bitter irony. Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay and Stephen Frears’ direction highlight the danger and power or their connection by repeatedly put Omar and Johnny on the edge of being discovered.
In one shot, we see Johnny and Omar kissing in the shadows of an alley, shot from a crane as if in an old Hollywood romance. And then the camera pans left, to show Johnny’s ex-skinhead crew kicking over garbage cans just around the corner.
In one extended sequence, the two men start to make love in the back room of the laundrette, a two-way mirror allowing them to see out but no one to see in. In a funny and cheeky scene, Frears cuts back and forth between Johnny and Omar in the back and Omar’s uncle and mistress slow-dancing in the laundrette out front. This leads to a truly unforgettable image, when Johnny goes out front, then comes back to the mirror that Omar is looking through. From our perspective, we see Johnny’s face through the mirror superimposed on top of Omar’s reflection. They are one.
And then there’s that lick. It happens in broad daylight, as Johnny and Omar are working on the front of the laundrette, watched both by the punkers a few feet away and by a Pakistani gangster in his car. Omar moves to give Johnny a friendly embrace, and on the side of his neck away from the observers, Johnny gives him that iconic lick, then grins saucily.
In an interview that accompanies the Criterion DVD, Frears said the lick was something he came up while shooting, an idea that Day-Lewis took to with glee. It seems almost sweet now, but in 1985, it must have been a daring, transgressive moment for gay audiences used to not seeing themselves on screen, except as in broad stereotypes. Audiences may not have known the name Daniel Day-Lewis until then, but they knew they were watching an actor who liked to take chances.