Meryl Streep hugs Daniel Day-Lewis after he won the Oscar for best actor.(Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
LOS ANGELES - Statistically speaking, there are other actors with as many Oscar trophies as Daniel Day-Lewis. Jack Nicholson has three. So does Walter Brennan.
But with his win Sunday night for the title role in Lincoln, Lewis becomes the first actor to win three best-actor Academy Awards, adding the top prize to those for 2007's There Will Be Blood and 1989's My Left Foot. The other three-time winners took home at least one best-supporting-actor statuette.
"I really don't know how any of this happened,'' said Day-Lewis in his graceful acceptance speech. "I do know that I've received so much more than my fair share of good fortune in my life.''
With the win, Day-Lewis becomes the center of a debate that has been brewing among industry observers since Lincoln hit screens Nov. 9: Is he the greatest film actor of all time?
Some observers say Sunday night helped Day-Lewis eclipse contemporaries including Robert De Niro (who has won two Oscars), Dustin Hoffman (two) and even Nicholson (three, including one for supporting actor). Others compare him with Marlon Brando (two Oscars) and Spencer Tracy (two).
If you include actresses, Katharine Hepburn remains Oscar's official darling with four best-actress wins.
But Lewis "is viewed as the greatest actor of the current day," says Steve Pond, Oscar analyst for industry site Thewrap.com. "Historians will decide whether he deserves comparison with the people of the past. But there's no doubt (Sunday night's award) sealed the deal as our greatest living actor."
David Poland of Moviecitynews.com questions whether the comparison should stop with living actors.
"He's like Olivier in his prime," Poland says of Laurence Olivier, who won the best-actor award for Hamlet and was nominated nine other times for acting.
Because Day-Lewis does so few movies, "you expect something spectacular when he's got a film out," Poland says. "He's more selective than Brando, and it's turned his movies into events."
"There's an aura about him," says Jeremy Kay, U.S. editor of trade publication Screen International. "People still say that De Niro in the 1970s was extraordinary, but (Day-Lewis) is now arguably the greatest living actor."
Other's aren't so quick to make that claim. Tom O'Neil of awards site GoldDerby.com argues that hardware doesn't define an actor's legend.
"The only thing winning three Oscars revealed about Daniel Day-Lewis is that Hollywood thinks he's as good as Walter Brennan," who won three supporting-actor trophies for Come and Get It (1936), Kentucky (1938) and The Westerner (1940).
"Winning Oscars tells us nothing about acting brilliance," says O'Neil, who notes that 2009's Nine won few few plaudits for Lewis and earned less than a quarter of its $80 million budget at the box office.
"Arguably, Hollywood's greatest actors have been Oscar's biggest losers," O'Neil says, "including Peter O'Toole (0 wins from 8 nominations), Richard Burton (0-7) and Glenn Close (0-6)."
Whatever your take, "it's a fun argument," Kay says. "People have begun expecting greatness before his movies come out."